Death, by any other name

The Straits Times (Singapore)
July 30, 2006 Sunday

By Janadas Devan

ON WORDSCONCENTRATION camp - the phrase automatically conjures in

our minds Auschwitz and Dachau, Buchenwald and Treblinka.

Actually, the phrase first occurred in English in the late 19th

century, long before the Nazis came on the scene. It was first

applied to the camps that the British established in South Africa

during the 1899-1902 Second Boer War.

Modelled on the camps the Spanish set up in Cuba in 1895 to

'concentrate' rural populations in settlements from which

anti-Spanish Cuban insurgents could be excluded, the South

African camps were established in areas where Boer guerillas were

active. Their intent was both humanitarian - to protect Boer

civilians from the ravages of war - as well as anti-insurgency -

to deny guerillas the aid and support of civilians. In the event,

the camps failed on both counts, for thousands of South Africans

confined in them died from disease and malnutrition.

The British had better luck with concentration camps in the

Malayan Emergency - though, of course, by then they were no

longer called 'concentration camps' but 'New Villages'. Like the

Boer War camps, these villages were meant to concentrate the

rural population (in this case, more than 500,000 Chinese

Malayans) in secure locations so as to deny Malayan Communist

Party insurgents support and sustenance. The United States tried

the same scheme during the Vietnam War, but, lacking the

experience and skill of the British, its 'Strategic Hamlet

Project' in South Vietnam failed.

In what category would one place Palestinian refugee camps?

Serviced by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA),

there are 59 such camps today, spread across Jordan, Lebanon,

Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. The UN designates more than four

million Palestinians as refugees. Some camps were established as

long ago as 1949, following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, their

original occupants long dead, only to be replenished by their

descendants and fresh refugees from successive Arab-Israeli wars.

They certainly do not resemble by any stretch of the imagination

Nazi death camps. But nor do they resemble British Malaya's 'New

Villages'. They resemble most the original concentration camps,

the ones the British established in South Africa more than a

century ago - places of refuge that turned malignant. Only, in

this case, the malignancy is not biological but ideological.

Why is the world surprised that virulent organisations like Hamas

and Hizbollah thrive in the Middle East?

GENOCIDE - the word derives from the Greek genos, people or race,

and the Latin cida, cidium or caedere, kill. The Oxford English

Dictionary defines it thus: 'The deliberate and systematic

extermination of an ethnic or national group.'

That has occurred countless times over the centuries, but the

word was first coined only in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish

Jewish scholar, in his book Axis Rule In Occupied Europe. And it

became a definable crime under international law only in 1945,

when it appeared in the third count of the United Nations'

indictment of 24 Nazi leaders.

HOLOCAUST - from the Greek holos, whole, and kaustos, burnt, thus,

holokauston, a sacrifice to the gods consumed wholly by fire.

Unlike genocide, this is an old word, occurring first in English

in 1250. William Tindale used it in his 1526 translation of the

Bible ('A greater thynge than all holocaustes and sacrifises,'

Mark 12:33), as did John Milton in his 1671 Samson Agonistes

('Like that self-begotten bird/ In the Arabian woods embossed,/

That no second knows nor third,/ And lay erewhile a holocaust').

The word did not have the connotation it does now.

In the 19th century it was applied to catastrophes in general,

and by 1950 it came to refer specially to Nazi Germany's

extermination of Jews, Romani, Serbs and other 'undesirables'. An

estimated 12 million people were killed during the Holocaust,

about half of them Jews. Israelis prefer to use the term Shoah,

'calamity' in Hebrew, to refer to the Nazi genocide because

'holocaust', with its suggestion of a sacrifice or offering to

the gods, seems offensive.

'Never again' - Israelis can say that, and make it stick, in part

because we have a word for the calamity that occurred in mid-20th

century Europe (Holocaust or Shoah), and a definable term in

international law to describe such crimes (genocide).

What recourse did persecuted peoples have before we got such

words? Consider what happened in Turkey between 1914 and 1918,

when 1.2 million to 1.5 million Christian Armenians died,

according to the estimates of most international scholars. (The

Turkish authorities cite a lower figure - 600,000 - and claim

most of the deaths were due not to state-sponsored killings, but

to disease and famine.)

H.G. Wells does not mention the event in his Outline Of History,

published just two years after the worst of the killings were

over in 1918. Nor does J.M. Roberts in his History Of The World,

first published in 1976.

Amazingly, Wells' last mention of the Armenians in his History is

a reference to their role in transmitting the Black Death to

Europe. 'It passed by Armenia to Asia Minor,' he tells us of the

pestilence. 'It reached England in 1348. Two-thirds of the

students at Oxford died.' Oh my! The death of half the Armenians

in the Ottoman Empire certainly pales by comparison.

Roberts simply reports: 'With Bolshevik help (Mustafa Kemal)

crushed the Armenians.'

It was not till recently that historians took to describing what

happened to the Armenians as 'genocide'. Before, it was at best

the 'Armenian Massacre' or the 'Great Calamity'. Never again -

somehow 'massacre' or 'calamity' isn't as efficacious in making

that stick as 'genocide' or 'Holocaust'.

What words do Palestinians have to describe the disasters that

have befallen them? Nothing like the Holocaust visited them, no

genocide, but they were afflicted by terrible disasters


In 1917, there were 690,000 Palestinians in Palestine, compared

to 85,000 Jews. When Israel was established in 1948, about

700,000 Palestinians became refugees. Palestinians refer to 1948

as al-nakba, Arabic for 'catastrophe'.

Every American and European, including US President George W.

Bush, would have heard of the 'Holocaust'. How many, including Mr

Bush, would have heard of al-nakba? And if they have heard of the

term - which continues to resonate powerfully in the Arab mind -

how many would be moved by it?

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote yesterday: 'There

will be no new Middle East - not as long as the New Middle

Easterners, like Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime

minister, get gunned down; not as long as Old Middle Easterners,

like (Hizbollah leader) Nasrallah, use all their wits and

resources to start a new Arab-Israeli war rather than build a new

Arab university; and not as long as Arab media and intellectuals

refuse to speak out clearly against those who encourage their

youth to embrace martyrdom with religious zeal rather than meld

modernity with Arab culture. Without that, we are wasting our

time and the Arab world is wasting its future.'

All that is profoundly true. But it is also profoundly true that

we are wasting their time if we do not acknowledge their

memories. Al-nakba - the catastrophe will continue to lay waste

the Middle East till there is an independent Palestine next to

Israel. Neither Jews nor Palestinians can have a future by

refusing to acknowledge the past of the other.

'If you prick us, do we not bleed?' A Jew, Shakespeare's Shylock,

asked that.