Israeli historian Amos Goldberg has been a leading critic of Israel’s war in Gaza, which he calls genocide. In an interview, he told Jacobin why the term applies — and why the international community needs to wake up to this reality.

A Palestinian woman walks with a young child past a destroyed building in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on July 8, 2024. (Bashar Taleb / AFP via Getty Images)

Over nine months since Hamas’s October 7 attacks slaughtered over a thousand Israelis, there is still no end in sight in Palestine. Israel’s war in the name of physically eliminating Hamas has reduced much of the Gaza Strip to rubble and killed tens of thousands of people, in their large majority civilians. Even if the war did end tomorrow, much of Gaza would be uninhabitable for years.

This new level of escalation — and the extent of the destruction in Gaza — have sparked debate about whether Israel’s actions should be classified as genocide. This was the accusation raised by South Africa’s case before the International Court of Justice, later joined by Spain, Belgium, and Mexico. The question remains controversial among experts, but ever more of them agree that such an assessment is at least plausible. In Israel itself, most of the population is united behind its army. But there surely are critics of the war.

Amos Goldberg is an associate professor at the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In April, an article by him was published in Local Call, in which he concluded that Israel’s actions in Gaza are genocidal. In the following interview, he speaks about his views and conclusions regarding the ongoing war, the situation in the West Bank, and the future of Israel-Palestine.

Elias Feroz

A few weeks ago, you described Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide” against the Palestinian population there. Can you briefly explain which specific definition of genocide you are applying, and why you think it is important to use the term to describe what is happening in Gaza?

Amos Goldberg

I wrote an article in Hebrew titled “Yes, It Is a Genocide” in a magazine called Sicha Mekommit, which means Local Call. It was then translated into English and circulated widely.

I acknowledge that this is a serious allegation, and I don’t take it lightly. It was very difficult for me to write this article, because it is also about my people and my society. As a part of this society, I also bare responsibility for what is happening. The magnitude of the atrocities and destruction in Israel on October 7 were unprecedented. It took me some time to be able to digest what was happening and to be able to articulate what I saw unfolding in front of my eyes. But once you see what is happening, you cannot be silent anymore. Even if it is agonizing and painful for me, my readers, or Israeli society, the debate must start somewhere.

I acknowledge that this is a serious allegation, and I don’t take it lightly.

There are various definitions of genocide but only one is globally accepted and that is the Genocide Convention’s [The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide], which was adopted by the UN in December 1948. It’s a legal definition, but still vague and open to interpretation, which is why it was and still is criticized. The convention describes genocide as a crime committed with the intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such. The intent to annihilate is crucial — though it does not have to be full annihilation; it can be “in whole or in part.”

The definition has been criticized for its omission of other categories, such as political groups, which the Soviet Union opposed. By the same token, the convention does not specify “cultural genocide,” because the US feared being accused of committing genocide against its own indigenous population. Including cultural aspects in the conventions was very important for the Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” and lobbied for it in the UN, but he was forced to compromise in order to get the convention approved.

Ultimately, the definition put forward by the convention was the outcome of a certain political and historical moment in the UN, when the Global South had very few representatives and the US and USSR dominated. Nevertheless, most scholars refer to this definition when they speak about genocide today. Many coined additional terms like democide, ethnocide, politicide, etc. (which are not legal anyhow) or turned away from definitions all together. But the basic widely accepted definition is the legal one from the convention.

Elias Feroz

Your article also mentions other examples of genocide, such as in Bosnia, Armenia, or the Herero and Nama genocide in what is today Namibia. Around 8,000 Bosnians were killed in Srebrenica, while anywhere between several hundred thousand to 1.5 million people are thought to have perished in the Armenian genocide. You also emphasize that not every genocide has to result in the horrors of the Holocaust. At what point in the current war were you sure that Israel’s actions in Gaza had become genocidal?

Amos Goldberg

As a historian, if you look at the overall picture, you have all the elements of genocide. There is clear intent: the president, the prime minister, the minister of defense, and many high-ranking military officers have expressed that very openly. We have seen countless incitements to turn Gaza into rubble, claims that there are no innocent people there, etc. Popular calls for the destruction of Gaza are heard from all quarters of society and the political leadership. A radical atmosphere of dehumanization of the Palestinians prevails in Israeli society to an extent that I can’t remember in my fifty-eight years of living here.

