October 31, 2010

Genocide, Another Name For Murder (originally published Dec. 15, 2008)

The recent horrific events in Mumbai are still too raw for me to react with fairness and reason, but I cannot wait any longer. The Jewish center that was viciously attacked did not exist when I was living uptown by Byculla Bridge many years ago, but I have known the Chabad-Lubavitch movement for much longer than that. I also learned so much from the people of Mumbai and from its ancient Jewish community. Byculla is a crossroads of minority faiths, central to Jews, Catholics and Muslims, and no small number of Hindus.

The absence of inidigenous anti-Semitism is partly the result of the minuscule Jewish existence there compared to hundreds of millions of Hindus and nearly 100 million Muslims. The deep hatred and mistrust of Muslims was exacerbated by the creation of a separate Pakistani state from the remnants of India's Raj borders, and perhaps this (reciprocated) enmity fills the psychological and political void filled by anti-Semitism in many other societies, with or without the presence of actual Jews. The saltwater pool at Breach Candy Swim Trust is still shaped in the outline of oldtime Greater India, as a constant reminder of the power of a pencil and the limits of an idea. Truth be told, most Indians and Pakistanis do not come near Gandhi's pacifist and universalist tendencies. In other words, this attack could have happened in any real-world city.

The Chabad movement follows a strict code of religious practice, and its followers wear black hats and coats. Yet it is a paragon of informed faith and intellectual enlightenment, or openness to the outside world. The Chabad emissaries engage the outside world and are critical participants in general society, without losing their religious identity or their principles of faith. Their love and commitment for fellow Jews do not come at the expense of their responsibility to all humanity in the image of God. One American Jewish friend related to me that her shock was compounded by the notion that any Chabad emissary could be killed, because their pure and holy mission has always seemed to inoculate against physical harm.

Having just heard a speech from Francis Deng, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General for the Prevention of Genocide, I have a few additional reflections. Genocide as a legal principle offers an elusive threshold. While we may not wish to see an entire people or nation disappear (or be the target of such an effort), I also have a hidden agenda in fighting genocide, and not just as a Jew whose family arrived in the United States decades before the Holocaust plunged Europe into a human hell. My hidden agenda is to prevent murder or individuals, and to preserve the hope of our place here on Earth. If criminalizing genocide can motivate nations and leaders to take action, then the Genocide Convention is a step forward. But even if mass murder is being perpetrated NOT on the basis of ethnicity or religion, we need to speak out against it.

Human rights begin with individual humans, and worthy arguments about fighting genocide do not preclude us from condemning and halting mass murder. The attacks in Mumbai were criminal. Despite the "global war on terrorism," they may not constitute war crimes, but they are no less criminal and outrageous. Our hearts still ache and the blood of the innocent still cries out. All of us, including my colleagues in the UN Secretariat, must continue doing what we can. And we must continue asking what more we can do. And we must continue to call evil by its name.

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