What the top U.S. Nazi hunter thinks of claims that Israel is committing genocide

‘I've worked on Nazi cases for all those decades, and I just see a lot through that lens’

For more than four decades, Eli Rosenbaum’s job was to track down the bad guys: He was a professional Nazi hunter, the leader of a famed Justice Department unit that pioneered unique methods to uncover evidence of Nazi atrocities and bring Nazis to justice decades past the end of World War II. Before he retired early this year, he led a special DOJ team tasked with identifying Russian war criminals who were violating international law in Ukraine.

Rosenbaum thinks there’s another genocide happening today, or at least that the world is on the precipice of one. But it’s not the genocide that’s currently being prosecuted at the Interational Court of Justice, which is considering whether Israel is committing a genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. No — the only possible genocide Rosenbaum sees is the genocidal intent of Hamas, and he told Jewish Insider he’s shocked to see so many people in halls of power and on college campuses argue that Israel is at fault in its retaliatory war.

“I see a lot through the prism of World War II, which was the last time that the Jews were targeted for annihilation, the last genocide of the Jews,” Rosenbaum said in a wide-ranging interview last week. “It’s Hamas that can stop this war, not Israel, in my view, but there isn’t anything close to sufficient understanding of that out in the world. It’s just an unprecedented threat. It’s — and it pains me to say this — a credible threat of genocide,” Rosenbaum added, referring to the threat that Hamas still poses to Israel. 

Now that he’s out of government and able to speak freely about current events, Rosenbaum wants to use his voice to right what he thinks is a morally wrong view of what’s happening in the Middle East. His experience in prosecuting perpetrators of the world’s worst crime is what guides his thinking on the matter.

“I’ve worked on Nazi cases for all those decades, and I just see a lot through that lens,” he said. On a trip to Israel early this year, he visited a cousin who lives in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv. The family’s safe room is a small room under the stairs with reinforced walls. That’s where they hide when red-alert rocket sirens go off in central Israel, warning of a rocket attack from Gaza.

“It was very, very sad, and to me kind of evokes images of the Holocaust of Jews hiding under floorboards and in closets and wherever they could,” said Rosenbaum. 

Before leaving government, Rosenbaum traveled to Ukraine twice with Attorney General Merrick Garland. Afterward, he finally made a personal visit to Kyiv to spend time with former colleagues. When that trip ended he and his wife went to Israel, which Rosenbaum called their “war zone tour.” 

“I ended up being deeply worried not only about Ukraine but about Israel,” Rosenbaum said. “As dire as the situation reportedly is in Ukraine, at least nobody thinks that Vladimir Putin has the goal of killing every Ukrainian. No way. But Hamas does have the goal of killing all the Jews, at least all the Jews in Israel and who knows whether they go beyond that in terms of aspirations.”

Rosenbaum does not intend to sit on the sidelines and have a quiet retirement, although he and his wife recently enjoyed a national park vacation in Utah — his first in two years. Most of his travel involves speaking gigs, and it was only last month that he began to speak publicly about what’s happening in Israel and Gaza.

“What motivates me is my great dismay and even shock that there is so much misinformation and disinformation out there, both internationally and domestically, and Israel’s situation is so outrageously misrepresented and misunderstood,” said Rosenbaum. He knows that he is saying things that go beyond what American officials have said in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks that killed more than 1,200 people in Israel.

“I am saying some things that no one in the U.S. government is saying, most especially that Israel not only has the right to attempt to destroy Hamas’ ability to govern and especially repeat its genocidal attack on Oct. 7, but actually has an obligation under international law, under the Genocide Convention, to attempt that if it feels it can,” Rosenbaum noted.

Drawing on his World War II expertise, Rosenbaum made a comparison between Israel’s campaign to eliminate Hamas in Gaza and the Allies’ efforts to defeat the Nazis. During that war, the Allies called on Nazi Germany to “surrender unconditionally, come out with your hands up, relinquish your weapons, release your prisoners.”

“That is how World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945. We, the Allies, did not say to the Hitler regime, ‘Well, OK, you will have a permanent cease-fire, but you can stay in power and you can have a few battalions of mobile killing units.’ No, it doesn’t work that way,” Rosenbaum said.

Eli Rosenbaum walks down one of the hallways in his office building lined with photos of Iwan Demjanjuk, one of his more notable targets.

He also compared Israel’s campaign against Hamas to the Battle of Mosul in Iraq, a key urban campaign in the U.S.-led fight to defeat the Islamic State, which resulted in the death of at least 9,000 civilians between 2016 and 2017. Gaza’s Health Ministry, which is operated by Hamas, has counted 35,000 deaths in the embattled enclave, although it is not clear how many of those numbers are Hamas combatants.

“Civilian deaths are inevitable when combatants are committing the war crime of hiding behind and underneath civilians, and Hamas is hiding behind both Palestinian and Jewish civilians. Israel is in the horrible situation of having to attack Hamas knowing that there is no way to avoid civilian deaths, either Palestinian deaths or Jewish deaths,” Rosenbaum said. “This is a new paradigm in the history of war, and I would say, a new paradigm that the law of war will have to catch up with in order to deal with it.”

Rosenbaum described himself as a “great admirer” of President Joe Biden, but said he has misgivings about some aspects of U.S. policy and rhetoric about the war in Gaza.

“There are political realities, and I think also there’s a long tradition of hostility to Israel in many parts of the State Department, and that doesn’t change just because you have a different secretary of state,” said Rosenbaum. “I think [Biden] is entitled to gratitude and to respect, but some of the things that various U.S. officials have said I think have been far from optimal.” Rosenbaum added that he wants “to see more attention paid to the unique life-and-death struggle that Israel faces here.”

As the ICJ considers the genocide charges against Israel, Rosenbaum said it would be “beyond shocking” if he body concludes that Israel has committed genocide. “I think the battle will be fought more in the context of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Rosenbaum suggested. “I hope that Israel will get credit for having done things that no other government in history has done to protect civilian life, and will somehow generate understanding of the almost literally impossible situation that Hamas has put it into.”

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