One of my favorite quotes comes from playwright Tom Stoppard. “Words are sacred,” he writes. “They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

In other words: Words matter. So, when we edit stories here, we spend a lot of time looking at not just structure and whether a scholar has backed up their assertions. We look at word choice. That careful approach actually led us to commission a story about the choice of a word used by both sides in the Israel-Hamas war: genocide. We wanted to help readers understand, was it accurate to use this word to describe the actions by either Israel or Hamas?

That question led editor Amy Lieberman to scholar Alexander Hinton, who is the director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University-Newark. Hinton understood the need for clarity about the word. “As the Israel-Hamas conflict grinds on amid continuing genocide allegations,” he writes in his story, “it’s crucial to understand what genocide actually is and how this term has been used for political purposes in the past.”

Hinton examines the initial meaning of the word, starting from when Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, devised it in 1944. But he points out that words don’t exist in a vacuum, and the political use and abuse of the word have purposely obscured its meaning: “There is also a long history of government officials arguing about the definition of genocide to deny that it was actually happening.”

Naomi Schalit

Senior Editor, Politics + Democracy

People holding signs calling for an end to genocide in the Gaza Strip have been a common occurrence at pro-Palestinian protests. Christoph Reichwein/picture alliance via Getty Images

Both Israel and Palestinian supporters accuse the other side of genocide – here’s what the term actually means

Alexander Hinton, Rutgers University - Newark

People talk about genocide in a few different ways, ranging from technical to colloquial – but a war of words does not replace a path to peace, a genocide scholar writes.

The exterior of Shifa hospital in Gaza City is seen on Nov. 10, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and Hamas near the facility. AFP via Getty Images

Hamas isn’t the first military group to hide behind civilians as a way to wage war

Benjamin Jensen, American University School of International Service

The Taliban and the Islamic State group are among the militant groups that have been known to use civilians as human shields in the past, in order to try to shift their opponents’ war calculations.

About 20% of counties in the South are marked by “persistent poverty.” Boogich/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Poor men south of Richmond? Why much of the rural South is in economic crisis

Peter A. Coclanis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Louis M. Kyriakoudes, Middle Tennessee State University

After a 20th-century manufacturing boom, the region has been in a decadeslong decline. Rural factory towns can blame technology and globalization for their woes.

Erdogan’s stance on Israel reflects desire to mix politics with realpolitik – and still remain a relevant regional player

Ozgur Ozkan, Tufts University

Turkey and Israel exchanged tit-for-tat diplomatic withdrawals over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pro-Hamas stance in the regional conflict. But behind that, the picture is more nuanced.

We studied jail conditions and jail deaths − here’s what we found

Jessica L. Adler, Florida International University

Higher jail mortality is related to jail turnover rates and demographics.

Mexico will soon elect its first female president – but that landmark masks an uneven march toward women’s rights

Xavier Medina Vidal, University of Texas at Arlington; Christopher Chambers-Ju, University of Texas at Arlington

Women represent half of Mexico’s Congress and hold key positions in politics and the judiciary. But the country is still dogged by high rates of femicide.

Dreams of a ‘broken up’ Russia might turn into a nightmare for the West – and an opportunity for China

Susan Smith-Peter, City University of New York

Hawkish foreign policy wonks have called for a breakup of Russia. But would that fall into Beijing’s hands?

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