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What Lemkin’s work on Genocide really says

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Picture: United Nations – Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, is known for coining the term genocide after studying the massacre and forced displacement of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire and later the holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis.

By Mischa Geracoulis and

Words matter, but the paper of record has ignored our letter of clarification about historical misrepresentation and the important role of the Armenian genocide in the thinking of the man who coined the term.

On January 11, 2024, the New York Times published an article by Isabel Kershner and John Eligon titled ‘At World Court, Israel to Confront Accusations of Genocide’.

From the standpoint of critical media literacy and ethical journalistic practices, the article exhibits framing biases, historical and contextual omissions, and overly simplistic reasoning that attempts to explain why “Israel has categorically rejected the allegations being brought this week in the International Court of Justice by South Africa”.

We assert that this editorial spin does a disservice to journalism and adds to a faulty record that enables human rights violators.

The overall tone is in lockstep with corporate media’s bias toward Israel — a bias credibly substantiated by the likes of the Lemkin Institute for the Prevention of Genocide, The Intercept, The Guardian, Mint Press News, and Common Dreams. While multiple aspects of the article are troublesome, the third sentence provoked our immediate response letter to the Editor of the New York Times. That sentence is as follows.

Oversimplifying Lemkin’s endeavours does a shameful disservice to his legacy. Such a decontextualised presentation edits out the foundation of his body of work and contracts the character of his mission.

“Genocide, the term first employed by a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent in 1944 to describe the Nazis’ systematic murder of about six million Jews and others based on their ethnicity, is among the most serious crimes of which a country can be accused.”

Days later, echoing a similar mischaracterisation of Raphael Lemkin’s work, USA Today published a piece by Noa Tisby titled, “Is Israel guilty of genocide in Gaza? Why the accusation at the UN is unfounded” (January 16). Tisby’s article, like that of Kershner and Eligon, amended the breadth and depth of Lemkin’s work to accommodate a particular narrative.

Considering the New York Times’ reputation as a leading US paper of record, the need for public correction therein took precedence over the op-ed in USA Today. Hence, our letter:

As two Armenian Americans who grew up in the shadow of the 20th century’s first genocide, an attorney and a media expert respectively, we found critical context lacking in “At World Court, Israel to Confront Accusations of Genocide”, by Isabel Kershner and John Eligon (January 11). Any discussion of genocide and Raphael Lemkin is grossly incomplete without citing how the Armenian genocide informed the Polish-Jewish lawyer’s noble work.

Lemkin (b.1900), while a university student in the 1920s, learned of the Ottoman Turk’s coordinated mass slaughter of Armenians that culminated in 1915. The extermination of Armenians informed Lemkin’s life mission to establish international laws and treaties making genocide a punishable offense. In 1944, Lemkin finally named that crime genocide.

This article implies that Lemkin advocated solely for the Jewish cause. A humanitarian first, Lemkin sought to establish protections for all people. For example, he worked with Algerians who sought to hold accountable their colonisers for crimes against humanity.

The Armenian Genocide impelled Lemkin to action. Absent this historical context, the article reinforces the Israeli government’s illogical claim that Jewish people are the sole victims of genocide. South Africa’s charge that the Israeli government is engaging in genocide reflects Lemkin’s commitment to the denunciation of the crime irrespective of ethnicity.

The New York Times ignored our letter.

Oversimplifying Lemkin’s endeavours does a shameful disservice to his legacy. Such a decontextualised presentation edits out the foundation of his body of work and contracts the character of his mission. It ignores the events that prompted and preoccupied his thinking on international discourse toward establishing laws against the crime that he came to term “genocide”.

Lemkin was horrified that the Ottoman Turkish government could kill its own citizens — albeit “dhimmi”, or second-class citizens — with impunity. His application of the term genocide to the Ottoman Turk’s systematic mass slaughter of the Armenians predated the Holocaust. Years later, as a formidable advisor to prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials, Lemkin drew conclusive parallels to the Nazis’ genocidal massacre of Europe’s Jewish citizens.

To selectively invoke Lemkin’s work on genocide as a defence against the charges brought against Israel banks on the idea that public memory is short.

Editing the Armenian Genocide from Lemkin’s life work has contemporary and historical implications. In light of increasing attacks by a radicalised right-wing contingency in Israel on Jerusalem’s Armenians, deleting the Armenians from current reporting sets a dangerous tone for Armenians living under current threat.

The Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention has featured articles on Armenphobia and on the Armenians’ right to exist, and has issued statements of concern over recent attacks on the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem’s Armenians, or “East Jerusalemites” as they are designated by the Israeli government, like other Palestinians, live in a system that privileges Israel’s Jewish population. Hostilities from Jewish fundamentalists toward Armenians in Jerusalem are nothing new.

However, the level and frequency of aggressions have intensified thanks to Netanyahu’s far-right government which has energised and normalised them. With attention concentrated on Gaza, Israeli extremists are free to act without fear of consequences. The Lemkin Institute explained that this can be “viewed as another attempt by Israeli extremists to create a homogenised Jewish ethno-state in the Palestinian territories”.

The New York Times article’s abridged version of Lemkin’s work emboldens those who continue to deny that the 1915 Armenian Genocide occurred. To selectively invoke Lemkin’s work on genocide as a defence against the charges brought against Israel banks on the idea that public memory is short.

A well-worn quote reported by AP Berlin bureau chief, Louis Lochner, from a speech given by Hitler to his military generals before the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland rhetorically asked, “Who today, after all, remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?”

With hot wars blazing and existential alarms blasting, we not only remember the Armenians but uphold this New York Times article as a cautionary tale that words matter.

Mischa Geracoulis is a media literacy expert, writer, and educator, serving as Project Censored’s curriculum development coordinator, and on the editorial boards of the Censored Press and The Markaz Review. Heidi Boghosian is an attorney and is the executive director of the AJ Muste Memorial Institute. She also co-hosts the weekly civil liberties radio show Law and Disorder, which is based out of Pacifica Radio’s WBAI, New York.

This article was first published on Common Dreams