Sunday, April 22, 2018

"Is genocide necessarily evil?"

Someone on Quora asked this question.

My answer is rendered below.

Of course it is.

Genocide is the worst thing human beings can do to each other bar nuclear war (which can also be considered the most extreme form of genocide).

Now, whoever wrote the Bible, or at least some books of the Old Testament, obviously thought that genocide was perfectly OK, even compliance with a divine command, when perpetrated against peoples other than their own and followers of other religions. Here are some excerpts from Steven Pinker’s reflections about the Hebrew Bible on pp. 7 ff. of The Better Angels of Our Nature:
Like the works of Homer, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was set in the late 2nd millennium BCE but written more than five hundred years later. But unlike the works of Homer, the Bible is revered today by billions of people who call it the source of their moral values. The world’s bestselling publication, the Good Book has been translated into three thousand languages and has been placed in the nightstands of hotels all over the world. Orthodox Jews kiss it with their prayer shawls; witnesses in American courts bind their oaths by placing their hand on it. Even the president touches it when taking the oath of office. Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence.


No sooner do men and women begin to multiply than God decides they are sinful and that the suitable punishment is genocide [the Genesis flood][…]

The next major figure in the Bible is Abraham, the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims. Abraham has a nephew, Lot, who settles in Sodom. Because the residents engage in anal sex and comparable sins, God immolates every man, woman, and child in a divine napalm attack. Lots’s wife, for the crime of turning around to look at the inferno, is put to death as well.


Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, find their way to Egypt and become too numerous for the Pharaoh’s liking, so he enslaves them and orders that all the boys be killed at birth. Moses escapes the mass infanticide and grows up to challenge the Pharaoh to let his people go. God, who is omnipotent, could have softened Pharaoh’s heart, but he hardens it instead, which gives him a reason to afflict every Egyptian with painful boils and other miseries before killing every one of their firstborn sons. (The word Passover alludes to the executioner angel’s passing over the households with Israelite firstborns.) God follows this massacre with another one when he drowns the Egyptian army as they pursue the Israelites across the Red Sea.


As the Israelites proceed towards the promised land, they meet up with the Midianites. Following orders from God, they slay the males, burn their city, plunder the livestock, and take the women and children captive. When they return to Moses, he is enraged because they spared the women, some of whom had led the Israelites to worship rival gods. So he tells his soldiers to complete the genocide and to reward themselves with nubile sex slaves they may rape at their pleasure: ‘Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.’

In Deuteronomy 20 and 21, God gives the Israelites a blanket policy for dealing with cities that don’t accept them as overlords: smite the males with the edge of the sword and abduct the cattle, women and children. Of course, a man with a beautiful new captive faces a problem: since he has just murdered her parents and brothers, she may not be in the mood for love. God anticipates this nuisance and offers the following solution: the captor should shave her head, pare her nails, and imprison her in his house for a month while she cries her eyes out. Then he may go in and rape her.

With a designated list of other enemies (Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites), the genocide has to be total: ‘Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them … as the Lord thy God has commanded thee.’

Joshua puts this directive into practice when he invades Canaan and sacks the city of Jericho. After the walls came tumbling down, his soldiers ‘utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of their sword.’ More earth is scorched as Joshua ‘smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.’


Israel’s first king, Saul, establishes a small empire, which gives him the opportunity to settle an old score. Centuries earlier, during the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, the Amalekites had harassed them, and God commanded the Israelites to ‘wipe out the name of Amalek.’ So when the judge Samuel anoints Saul as a king, he reminds Saul of the divine decree: ‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ Saul carries out the order, but Samuel is furious to learn that he has spared their king, Agag. So Samuel ‘hewed Agag to pieces before the Lord.’


When David becomes king, he keeps up his hard-earned reputation for killing by the tens of thousands. After his general Joab ‘wasted the country of the children of Ammon,’ David ‘brought out the people that were in it, and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes,’ Finally he manages to do something that God considers immoral: he orders a census. To punish David for this lapse, God kills seventy thousand of his citizens.


The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all. These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure, They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones that Sunday-school children draw with crayons. And they fall into a continuous plotline that stretches for millennia, from Adam and Eve through Noah, the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and beyond. According to the biblical scholar Raymund Schwager, the Hebrew Bible ‘contains over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or individuals attacking, destroying and killing others. … Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people. Matthew White, a self-described atrocitologist who keeps a database with the estimated death tolls of history’s major wars, massacres, and genocides, counts about 1.2 million deaths from mass killing that are specifically enumerated in the Bible. (He excludes the half million casualties in the war between Judah and Israel described in 2 Chronicles 13 because he considers the body count historically implausible.) The victims of the Noachian flood would add another 20 million or so to the total.

