A leaflet with a drawing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the text ‘genocide’ lies on the curbside in front of the International Court of Justice on January 12 in The Hague, Netherlands. Photo by Michel Porro/Getty Images
To understand the impact of Friday’s International Court of Justice ruling ordering Israel to prevent genocide, I didn’t seek out an expert on geopolitics or human rights.
I phoned a branding professional.
Because even if the ICJ’s ruling didn’t call for an immediate cease-fire, or declare that Israel’s military action in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack amounts to genocide, it did find the charges of genocide, brought to the court by the government of South Africa, “plausible.”
The ICJ ordered Israel to report back in a month on steps it is taking to prevent genocide, and to preserve evidence related to the genocide accusation, on which the court could take years to rule.
So: Even though it avoided the harshest possible decree, Israel now walks among the world’s nations with the label of “genocide” attached to it — only partially, perhaps, but attached all the same. That bell can’t be unrung. That thought can’t be unthunk.
“The language is so sensational, that it leaves a mark no matter what,” said Dan Zimmerman, a partner at Loyala Los Angeles digital branding company.
“Because even if you then just dial it down, and say, well, I’m going to be reasonable in how I assess this, it still has the taint of evil in it.”
In other words, if the aim of South Africa and Israel’s detractors was to isolate the country from the herd of nations and stigmatize it for a generation, mission accomplished.
“Genocide was the most brilliant rhetorical strategy,” Zimmerman said. “Because ‘genocide’ and ‘Jews’ goes together. So it’s a way of taking that word and saying, ‘You are not those who are deserving of pity. You are an actual perpetrator.”
A recent Economist/YouGov poll suggested that more than one-third of Americans believe Israel is committing genocide. But more striking was that 29% of respondents were undecided. Of those surveyed between the ages of 18-29, about half said Israel is committing genocide.
The poll, which was conducted Jan. 21-23, just before the ICJ decision, shows the power of marrying a sensational term to the tragic images filling TikTok and Instagram. I doubt the people polled understand the legal definition of genocide. Branding, as Zimmerman reminded me, is about raw emotion and perception.
As people searched for a way to express, or even define their outrage at what they saw on the iPhones, South Africa gave them the word. For some of those many people previously undecided on whether it was the right one to describe the unfolding violence, it’s likely to stick.
So, yes, great branding. Even though the word doesn’t actually fit.
The death and destruction the Israeli army is inflicting on the residents of Gaza is ghastly. It may be foolhardy. It may be strategically self-destructive. It may not help free the hostages. It might even amount to a war crime. But it is not genocide.
“South Africa has not demonstrated, even on a prima facie basis, that the acts allegedly committed by Israel and of which the Applicant complains, were committed with the necessary genocidal intent, and that as a result, they are capable of falling within the scope of the Genocide Convention.” wrote Judge Julia Sebutinde of Uganda in her dissent with the court’s opinion.
Sebutinde joined with Israeli Judge Aharon Barak as one of two dissenting opinions from the court ruling. Barak, himself a survivor of Nazi genocide, excoriated the court for disregarding the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, writing that it “wrongly sought to impute the crime of Cain to Abel.”
It was wrong, but it was also genius. Putting Israel on trial for genocide at the ICJ trial flipped the blame from Hamas, the initial perpetrators of the war, whose Oct. 7 attack on Israel actually was attempted genocide.
“I have studied genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia, Guatemala, Armenia and the Holocaust,” Stephen Smith, the former director of the USC Shoah Foundation, wrote in The Hillafter he saw footage of the Hamas massacre. “I have rarely seen such carnage carried out with such fervor in such short a period of time.”
Branding experts call this tactic Accusation in a Mirroror AIM. You accuse others of that of which you, or those whose behavior you seek to justify, are guilty. Elements of the American right do this when they accuse the left of fomenting political violence — Antifa was behind Jan. 6! — when they themselves are the ones doing it.
But perhaps the most effective branding trick of all in the accusation was in sticking the genocide label on the Jewish state, which rose from the ashes of the Holocaust.
“Genocide is more than just a word for me; it represents calculated destruction and human behavior at its very worst,” Barak wrote. “It is the gravest possible accusation and is deeply intertwined with my personal life experience.”
To Zimmerman, this was “a case study in propaganda communication” — branding genius.
There are ways to counter the impact of these strategies, including working to undermine the credibility of the accusers. But labels have a way of sticking.
What’s the best way forward for Israel, then? Consider this: On Friday, more than 40 former Israeli intelligence officials, scientists and business leaders wrote a letter calling for Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immediate removal.
“We believe that Netanyahu bears primary responsibility for creating the circumstances leading to the brutal massacre of over 1,200 Israelis and others, the injury of over 4,500, and the kidnapping of more than 230 individuals, of whom over 130 are still held in Hamas captivity,” reads the letter, whose signatories include former IDF chiefs and former Mossad directors. “The victim’s blood is on Netanyahu’s hands.”
The letter calls for new leadership and a new way forward. It will show a country that can course-correct, moderate and reject the disastrous policies, and ideology, of Bibi and his coalition.
If it works, that letter will go a long way toward strengthening Israel — not to mention its brand.