Interview'Oct. 7 was a genocidal group deliberately targeting Jews'

As Israel faces charges at The Hague, a Cornell expert in genocide weighs in

A child of Holocaust survivors, law prof Menachem Rosensaft has made his life’s work the study of genocide. He finds the allegation against the Jewish state both ironic and bigoted

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Menachem Rosensaft delivering the keynote address at the commemoration marking the 28th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, July 2023. (Courtesy)
Menachem Rosensaft delivering the keynote address at the commemoration marking the 28th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, July 2023. (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — As Israel prepares to defend itself in the International Court of Justice in the Hague against South Africa’s charges of genocide on Thursday, Menachem Rosensaft has some thoughts.

“The word genocide is used willy-nilly by people all over the world, but genocide, as it has evolved since 1948 when the genocide convention was first adopted by the UN General Assembly, is a legal concept. And whatever else Israel is doing, and has done, it is not intending to destroy the Palestinian people; either on the West Bank or in Gaza,” said Rosensaft, who is a legal expert on genocide.

In short, it’s a specious charge, Rosensaft said in a Zoom interview from his Manhattan apartment. It’s also a perfect example of the type of legal case Rosensaft will be teaching this semester at Cornell University in a new course: “Antisemitism in the Courts and in Jurisprudence.”

The course, which will be offered in two sections, one for Cornell Law School students and one for undergraduates, is a survey of how antisemitism manifests in modern history and how it has been handled in the courts. Among the topics the students will study are the 1894 conviction of the French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, the 1913 blood libel against Mendel Beilis, whom the Russians charged with killing a Christian child so he could bake the blood into matzah, and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Now an adjunct professor at Cornell Law School, Rosensaft, the son of Holocaust survivors, has dedicated his life to the study and teaching of genocide and antisemitism.

He has served in various roles at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and was most recently the general counsel for the World Jewish Congress. A co-founder of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, Rosensaft was also one of five American Jews who met with Yasser Arafat and other senior leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization in December 1988.

Menachem Rosensaft, left, accompanies Israeli President Isaac Herzog, right, on a visit to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, September 6, 2022. (Shahar Azran/WJC)

Rosensaft conceived of the idea for the course this summer. He originally planned to introduce it in 2025, but then came the October 7 massacre, in which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists brutally murdered 1,200 people in southern Israel — most of them civilians — and kidnapped roughly 240 more to the Gaza Strip.

The attack was characterized by unimaginable cruelty: the terrorists indiscriminately tortured, brutalized, disfigured and dismembered the victims. Entire families were killed together, many burned alive in their homes.

Days after the onslaught, anti-Israel and antisemitic protests erupted in cities and on university campuses worldwide. Cornell University was no exception.

In late October, an undergraduate student allegedly threatened to kill Jewish students. After the student was arrested, the university asked Rosensaft if he could offer a course on antisemitism now rather than wait until the spring of 2025.

Menachem Rosensaft speaks during a panel discussion on antisemitism at the Memorial Site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. December 8, 2023. (Martin Bein/Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen)

Rosensaft didn’t hesitate. With antisemitism surging, he says that unless people understand what it is, they won’t be properly equipped to fight it.

The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

The Times of Israel: South Africa charged Israel with committing genocide in Gaza. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators frequently use the word as well — tell us a bit about what the word means.

Menachem Rosensaft: Even [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, with whom I fundamentally disagree on most issues, is not planning to evict the Palestinians from Gaza. So the term genocide does not work. You have some protesters saying this is a resistance. One, no it’s not. Two, the spark for this war was October 7.

October 7 was a deliberate action by a genocidal organization that targeted Israeli — meaning Jewish — civilians: women, men, children, and the elderly. It subjected them to deliberate intentional horrors and atrocities, including rape. You cannot simply ignore it, which a lot of pro-Palestinian demonstrators are doing. They act as if October 7 never happened. And you can’t have the Hamas leadership state publicly on Lebanese television, and elsewhere, that they will do it again and again and again. One of the things that bothers me is the intellectual dishonesty in simply ignoring October 7.

Photographs of Israeli hostages being held in the Gaza Strip are placed on a house in Kibbutz Be’eri, Israel, December 20, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

What are your thoughts on the calls by some Israeli politicians for Gazans to “voluntarily emigrate” from the Strip to other countries such as Congo?

Talk of a population transfer is a horror show. What [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir and [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich are doing is exposing Israel to a potential charge — not of genocide, but of a crime against humanity. It’s antithetical to all that Israel stands for and all that we as Jews stand for. I’m glad there are a few ministers calling them out, but we need to hear from the top level. We cannot allow that ideology into the tent. It is a recipe for legal and spiritual disaster and it needs to be categorically repudiated.

Can you comment on what is happening on American university campuses regarding antisemitism and free speech?

The problem with First Amendment free speech is that too many university presidents and too many administrators only view it as a First Amendment right of the demonstrators. They don’t understand that they themselves have an obligation to exercise their First Amendment right to speak out against hate speech.

We cannot allow that ideology into the tent. It is a recipe for legal and spiritual disaster and it needs to be categorically repudiated

Let me use two universities where I have taught as an example. Columbia took an enormous amount of time for the antisemitic rhetoric to be condemned, and even then the president issued multiple statements with throwaway lines that mentioned a terrorist attack, without naming Hamas. The condemnation of antisemitism was pro forma.

Whereas at Cornell, the president issued a strong condemnation of Hamas by name. After a professor said at some demonstration that he was exhilarated by October 7, the president said point blank, “Not only do I condemn this rhetoric. It’s counter to everything Cornell stands for.” That sends a message to both sides. It tells the Jewish kids the university has their backs and it sends a clear message to the pro-Palestinian demonstrators that there are limits to what they will be allowed to do.

It has taken much too long for universities to say we condemn Hamas, that what happened was an atrocity, and that we are not going to allow the glorification of Hamas in any way shape or form.

A New York State Police Department cruiser is parked in front of Cornell University’s Center for Jewish Living, in Ithaca, New York, October 30, 2023. Threatening statements about Jews on an internet discussion board have unnerved students at Cornell University and prompted officials to send police to guard a Jewish center and kosher dining hall. (David Bauder/AP)

What about the argument that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism?

Calling for the delegitimization of Israel in some form, either violently or otherwise, is calling for the destruction of Israel. That is different from expressing criticism of the government.

This is not disagreeing with Netanyahu. It is simply saying, “We don’t want this state with its millions of Jewish citizens to exist as a homeland for Jewish people.” The issue to me — and this has been my argument with proponents of delegitimization — is they don’t use those arguments against any other country.

No one is saying, “I disagree with the government of Hungary, therefore I want Hungary to go out of existence. Or, Australia exists today because colonists usurped land from indigenous people.” You can say we need to find a way to remedy this for the Aborigines, but no one is saying cancel Australia.

Why did you feel compelled to teach this course?

Antisemitism is different from other forms of racism. Just about every other form of racism and bigotry is binary. If it’s about African Americans, it’s a matter of color. If it’s about Muslims, it’s a matter of religion. If it’s about immigrants, it’s a matter of people who shouldn’t be here, or the old, “We want our country back” white supremacism.

When it’s antisemitism, it is all of the above. It’s racial, it’s religious, it’s about the other. You can’t diagnose antisemitism if you don’t understand it.

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