In this article, Holocaust denier Carlo Mattogno is quoted as follows:
An Italian writer troubled himself to count the number of persons exterminated according to the Bible by virtue of the “cherem”: 2,120,182. The biblical Jehudim were therefore real forerunners of the Einsatzgruppen, actually even worse, because besides men, women and children, they even exterminated the animals! Is pointing this out “anti-Semitic” too?

The tone, context and author of this comment are despicable, for sure. But it cannot be gainsaid that, for instance, the following passages of Deuteronomy 20:
13“When the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. 14 “Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you. 15 “Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not of the cities of these nations nearby. 16 “Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 “But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, 18 so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the LORD your God.

read very much like Heinrich Himmler’s words in his Posen speech of 6 October 1943:
I ask you that what I tell you in this circle you will really only hear and never talk about it. The question came up to us: What do to with the women and children? I decided to find a very clear solution also in this respect. This because I didn’t consider myself entitled to exterminate the men, that is, to kill them or to have them killed, and to let the children grow up as avengers against our sons and grandsons. The difficult decision had to be taken to make this people disappear from the earth. For the organization that had to carry out the task if was the most difficult we had so far. It has been carried out without, as I consider myself entitled to say, our men and our leaders having taken harm to their spirit and soul. The path between the possibilities existing here, to either become crude and heartless and no longer to respect human life or to become weak and collapse to the point of nervous breakdowns, the path between this Scylla and Charybdis is horrendously narrow.

The key difference is that the genocide Himmler referred to is an indisputable historical fact. The atrocity accounts exulted in the Bible reveal their authors’ frame of mind and, as Pinker points out, offer a window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations at the time the Old Testament writings were finalized, in the 5th century BCE. But the accounts are mostly myths. Pinker again (Better Angels, p. 13):
The good news, of course, is that most of this never happened. Not only is there no evidence that Yahweh inundated the planet and incinerated its cities, but the patriarchs, exodus, conquest, and Jewish empire are almost certainly fictions. Historians have found no mention in Egyptian writings of the departure of a million slaves (which could hardly have escaped the Egyptians’ notice); nor have archaeologists found evidence in the ruins of Jericho or neighboring cities of a sacking around 1200 BCE. And if there was a Davidic empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else at the time seemed to have noticed it.

On the other hand, the genocidal parts of the Old Testament’s creed have troubled at least one Holocaust scholar, Yehuda Bauer. In his book Rethinking the Holocaust (p. 41), Bauer wrote these memorable words:
As a Jew, I must live with the fact that the civilization I inherited ... encompasses the call for genocide in its canon.

The following statements in the same book also have my entire sympathy:

No gradation of human suffering is possible. A soldier who lost a leg and a lung at Verdun suffered. How can one measure his suffering against the horrors that Japanese civilians endured at Hiroshima? How can one measure the suffering of a Rom woman at Auschwitz, who saw her husband and children die in front of her eyes, against the suffering of a Jewish woman at the same camp who underwent the same experience? Extreme forms of human suffering are not comparable, and one should never say that one form of mass murder is "less terrible," or even "better," than another.

The videos below (which contain extremely graphic images) may help to bring home Bauer’s point.

Verdun- Shell Shock


Harrowing Accounts from Hiroshima Survivors

Nagasaki - The Forgotten Bomb (Full Documentary)

1 comment:

  1. There is a problem with the Bible: Pinker's opinion is only one of many. When I studied tana'kh at Bochum University (I even hold a degree in this field), we discussed the matter in detail and came to the conclusion that neither the "Bible believers" who take the text literally (together with all its contradictions and implausibilities), nor the "de-mythologizers" (such as Pinker) are right, that there is, agreed, quite a lot of myths and legends in the "historical parts" of the tana'kh, but also a solid core of historical truth in it.

    Genocide was known to the Jews from experience, e.g. when the Assyrians conquered the Northern part (Israel) of their country, killed and/or deported the higher strata of society and realized a program of "Umvolkung" among the non-deported, which, as a result, made this people (the "Samaritans" of the New Testament) "unclean" for those from the Southern part (Judea), which was not occupied by the Assyrians.

    We have, alas, examples galore of genocide in history up to the present. And let us not forget the biggest genocide before the Holocaust: the extinction of the Neanderthals and Denisovians in the course of the conquering of Europe and Asia by Homo sapiens sapiens about 30-40k years ago. (I know that there are also "milder" theories, but they have their flaws, too.)

    I agree with your answer expressed in the beginning: genocide IS evil. But I am prone to believe that it is coded in the genes of Homo sapiens sapiens (or say it is "The Original Sin," die Erbsünde in German). As human beings we have to be aware of it, and our moral obligation is to strive for reigning it in as much as possible. That is all we can do, in my opinion, and studying genocides can help us much. But we should not expect miracles.


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