Nam­ing the worst hu­man sin

DavidCon­way and Si­mon Rocker con­sider books that ex­am­ine fun­da­men­tal is­sues of hate, love and devo­tion

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

GENO­CIDE IS rarely out of the news th­ese days, a sad re­flec­tion of the sorry state of the mod­ern world. This makes John Cooper’s book wel­come and timely. For, de­spite his sub­ject, Raphael Lemkin, hav­ing coined the term “geno­cide” and al­most sin­gle­hand­edly forg­ing the le­gal in­stru­ment that made it an in­ter­na­tional crime, it is still not prop­erly un­der­stood out­side spe­cial­ist cir­cles.

Cooper’s ab­sorb­ing study is in­tended to set the record straight “by pro­vid­ing the­first­full­bi­o­graph­i­calac­countof [Lemkin’s]life­and­hisstrug­gle­top­er­suade­the United Na­tions to adopt and rat­ify the [Geno­cide] Con­ven­tion”.

It is a re­mark­able story. Born in rel­a­tively com­fort­able cir­cum­stances in 1900 on a farm be­long­ing to his par­ents in­east­ernPoland,Lemk­ingrewupdeeplytrou­bled­bythenu­mer­ou­sand­vi­cious acts of an­tisemitism com­mit­ted around him, as well as by other, more dis­tant but no less ap­palling acts of state-sanc­tioned bar­bar­i­tyof whichthe­most­no­table­was the mas­sacre by the Turks in 1915 of a mil­lion or so Ar­me­ni­ans.

The ap­par­ent in­dif­fer­ence of na­tional author­i­ties to such enor­mi­ties led the lin­guis­ti­cally gifted young Lemkin to aban­don his univer­sity philo­log­i­cal stud­ies­for­lawan­da­sub­se­quentin­volve­ment in le­gal en­deav­ours to es­tab­lish in­ter­na­tional laws crim­i­nal­is­ing them.

Ki­gali 2014: a man is con­soled by a woman at a cer­e­mony mark­ing the 20th an­niver­sary of the Rwan­dan geno­cide

Hav­ing fled to Amer­ica and just pub­lished there a well-doc­u­mented ex­posé of Hitler’s geno­ci­dal in­tent, Lemkin was to find him­self at the end of the War with a sin­gu­larly valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to make to pre­par­ing the pros­e­cu­tions of lead­ing Nazis at Nurem­berg as well as to the sub­se­quent ef­forts of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to pre­vent a re­cur­rence of the Holo­caust, or any­thing re­motely like it, by cre­at­ing such in­sti­tu­tions as the United Na­tions, and le­gal in­stru­ments like the Geno­cide Con­ven­tion and Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights, adopted by the UN Gen­eral As­sem­bly on suc­ces­sive days in De­cem­ber 1948. De­spite see­ing the Con­ven­tion be­come adopted, Lemkin’s life was nev­er­the­less tragic, not just per­son­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally but also in terms of that same goal.

With prac­ti­cally all fam­ily mem­bers killed in the Holo­caust, Lemkin be­came — as Cooper shows — a can­tan­ker­ous and dis­trust­ing, if not down­right para­noid loner, with an unerring knack of of­fend­ing and alien­at­ing just about ev­ery­one with whom he ever en­tered into close re­la­tions. His un­for­tu­nate per­son­al­ity led to his end­ing his days job­less, pen­ni­less and friend­less, his death in 1959 go­ing un­marked and un­mourned de­spite his ear­lier ac­claim.

Be­cause the Cold War broke out shortly af­ter the Geno­cide Con­ven­tion was adopted, even its en­force­ment was de­layed for sev­eral decades fol­low­ing Lemkin’s death, partly be­cause of the re­luc­tance of the su­per pow­ers to com­pro­mise their sovereignty by rat­i­fy­ing it at a na­tional level.

Lemkin’s life was tragic even in terms of his life-long goal of de­vel­op­ing le­gal pro­tec­tions for mi­nori­ties, above all for his fel­low Jews. In 1952, Cooper re­counts, Lemkin warned of a grave dan­ger in the UN adopt­ing hu­man-rights leg­is­la­tion that would later “be used by un­friendly pow­ers to dis­credit the USA in world opin­ion. Soviet pro­pa­ganda will ob­tain a le­gal stran­gle­hold. More­over… it will beim­pos­si­ble­tochar­geth­eSovi­etUnion with her crimes against mil­lions of peo­ple, be­cause she will then re­tal­i­ate with dis­crim­i­na­tion and lynch­ing charges.”

Un­no­ticed by Lemkin, and un­re­marked on by Cooper, is that Lemkin’s beloved Geno­cide Con­ven­tion suf­fers from a sim­i­lar de­fect.

It, too, even­tu­ally would be and has been in­voked by Is­rael’s en­e­mies in at­tempts to dele­git­imise the Jewish state, threat­en­ing to de­stroy it by us­ing the very same agen­cies that cre­ated it. David Con­way is a vis­it­ing pro­fes­so­rial re­search fel­low at Civ­i­tas


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