Thinking about the Goldstone Report: Our Misdeeds and Theirs

4 Tishrei 5770

One great theme of the fall cycle of holy days -- some say, stretching all the way to Hanukkah -- is that Jews are called on to reexamine our own actions -- our misdeeds. The emphasis is on OUR sins - not those of individuals alone, but of the community -- and the sins of ourselves, not of other people, even our enemies. We are also called on not only to confess our misdeeds but CHANGE what we do.

In that light, the Israeli government's recent behavior flies in the face of this profound Jewish wisdom. So Jews - and all others who care for peace - must act in new ways to turn toward compassion, truth, justice, and peace.

Against the consensus of almost all decent and democratic opinion in the world, the present Israeli government has:

  1. Continued the blockade of civilian goods from entering Gaza, imposing malnutrition, homelessness, abysmal poverty, and despair on its people;
  2. Denounced the Goldstone report on the commission of probable war crimes by BOTH Hamas and the Israeli government during and since the Gaza War.
  3. Continued to destroy Palestinian homes, disrupt Palestinian neighborhoods, and insert Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem.
  4. Continued sending more settlers into the Palestinian West Bank.

I want to say a bit more about the Goldstone report. Before Goldstone, it had smelly origins—commissioned by an anti-Israel corner of the UN. But through the workings of international politics in the direction of justice, the job was handed to an affirmative Jew with strong Zionist connections, a giant of international law, who insisted on studying the possibility of war crimes by both Hamas and the government of Israel.

The report finds high probability that on both sides there were war crimes, cites the evidence in great detail, and asserts the need for formal judicial investigation by both governments. It proposes giving both six months to do this, and if they fail, asking the Security Council to refer the evidence to the International Criminal Court.

Eminently sensible.

As the ancient rabbis said, the glory of human wisdom begins in a smelly drop (of semen). So what? The content of the report is the point. Its 600+ pages of evidence are the point. Its truth or falsity, not its smelly origins, are the point.

The US government's critique of the Goldstone Report, as voiced by Ambassador Susan Rice, is rooted in this fallacy of origins. It almost signals the silliness of this approach by then urging that all action on the report be confined to precisely this smelly corner of the UN, rather than to other places that are far more just. More likely, beneath this fallacious rhetoric was a policy evasion of the duty of all governments to make sure that if war crimes were committed, they are punished.

Goldstone himself is a distinguished South African Jew with very strong Zionist connections. He took an important role in the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa, and who served as chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda from 1994 to 1996. He was a member of the Commission of Inquiry into the Activities of Nazism in Argentina (CEANA) which was established in 1997 to identify Nazi war criminals who had emigrated to Argentina, and transferred victim assets (Nazi gold) there.

Goldstone defined his task as looking into possible war crimes by both sides in the Gaza War. He attempted to interview Israelis who had been attacked in Sderot, but his team was denied entry to Israel. So the commission paid to have Israeli witnesses travel to where their evidence could be heard.

The Israeli government's hostility from the git-go seems to me the behavior of a guilty party that did not want even-handed judgment, even if that meant its enemies as well as itself were adjudged.

The Goldstone Report indeed said there was serious evidence of specific war crimes by both sides, and called for judicial trials. President Shimon Peres of Israel attacked the report in the following terms:

War itself is a crime. The aggressor is the criminal. The side exercising self-defense has no other alternative...

The report legitimizes terrorist activity, the pursuit of murder and death. The report disregards the duty and right of self defense, held by every sovereign state as enshrined in the UN Charter.

There are two falsehoods in this statement. First, far from "legitimizing" terrorist activity, the report describes it as a war crime. Secondly, Mr. Peres ignored the truth of international law that even a war of "self-defense" has limits in how it can be fought. For example, white phosphorus cannot be used against civilians. The Palestinians, of course, claim that their war was one of self-defense. But even if it were, it was forbidden to fight it by attacking civilian neighborhoods.

The Israeli government could have responded by saying it welcomed full judicial process. It could have responded by establishinng a formal State Commission of Inquiry as provided by Israeli law, with full powers of subpoena, headed by a Judge of the High Court -- like the Kahane Commission that in 1982 investigated Israeli involvement in the Sabra-Shatila massacre. It could have announced it would live by the results of that investigation, wherever they fell. Its actual response therefore compounds its original misdeeds.

Shalom, salaam, shantih—Peace!

P.S. Meanwhile, part of the American Jewish official leadership has urged all American rabbis to use the High Holy Days to emphasize the sins of the present government of Iran against its own people, against the history and legitimacy of the Jewish people, and against international comity and concern. This effort called for tougher sanctions against Iran. Those sins are real and glaring, and should be addressed not only by Jews but by everyone committed to peace.

But focusing only on them at this moment—when we are wisely taught to address our own misdeeds—encourages American Jews to turn away from acknowledging and addressing the sins of the two governments that might be considered "ours": the US and Israeli governments.

And when we do turn to the Iranian misdeeds, I think tougher sanctions are likely to unify the Iranian people to support even a government they loathe against what they will see as foreign "oppression," rather than encouraging them to strengthen their resistance to Ahmadinejad. We should discuss ways to do the second.


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