How Many Murders Constitute a Genocide?

The comparison between the massacre of civilians, the Holocaust and acts of genocide always sparks a stormy debate, and justifiably so. Prof. Israel Charny, director of the Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide, says that senior genocide researcher Leo Kuper coined a term that is supposed to prevent this comparison. Kuper calls the indiscriminate massacre of dozens or hundreds of civilians genocidal massacre.

Last Monday, Charny addressed a one-day seminar on "Other Victims," sponsored by the Open University, and then spoke with Haaretz.

"History proves that among all the nations, there has not been a society that was incapable of the mass murder of unarmed innocents. We too have transgressed in this," he said.

Charny told Haaretz that he does not compare acts of massacre to the Holocaust.

"We have never committed an act of genocide," he explained. "We have perpetrated a few acts of genocidal massacre against a small number of people, and each case was terrible and painful. The study of the Holocaust is not only learning about being the victims, but also about knowing that this potential exists in us, too."

When does a genocidal massacre become genocide, the genuine murder of a people?

"I think that 10,000 is genocide," said Charny. "If that's not genocide, what is? You have 10,000 unarmed civilians of religion X who were murdered by adherents of religion Y. What is that? Political murder? I think that's genocide."

I told Charny that calling the massacre of 10,000 persons genocide cheapens the Holocaust. He replied that if we judge the magnitude of genocide by the number of victims, the Holocaust could be dwarfed due to the fact that the Communist regime in the Soviet Union murdered 55 million Russians, nine times the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. The conference at the Open University was held to mark the publication of two new books (in Hebrew) in the university's "Genocide" series. One book, "Thoughts on the Inconceivable," was written by Prof. Yair Oron, who heads the staff of lecturers in the Open University's genocide course. The book presents a further distinction aimed at classifying acts of massacre and genocide. Prof. Rudolph Rummel of the University of Hawaii called regimes that murdered more than a million people "super-murderers." Fifteen such regimes murdered 151 million people in the 20th century. Rummel estimates that a total of 174 million people were murdered in the 20th century in some 8,200 incidents of massacre and genocide.

If one includes the peoples the Soviet Union murdered beyond its borders, the number of victims of Russian Communism rises to 62 million - more than a third of those killed in acts of genocide in the 20th century. The five greatest murderers in 20th century history: Stalin (Soviet Union) - 43 million; Mao Zedong (China) - 38 million; Adolph Hitler (Germany), in third place with 21 million; Chiang Kai-shek (China) - 10 million; and Lenin (Soviet Union) - 4 million.

"Man is a murderer by nature, to the point of genocide," said Charny. Otherwise, he asks, "Why would millions take pleasure in every instance of genocide?"

What do Israelis know about acts of genocide? Oron answers this in the chapter he wrote for the second book just published by the Open University, "Nazi Germany and the Gypsies," by Dr. Gilad Margalit. Oron writes about a study conducted among 800 Israeli students by researchers Eyal Naveh and Esther Yogev in 1996. The students were asked to assess their knowledge of the gypsy genocide, the murder of the gypsies by the Nazis during WWII. Some 85 percent answered that they had minimal or no knowledge at all. Only 1 percent (fewer than 10 students) said they knew the subject well.

In 1996-2004 the study's questionnaire was distributed among some 500 students in an elective course on genocide - students who had expressed an interest in this subject. The results were similar. Some 85-90 percent of the students said they knew nothing or very little about both the gypsy genocide and the Armenian genocide.

Also noteworthy is that the Education Ministry did not approve a curriculum on genocide that Oron prepared in 1994. A proposal submitted in 1995 by Zvika Dror, a member of Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta'ot, to build a memorial to the victims of genocide was never implemented.

Charny says that the Truman Institute at Hebrew University was founded in the 1970s to research the subject of genocide, but very quickly changed its goals. Throughout the world there are a number of university departments that grant degrees in the Holocaust and genocide. In Israel there are Holocaust studies, but the Open University is the only one that specializes in genocide studies. Charny says that initiatives to teach genocide at other institutes were quashed.

"Those of us who wanted an awareness of genocide of other peoples were often treated as rebellious and non-conformist," said Charny, adding that the idea of learning about the genocide of other peoples is perceived here as minimizing the Holocaust "to the point of treason."

"We protest so much about the world not knowing about our Holocaust," said Charny. "Do we have any moral right not to know? Is this not a disgrace?"

Oron says that genocide researchers claim that denial "is the final and 'ultimate' stage in 'successful genocide.'" In other words, the murderers will always want to deny the crime or at least its dimensions, to downplay its importance and terribleness and to lay the blame on the victims, all in order to deflect blame from themselves. There are some researchers who contend that all the acts of genocide in the 20th century (apart from the Holocaust) are 'forgotten' or 'concealed.' Oron says that what will determine whether there will be genocide in the future is neither the murderers nor the victims, "but rather the third party" - the majority of human society. It is the third party that enables genocide, because the murderers understand that the rest of the world will stand idly by.