On Monday, the Electronic Intifada (EI) website published a report on a speech that right-wing Middle East scholar Martin Kramer gave at Israel’s Herzliya security conference earlier this month. In the speech, Kramer called for a cut-off of United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees, and endorsed Israel’s ongoing siege of the territory, on the grounds that these measures would help curb the allegedly excessive Palestinian birth rate. “Israel’s present sanctions on Gaza have a political aim—undermine the Hamas regime—but if they also break Gaza’s runaway population growth—and there is some evidence that they have—that might begin to crack the culture of martyrdom which demands a constant supply of superfluous young men,” Kramer said. The EI report argues that Kramer’s statement “appears to meet the international legal definition of a call for genocide,” since the 1948 UN Genocide Convention defines the term to include “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group” that is targeted. Kramer has responded to the charges here, although he does not help his case by accusing his critics of being “death-to-Israel” types who “daily call for Israel to be wiped off the map.”
However, as Kramer admits, the idea of slashing the Palestinian birthrate by ending UNRWA aid does not originate with him, and he “credit[s] Gunnar Heinsohn for making a much more detailed case for it,” as well as for coining the term “superfluous young men.” Heinsohn, a German academic at the University of Bremen, made the case in more depth in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published in January 2009, at the height of the Gaza war. I meant to write about Heinsohn’s article at the time, but the Kramer controversy is as good a time as any to revisit it. (The New Left Review has more background on Heinsohn and his politics.)
Heinsohn argued that by providing humanitarian relief to the population of Gaza, UNRWA (and by extension its western funders) are fueling a “youth bulge” that provided a steady supply of violent and superfluous young men, and thus the West is “unintentionally financ[ing] a war by proxy against the Jews of Israel.” He called for UNRWA to end assistance to Gazans born from now on, although (perhaps to avoid the grim implications of his argument) he refrained from calling for a cut-off of aid to already living Gazans. Still, the UNRWA humanitarian aid has been virtually the only thing keeping the population of Gaza alive since the imposition of the blockade, and it is not clear what Heinsohn imagines will happen to Gazan children born under the siege who are denied UNRWA aid. (Or perhaps it is clear, but not terribly pleasant to think about.) Whether or not Heinsohn’s proposed policies meet a legal definition of genocide, these sorts of population-control measures targeting “undesirable” ethnic groups have a revolting history, and have been a hallmark of fascist regimes in particular; such ideas, as Leon Wieseltier recently wrote in a very different context, have “a provenance that should disgust all thinking people.”
What’s the punch line? According to his bio, Heinsohn is the head of something called the “Raphael Lemkin Institute” at the University of Bremen, which bills itself as “Europe’s first institute devoted to comparative genocide research.” Lemkin, of course, was the Polish-Jewish lawyer who fled the Nazis, coined the word “genocide,” and figured as one of the heroes in Samantha Power’s book A Problem From Hell.
The fact that the head of an institute bearing Raphael Lemkin’s name is calling for these frankly fascistic population control measures against the Palestinians is among the most revealing signs of the way that the memory of the Holocaust has been abused by a particular strand of militarist and virulently racist right-wing politics.