The outcome is as would be expected: tens of thousands of innocent children, women, and men killed or injured, the almost-total destruction of infrastructure, intentional starvation and the blocking of humanitarian aid, mass graves of which we still don’t know the full extent, mass displacement, etc. There is also reliable testimony of summary executions, not to mention the numerous bombings of civilians in so-called “safe zones.” Gaza as we knew it does not exist anymore. Thus, the outcome fits perfectly with the intentions. To understand the full scale of this destruction and cruelty, I recommend reading Dr Lee Mordechai’s report, which is the most comprehensive and updated record of what has been happening in Gaza since October 7.

A radical atmosphere of dehumanization of the Palestinians prevails in Israeli society to an extent that I can’t remember in my fifty-eight years of living here.

For mass killings to be considered genocide it does not have to be a total annihilation. As we already mentioned the definition states explicitly that destroying a group in whole or in part could be considered genocide. This is what happened in Srebrenica as you mentioned, or in the case of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

I admit that, at first, I was reluctant to call it genocide, and sought any indication to convince myself that it is not. No one wants to see themselves as part of a genocidal society. But there was explicit intent, a systematic pattern, and a genocidal outcome — so, I came to the conclusion that this is exactly what genocide looks like. And once you come to this conclusion, you cannot remain silent.

Elias Feroz

How do your students, colleagues, or friends react when you elaborate on your conclusions?

Amos Goldberg

As I have mentioned before, I wrote my article in Hebrew. I didn’t write it in English because I primarily wanted Israelis to confront it and to help my society overcome the denial and the impulse not to see what is happening in Gaza. I would say that denial is part of all genocidal processes and acts of mass violence.

Some students were very angry at me for my article, but others thanked me. Some colleagues argued with me, and one even wrote on Facebook that he hopes that students will not attend my classes anymore. Others agreed with me, while some told me that I gave them food for thought. There are also people who disagree with me, but whom I at least managed to convince that the allegation of genocide is not an absurd allegation motivated by antisemitism.

Elias Feroz

In Germany, Israel’s universities are often seen as a bastion of resistance against the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government. What is the mood like on Israeli campuses right now?

Amos Goldberg

It is true that the universities are a bastion of opposition to the Netanyahu government. This started with the judicial overhaul before the war. Many voices within the universities are speaking up against the war, although many actively support it, or even encourage the government to increase the already inhumane pressure on Gaza.

Many of those who oppose the war do so primarily because of the hostages — which is a very worthy cause — but only a minority in Israel acknowledges the inhumane and criminal nature of the war as such. I should also stress the many displays of solidarity between Jews and Palestinians that happened in the universities. Nevertheless, overall, I would say that, as institutions, the universities failed this test of their morality and their obligations to free speech, humanism, and the critical analysis of reality in times of crisis.

Tel Aviv University and its president, Ariel Porat, might be an exception, as he for the most part stood up for free speech, but on the whole, there is an atmosphere of fear and suppression. This is particularly true for Palestinian professors and students, who feel they cannot even express any kind of public empathy toward their brothers and sisters in Gaza. There is no room for their feelings or their perspectives on campus, in the public sphere, or on social media.

Denial is part of all genocidal processes and acts of mass violence.

Some professors —  Jews included — have lost their jobs in colleges for expressing legitimate criticisms, but others who did not lose their jobs were harassed. The most well-known incident happened to Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a world-renowned Palestinian professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem known for her outspoken views on genocide and Zionism. She was suspended by the university from teaching for a short while. She faced harassment from colleagues and threats, and was even arrested and detained for two days. Police interrogated her several times. Her critique might have sounded harsh and unpleasant to most Israeli ears, but it is still legitimate and, in my opinion, for the most part very true. She is now waiting to see whether she will be indicted for “incitement” based also on her peer-reviewed academic articles.

