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Zelenskyy invoking the Holocaust is understandable — but completely wrong

Unfortunately, indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets are not rare in the history of war.
Image: Ukrainian evacuees on a bus carrying refugees, after crossing the Ukrainian border with Poland.
Ukrainian evacuees on a refugee bus Monday after having crossed the Ukrainian border with Poland at the Medyka border crossing.Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP via Getty Images

Last week, in a fiery address to Israeli lawmakers, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a speech to Israeli parliamentarians equating Russia’s attack on Ukraine with the Holocaust and accusing Moscow of using the “language of the final solution.”

Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave a speech to Israeli parliamentarians equating Russia’s attack on Ukraine with the Holocaust.

Those are provocative words to say to lawmakers in a Jewish state, and, not surprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pushed back. While Bennett said he understands that Zelenskyy is “a leader who is fighting for the life of his country,” he asserted, “I personally believe that it is forbidden to equate the Holocaust to anything.” While it did not directly mention Zelenskyy (who is Jewish), the Israeli Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, issued its own statement condemning the “trivialization and distortion of the historical facts of the Holocaust.”

Considering the crimes to which his country and its people are being subjected, his use of such incendiary language is hardly surprising — and Bennett was right to cut him some slack.

Still, it is important to point out that while Zelenskyy’s comparison is perhaps understandable, it is not correct. What is happening in Ukraine is horrific and almost certainly evidence of war crimes — but it is not genocide, and it is not comparable to the Holocaust.

The speech was not the first time Zelenskyy had made such direct comparisons to Nazi Germany. After the Russians bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol, he said the heinous act was “the final proof that what is happening is genocide of Ukrainians.”

Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, echoed his boss’s views, claiming: “Ukrainians are falling victim to Russia’s evil war just as the Jews fell victim to Nazis who wanted to eradicate all Jews. The Russian invaders are motivated and instructed to commit acts of genocide against Ukrainians.”

Ukraine has even brought an allegation of genocide to the International Court of Justice. Far more grotesquely, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the same accusation against Ukraine, alleging that it mistreated ethnic Russians, which international monitors have said is not true.

But, as we assess these various claims, it is important to keep in mind that the word “genocide” is not simply a rhetorical tool. It is a legal term, codified in international law.

According to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which took force in 1951, “genocide” constitutes acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”

The word “genocide” is not simply a rhetorical tool. It is a legal term, codified in international law.

There are, unfortunately, clear examples of such acts throughout history — the Nazis’ methodical murder of 6 million Jews; the barbarous spasm of killing in Rwanda in 1994, when Hutu genocidaires used machetes, hoes and other crude weapons to murder 800,000 Tutsis in about 100 days; or the organized deportations and mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish government.

Just this month, the U.S. State Department concluded that the Myanmar government’s mass killing of the country’s minority Rohingya population, which has included massacres, gang rapes, burnings of women and children and widespread displacement, amounts to genocide.

What distinguishes those crimes from the situation in Ukraine is the systematic nature of those other atrocities. Genocidal offenses are discriminate, with the clear intention of destroying an entire people. In Ukraine, we are seeing a different type of human rights abuse: the indiscriminate murder of civilians, be they Ukrainian or ethnically Russian. In Russia itself, ethnic Ukrainians are not being targeted by Putin’s government. This is a war against the Ukrainian state, not the Ukrainian people.

What Russia is doing is similar to what its military has done elsewhere under Putin, both in Chechnya and more recently in Syria. This includes the targeting of hospitals and the use of cluster munitions, and various reports allege systematic rape and the deportation of civilians by Russian troops.

As is the case for claims of genocide, there are legal avenues to prosecute these war crimes. Even if what is happening in Ukraine is not genocide, it in no way diminishes the legal culpability of those acting in Russia’s name.

While this may strike some as a semantic debate, it is not. “Genocide” has a very specific legal meaning and implication.

Indeed, official pronouncements that genocide is occurring or has taken place can significantly affect the international response. For example, the State Department’s determination of genocide against the Rohingya people will most likely lead to additional sanctions against the military junta that leads Myanmar and a limit on foreign aid to the government. It also puts a legal bull’s-eye on the backs of Myanmar’s leaders, who could be prosecuted for genocide in the International Court of Justice.

Defining genocide down risks cheapening the act itself.

In addition, while the full interpretation of the genocide convention is still fiercely debated, many international scholars and lawyers have argued that a determination of genocide obligates signatories to the convention to respond, even militarily. Indeed, during the Bosnian civil war and the Rwandan genocide, U.S. government officials were instructed not to use the word “genocide” to describe these atrocities for fear that it would require the U.S. to “do something.”

Beyond the legal issues, defining genocide down risks cheapening the act itself. If every attack on innocent civilians is genocide, then the world has experienced countless genocides over the past century. Instead, we use that specific word to describe the most heinous type of murders for a reason: They are uniquely awful and should be remembered as such. Unfortunately, indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets are not rare in the history of war — even if the incidents of such crimes have generally diminished. The systematic eradication and mass killing of an entire people is something else altogether.

Again, none of this excuses Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The evidence of war crimes by Russian troops is mounting, and the calls for prosecution are rightly increasing. Hopefully, one day those responsible for this war will be held accountable in the court of justice. But if that happens, it should be for the actual terrible crimes they have committed.