Reporter’s Notebook: Genocide, ethnic cleansing and us

flags of Palestine and Israel painted on cracked wall
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Content Warning: This report contains information on torture, rape and other atrocities that may trigger distress.

The U.S. has been fortunate to keep war off American soil. With the exceptions of 9/11 and the attack on Pearl Harbor, war has not touched Americans at home since the Civil War.

Yet the U.S. is already deeply involved in the current Israel-Hamas conflict and gives more foreign aid to Israel and Egypt than any other nations. The U.S. has the largest Jewish population outside Israel and a large Palestinian population. 

In addition, as Philadelphians have seen played out this week at the University of Pennsylvania as well as at Harvard and Columbia, issues of antisemitism, pro-Palestinian protests and the ongoing BDS movement have been at the forefront of discourse in the U.S., particularly on the left.

The terms genocide and ethnic cleansing have been used a lot since Oct. 7, often indiscriminately and without context. But their meanings run deep, especially for queer and trans people who are historical victims of genocide and who often, as an oppressed minority, stand in solidarity with other historically oppressed groups or are also themselves members of those groups. Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group. Ethnic cleansing is the systematic forced removal of ethnic, racial and religious groups from a given area, with the intent of making a region ethnically homogeneous.

Long before the Oct. 7 attacks that killed 1,400 Israelis, wounded over 4,000 and saw 250 taken hostage, Hamas was dedicated to the genocide of Jews. It’s in the Hamas charter from 1988: “from the rivers to the seas” is the chant to eradicate Israel and the Jews within.

Since Israel declared war on Hamas after what Israelis have called their 9/11, human rights groups have suggested that Israel is carrying out a plan of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Gaza. Air strikes on Gaza have killed 2,700 Gazans and wounded nearly 5,000. In addition, Israel shut off access to water, food and electricity and closed off all egress from Gaza. It is, ironically, what the Nazis did to the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland during World War II. 

At its height, the ghetto in Warsaw — the largest in Europe — held over 400,000 Jews engaged in a constant struggle for survival. That said, Gaza’s unelected authoritarian leadership has also kept Gazans isolated, prompting Israel, the U.S. and other Israel allies to say Hamas is using its citizens as human shields.

The numbers of dead and wounded keep changing with discoveries of new bodies in Israel and with new air strikes in Gaza and rocket launches out of Gaza into Israel. And on Oct. 16, MSNBC reported that 80% of bodies found in Israel following the Hamas attack — including children — were tortured, some burned alive, others mutilated.

This is where the conflict over genocide versus ethnic cleansing comes in: Israel and their allies say Hamas began the conflict and the breadth of the atrocities they perpetrated constitute not just a genocidal act, but demand retaliation by Israel. But that retaliation is not directed solely at Hamas, the unelected authoritarian regime governing Gaza since 2006. Civilians — half of Gaza’s 2.2 million population is under 18 — are “collateral damage” and the casualties have been massive — about 1,000 children have been killed in Gaza since the conflict began.

On Oct. 17, the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City was hit with an explosion. The Israeli Defense Ministry blamed Hamas or the Islamic Jihad group. Hamas blamed Israel. The breadth of the damage and the resulting fires which the Palestinian Health Ministry run by Hamas said killed 500, sparked protests in Gaza and throughout other countries in the region and scuttled an Oct. 18 meeting between President Biden and the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the West Bank.

Israel’s isolation of Gaza and imposition of restrictions on basic services shifted international support for Israel in the immediate period after the Hamas attack from solidarity with Israel for the massacres to outrage at the collective punishment of Palestinians. Mass protests throughout the U.K., Europe and the U.S. Oct 14-15 were nearly all in support of the Palestinians of Gaza. Tens of thousands of protesters in cities around the world have called for an end to Israel’s assault on Gaza. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced Israel’s siege of Gaza on Tuesday as a “genocide.” Iran is the primary funder of Hamas.

The West, including the U.S., still stands with Israel and says Israel has the right to defend itself. Yet reporting out of Gaza, where Israel says it has targeted 5,000 Hamas enclaves, shows buildings that have been decimated and an apocalyptic landscape. Those 1,000 dead children were not Hamas. So how is this not ethnic cleansing?

In the 1990s, I reported on the Bosnian genocide of the Srebrenica massacre and the ethnic cleansing campaigns during the Bosnian War. I also reported on the Rwandan genocide that was perpetrated in only 100 days between 7 April and 15 July 1994 during the Rwandan Civil War, but in which as many as 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by the Hutu. I interviewed women who had been tortured and raped in both conflicts.

I incorporated some of those stories into my Lambda Award-winning novel “Ordinary Mayhem.”

As a historically marginalized community, LGBTQ+ people have been victims of genocides small and large — and still are. During the Holocaust, gay men and lesbians were put in Nazi concentration camps. Richard Plant’s 1986 historical memoir, “The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals” was the first book to situate homosexuals as victims of the Holocaust and specific, rather than accidental, targets of the Third Reich. Plant, a gay Jew who had escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 at the age of 28, didn’t write of his Holocaust experiences until he was in his 70s. He died a few years after “The Pink Triangle” was published.

Yet a new version of the famous Holocaust memoir, “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank is being called “Anne Frank pornography” and is in turn getting banned from schools in Texas and Florida. At issue — the lesbian musings of the teenaged Anne.

Published in 2018, “Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation” is a new, abridged version of Frank’s famous diary presented in graphic-novel format. The project was authorized by the Anne Frank Fonds, the Switzerland-based foundation started by Anne’s father Otto Frank, which controls the copyright to the diary Otto rescued after he survived the Holocaust. Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after hiding out for most of the war with her family in an Amsterdam annex. So even talking about lesbians and the Holocaust is being erased.

Over the past decade — including this year — I have reported on the genocidal tactics used against LGBTQ+ people. In 2014 and 2015, I covered efforts by the Home Office in the U.K. to deport lesbians from countries that intended to kill them. Some deportations ended in the deaths of those women.

Over several years of the Trump administration, I reported on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s alliances with anti-LGBTQ+ actors and rogue nations. 

In 2020, I reported on the genocidal attacks on and disappearances of gay men and lesbians in Chechnya. Last year, I covered the genocidal assaults on gays and lesbians in Russia in bi-weekly reports on the wrongful detention of Brittney Griner. I also reported on Russia’s “kill list” plan to round up LGBTQ+ Ukrainians and either kill them outright or detain them in camps.  And on Ramzan Kadyrov, arbiter of the genocidal cleansing of Chechnya of LGBTQ+ people, being deployed to Ukraine by Vladimir Putin. 

And I have detailed the organized exportation of homophobia and transphobia around the world through a well-funded network of extremist Christian groups and organizations and how that has led to laws like the genocidal Uganda law instituting the death penalty for gay and lesbian people.

Just a few months ago, Michael Knowles called for the eradication of gay and trans people at CPAC and Vivek Ramaswamy echoed this during the last GOP debate. The Canadian government issued a travel advisory for LGBTQ people heading to the U.S. And the Human Rights Campaign issued a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans because of all the anti-LGBTQ legislation. 

Genocide and ethnic cleansing have the same driver: Othering and dehumanizing the group at the center of either mode of annihilation. Listening to the dismissal by those on either side of the killing of innocents is a warning about encroaching inhumanity. The only question as the rage levels rise is how far will that inhumanity spread and how many victims will there be in its wake?

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