Another worrying development is the National Union of Israeli Students’ promotion of a controversial bill that would oblige universities to summarily fire anyone, including tenured professors, for practically any criticism of the state or army which the education minister considers to be “incitement.” Not all local student unions, including the chapter at Hebrew University, support the bill, and the universities themselves are also vehemently opposing it. I hope the bill fails, but the government coalition is pushing it hard, together with parts of the opposition. It is truly shameful that students in the Israeli academic community are pushing for such a draconian, totalitarian measure, and it is frightening to think about the outcomes should the bill indeed pass.

Elias Feroz

Your own university rejects the allegations of genocide against Israel, but on the other hand, immediately labeled the Hamas attack on October 7 as such. What is your opinion? Did October 7 meet the criteria to qualify as a genocide?

Amos Goldberg

I agree with most UN and other assessments, including the current warrants issued by the [International Criminal Court] chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, which state that the Hamas attack was horrendous and criminal, involving war crimes and crimes against humanity. Though some consider it a genocidal act, I don’t think so. I believe it was a terrible crime, particularly the targeting of civilians, the destruction of the kibbutzim, and the taking of hostages, including children. However, calling it genocide stretches the definition to the point of meaninglessness.

The university explicitly rejected the term genocide with regard to Israel’s actions when condemning Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian. They stated that it was outrageous to call it genocide, despite many legal experts, historians, and genocide experts like Raz Segal, Marion Kaplan, Victoria Sanford, Ronald Suny, and Francesca Albanese using the term. Other prominent experts, such as Omer Bartov, believe that the situation may be on course to become a genocide.

We also know that the highest court on earth, the International Court of Justice, ruled in January on several provisional measures while stating that it is indeed plausible that the rights of the Palestinians according to the Genocide Convention were violated, or, in other words, that it is plausible that what is happening in Gaza is a genocide.

As academics, our role is to examine facts and draw conclusions, not to reject terms ideologically.

I think the dismissal of the term genocide to describe Israel’s actions as “baseless” is a grave mistake. As academics, our role is to examine facts and draw conclusions, not to reject terms ideologically. While one might conclude that it is not in fact genocide, it is not baseless to call it so, given the evidence and so many experts who have reached the same conclusion. Dismissing it as outrageous without considering the facts and the arguments contradicts our academic commitment to the truth.

Elias Feroz

The German government also rejects the genocide allegations and supports Israel at the International Court of Justice. Since October 7, a number of Palestinians and Israelis who are critical of Israel’s war conduct have seen their voices silenced or even been banned from entering the country. Given your own opinion on the war, do you think the German government is drawing the wrong lessons from history?

Amos Goldberg

Yes, Germany is drawing the wrong lessons from history. The German government and most German media are biased, wrong, and hypocritical when it comes to Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. This stance is not new. Germany supports Israel and its narrative due to the idea of a German Staatsräson, or reason of state, which ties the state’s legitimacy to its support for Israel. It’s not only that they don’t want to see what is happening. They actively refuse to see! This unwavering support, seen as a carte blanche for Israel’s actions, including what I view as genocide, is not good for Israel.

Germany, the country that committed the Holocaust under Nazi rule, should stand for universal values. “Never again” must apply to all. Almost 30 percent of Israel’s ammunition and arms imports come from Germany. This helps neither Palestinians nor Israelis.

Germany is drawing the wrong lessons from history.

The issue of Germany suppressing free speech predates the current war, as the German state considers almost any critique of Israel, including criticism expressed by Jews, antisemitic. The German media and government deliberately ignore the reality in Israel and Palestine, enabling Israel to commit crimes and continue its apartheid, annexation, occupation, and settlement policies. I do not believe that Germany’s actions help Israel. On the contrary, they push Israeli society further toward an abyss from which it may not be able to recover.

Elias Feroz

Israel’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, recently announced that he wanted to turn the cities and villages of the West Bank into ruins, like the Gaza Strip. While most of the world’s attention is focused on Gaza, the situation in the West Bank is also spiraling out of control, with growing attacks on the Palestinian population and moves by the Israeli government to expand settlements there. Is this part of a unified strategy?

Amos Goldberg

The government and many settlers and their supporters see the war as an opportunity to expand settlements, take over land, and expel Palestinians. More than five hundred Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have been killed by the Israeli army and settlers since the war started.

