David Lee Preston
Up in Broome County, New York, beneath a plain headstone in a family plot in Hale Eddy Cemetery, the Rev. Dr. Franklin Hamlin Littell is turning in his grave.
Littell, a Methodist minister’s son who also became one, was a towering figure in the study of the Holocaust and genocide. In 1958 at Emory University in Atlanta, he initiated the first U.S. graduate seminar on the Holocaust. Eighteen years later, as chair of Temple University’s religion department, he started the world’s first doctoral program in Holocaust studies.
And notably, in 1998 at Stockton University in Pomona, Galloway Township, New Jersey, he and his wife, Marcia Sachs Littell, established the first interdisciplinary master’s program in Holocaust and genocide studies.
So one can imagine Littell’s revulsion if he knew that Raz Segal, an Israeli historian who now directs that Stockton program, has made the rounds of news media and pro-Palestinian rallies proclaiming that Israel is committing “genocide” in Gaza.
The word “genocide” was coined in 1944 by a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin documenting Nazi atrocities, to mean “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.”
But as Israel retaliates in the wake of the bloody rampage on Oct. 7 – in which Hamas killed 1,500 Israelis, including 260 people at a music festival and hundreds of civilians in nearby communities, and took more than 200 hostages – Segal has attracted worldwide attention by busily blaming the victims.
Segal’s polemical blitzkrieg began less than a week after the Hamas terror attack. On Oct. 13, Jewish Currents published “A Textbook Case of Genocide,” in which he wrote that “Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza is quite explicit, open, and unashamed” and that “Israel’s goal is to destroy the Palestinians of Gaza.”
Three days later, on Oct. 16, the syndicated TV program “Democracy Now!” found his position provocative enough to feature him live from Philadelphia, headlining his appearance on its website as “ ‘A Textbook Case of Genocide’: Israeli Holocaust Scholar Raz Segal Decries Israel’s Assault on Gaza.”
On Oct. 18, at a vigil on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Segal called President Biden’s visit to Israel “support for Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza,” according to The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at Penn.
The Stockton scholar really gained traction on Oct. 24, when The Guardian published his opinion piece headlined “Israel must stop weaponising the Holocaust,” in which he condemned “the Israeli settler state” and “the long history of Israeli settler-colonial violence against Palestinians.”
The next day, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, established in 1760, the largest Jewish communal organization in the United Kingdom, issued a statement harshly criticizing The Guardian for publishing the piece.
I don’t know Segal, but I knew Littell, whose trailblazing devotion to this subject can be traced to an experience as a 22-year-old in 1939. He was en route to a religion conference for youth in Amsterdam when he witnessed Hitler addressing a Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. A photograph of his heated confrontation with a Nazi official shows Littell’s contempt.
Littell became president of Iowa Wesleyan College and a founding board member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He founded the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, which campaigned against a United Nations resolution that described Zionism as racism. His seminal 1975 book “The Crucifixion of the Jews” decried “the mass murder of Jews by Christians in the heart of Christendom.”
By the time of Littell’s death at 91 in 2009 at his home in Merion Station, hundreds of colleges and universities had courses in Holocaust and genocide studies, a subject now mandated in high school curricula from coast to coast.
The line stretching from the Holocaust to Hamas is quite direct. As I reported in 1997 in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Sunday Magazine, a Swiss financier and Holocaust denier named Francois Genoud controlled the postwar Nazi treasury to promote fascism and to bankroll Arab terrorists. He died by suicide in 1996.
In his TV appearance, Segal doubled down on his proposition that Israel was committing genocide. “What we’re seeing now in Gaza is a case of genocide,” he told host Amy Goodman.
Historian Michael Berenbaum, a distinguished professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, said Israel has no greater ambition than to coexist with the Palestinians as peaceful neighbors.
“It is only because Raz Segal has pre-existing opinions that he hasn’t heard the repeated explicit statements of the Israeli leadership that they are at war with Hamas and not with the Palestinian people,” Berenbaum said.
“I knew and worked with and deeply respected Franklin Littell for the last 40 years of his life,” added Berenbaum, who was a visiting distinguished professor at Stockton under Littell. “These statements would be anathema to his values.”
Two Philadelphia-area experts on the Holocaust and genocide agreed.
Polly Zavadivker, an assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware, said Segal’s statements on genocide “threaten future attempts to identify, prevent, and prosecute that crime. It is equally damaging to the legitimacy of Holocaust and genocide studies as a field when such false claims are presented in the guise of scholarly expertise.”
Zavadivker, who teaches courses in antisemitism, the Holocaust and comparative genocide, said that by accusing Israel of genocide, Segal “renders the word meaningless.”
Richard Libowitz, coauthor with Marcia Sachs Littell and Dennis B. Klein of “The Genocidal Mind,” agreed that the Israeli incursion does not constitute genocide.
“Israel … has never advocated nor sought the total annihilation of an Arab population, whether in Israel proper, the West Bank or Gaza,” said Libowitz, a graduate of Notre Dame University who received a Ph.D. in religion under Franklin Littell at Temple and is retired from the faculties of Temple and of Saint Joseph’s University, where he created the first Holocaust courses and taught for three decades.
“Civilian casualties in Gaza — especially the death of children — is tragic; Hamas carried out the worst murder of Jews since the Holocaust and the outrage should be understood. Israel intends to destroy Hamas, but Magen David Adom [the Israeli Red Cross] personnel treated wounded terrorists after their attack. Gazans were warned to flee the northern part of the strip. This is human tragedy, but it is not genocide.”
He added: “The stated aim of Hamas — to wipe Israel from the Earth — is certainly a genocidal intent.”
In 1973, after working on it for four years, Franklin Littell and 17 other Christian theologians released a 14-point statement on Israel. The statement, which appeared as an appendix in Littell’s book, seems strikingly relevant 50 years later.
“The charge is sometimes made that Israel is belligerently expansionistic as a result of its military triumphs in the Six-Day War,” it said in part. “Visitors to Israel, however, can easily discover that the overriding concern of the majority of Israelis is peace, not more territory. Israel’s anxiety about national defense reflects the age-old human yearning for security, the anxiety of a people whose history has been a saga of frightful persecution, climaxed by the Holocaust of six million men, women, and children.
“Against such a tormented background, is it surprising that the Jewish people should want to defend themselves? … [C]riticism that would use the failure of Israel to live up to the highest moral standards as an excuse to deny its right to exist … would be a double standard, one not applied to any other nation on earth.”
David Lee Preston, a retired Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News editor, is a son of Holocaust survivors. Follow his work at DavidLeePreston.com