I’m part of an Israeli group called Jordan Valley Activists that tries to protect Palestinian shepherd communities and help them maintain their land and livelihoods. I’ve witnessed settler violence firsthand. Just recently, a horrific incident occurred in which settlers seemingly from Shadmot Mehola attacked Palestinian shepherds and farmers, stealing a car, breaking all its windows, hitting people and injuring them, and constantly terrorizing and harassing them. It’s clear that the settlers are taking advantage of the war to expand their territory, expel Palestinians from their land, particularly in Zone C of the West Bank, and “Judaize” the territory.

In many cases, the army and police support the settlers’ actions, either actively or passively, by deliberately not intervening nor holding the perpetrators accountable. The police does not serve the rule of law but rather the lawless settlers. Hence, the attackers almost never have to show up in court. The US and other countries ultimately placed sanctions on those settlers because they understood that the Israeli legal system would rarely hold them accountable.

In 2017, Bezalel Smotrich published something called the “Decisive Plan,” which offered Palestinians two options: accept living under apartheid or leave. He actually threatened to annihilate Palestinians who decide to oppose these two options. This plan, designed by high-ranking politicians, enjoys widespread support. I suspect that even if not formally adopted by the current government, its spirit determines its policy.

Elias Feroz

High levels of support for the war among the Israeli population are evidenced by almost all available polling data, but at the same time, protests for a cease-fire and Netanyahu’s resignation are also growing. Is the mood in Israel beginning to shift?

Amos Goldberg

The mood is changing bit by bit, as many understand that the only way to bring back the hostages is by reaching a permanent cease-fire. Some also don’t see the point of the war anymore. However, the majority still supports the war and is undoubtedly completely blind to the crimes Israel is committing in Gaza.

One positive thing I want to point out is that organizations like the Jordan Valley Activists, which I mentioned before, or grassroots movements like Standing Together are growing as well, although these are very small groups compared to the rest of society. A notable action by Standing Together involved the escorting of humanitarian aid convoys, which were being blocked and vandalized by settlers and right-wingers, to Gaza. The minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, even ordered police not to protect the convoys, allowing the vandalism to happen. Standing Together activists protected the trucks until they reached the Gaza border crossing.

The mood is changing bit by bit, as many understand that the only way to bring back the hostages is by reaching a permanent cease-fire.

This movement consists mainly of Jews and Arabs from within the 1948 borders, who protest the war and demand the freeing of the hostages, because they understand that the war will not lead us anywhere and that both sides are indeed paying a huge price. However, these voices are heavily suppressed by the government, the police, and even local officials — such as the mayor of Haifa, Yona Yahav, who said that demonstrations against the war should not take place in his city Haifa.

Elias Feroz

What future do you see for Israel–Palestine after the war? What will its long-term effects be?

Amos Goldberg

Nothing good will come from this war, and I see no way out of this dead end. I’ve lived my entire life in Jerusalem as an activist and academic, acting and writing in hopes of change. In a coedited book with my friend and colleague Professor Bashir Bashir, The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, and in other articles we wrote, we envisioned an egalitarian binational solution. This solution emphasizes equal rights for all, both collective and individual. This vision now feels more remote than science fiction.

The two-state solution is also just a smoke screen used by the international community, as there is no realistic path to achieving a viable two-state solution that grants Palestinians their rights. The expansion of settlements has left no room for it, and the idea of two equal states is not even considered. Even the most progressive proposals from the Israeli left and the international community fall short of the minimum level of dignity, sovereignty, and independence that Palestinians can accept. Within Israeli society, racism, violence, militarism, and a narcissistic focus on Israeli suffering alone are so prevalent that there is almost no public support for any solution other than more force and killing.

The status quo is unsustainable and will continue to lead to more violence. Israel, which was never a full democracy to begin with, is losing even its partial democratic features. Today there are more or less 7.5 million Jews and 7.5 million Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea under Israeli control. The former enjoy full rights while the latter enjoy no rights or partial rights. The Israeli Jewish society is becoming more militant, expansionist, and authoritarian. Germany, the US, and most Western countries have contributed significantly to the current dead end. I’m very pessimistic and depressed about the future. I say this with great sadness because Israel is my society and my home.

Nevertheless, history has shown us that the future can be unpredictable, and perhaps things will change for the better, but this requires immense international pressure. This abstract notion is my only hope.

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