Goldstone's Legacy for Israel
Israel has no shortage of critics, many of them Jewish. So what was it about Goldstone that ignited this conflagration? The likeliest answer lies in the particular rhetorical techniques Israel’s leaders reliably employ to defend their actions. For decades, Israeli officials have deflected any and all human rights criticisms by claiming that Israel was being unfairly “singled out” by those who claim to care about international law but who look the other way when equally serious crimes are committed by other states. The problem posed by Goldstone was that his record as a judge on the world stage made it impossible for Israel to make this claim with any credibility.
Goldstone began his judicial career as one of a handful of liberal judges serving on the South African bench during the apartheid era. Though required to enforce the country’s brutal discriminatory laws, these judges were also able to chip away at the system from within, helping to loosen the grip of apartheid in its final years. A 1982 ruling by Goldstone, for instance, blocked judges from evicting blacks and “coloreds” from their homes to make way for whites-only neighborhoods without considering whether suitable alternative accommodations could be found, a requirement that made it virtually impossible to enforce the much-hated Group Areas Act. As apartheid weakened, Goldstone began playing a more activist role, exposing a system of extrajudicial death squads within South Africa’s police and military—crimes that eventually came before the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Goldstone’s contribution to building South Africa’s first multiracial democracy eventually took him to the international arena, where he sought justice for war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide as chief prosecutor of the UN’s International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. It was here that Goldstone began to dedicate his life to the post-Holocaust pledge of “never again”—never again to anyone. “If future perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity, and serious war crimes are brought to justice and appropriately punished,” he wrote in a 2001 essay, “then the millions of innocent victims who perished in the Holocaust will not have died in vain. Their memory will remain alive and they will be remembered when future war criminals are brought to justice. And, it is certainly not too much to hope that efficient justice will also serve to deter war crimes in the future and so protect the untold numbers of potential victims.” The judge was always clear that this quest for justice was deeply informed by his Jewishness. “Because of our history, I find it difficult to understand how any Jew wouldn’t instinctively be against any form of discrimination,” he told the Jerusalem Report in 2000.
It is this theory of justice—a direct response to the Nazi Holocaust—that Justice Goldstone brought to his work in Gaza in 2009, insisting that his fact-finding mission would examine the crimes committed both by Israelis and Palestinians. For Israel’s leaders it was terrifying when Goldstone took on the Gaza assignment precisely because there was absolutely no way to claim that the judge was “singling out Israel” for special condemnation. Clearly and indisputably, Goldstone was applying the same principles to Israel that he had systematically applied to other countries for decades. The only thing left for Israel and its allies to do was to make sure the report’s recommendations never came before a judicial body with any teeth. In the United States the job was easy: pro-Israel lobbyists handily persuaded the House of Representatives to declare the report “irredeemably biased and unworthy of further consideration or legitimacy,” with an anti-Goldstone resolution passing by a vote of 344 to 36. In the occupied territories, the job of burying Goldstone required some very ugly tactics. According to a January 17, 2010, report in Haaretz, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was informed that “if he did not ask for a deferral of the vote [at the Human Rights Council] on the critical report on last year’s military operation, Israel would turn the West Bank into a ‘second Gaza.’”
But while Western governments continue to protect Israel from accountability, insisting that economic sanctions are off the table, even welcoming Israel into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, civil society around the world is filling the gap. The findings of the Goldstone Report have become a powerful tool in the hands of the growing movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, which is attempting to pressure Israel to comply with international law by using the same nonviolent pressure tactics that helped put an end to apartheid in South Africa. A new book, The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict, will allow many more people to read the text of the report, along with contextualizing analysis. And they will be free to make their own judgments about whether Israel has been unfairly “singled out”—or whether, on the contrary, it is finally being held to account.
One of the most remarkable responses to the report came in January 2010, when a coalition of eleven leading Palestinian human rights groups called on Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to investigate Goldstone’s allegations that they were complicit in war crimes—despite the fact that the Israeli government had refused to launch an independent investigation of the far more numerous allegations leveled against it in the report. Theirs was a deeply courageous position, one that points to what may prove to be the Goldstone Report’s most enduring legacy. Although most of us profess to believe in universal human rights and oppose all crimes of war, for too long those principles have been applied in ways that are far from universal. Too often we make apologies for the crimes of “our” side; too often our empathy is selectively deployed. To cite just one relevant example, the Human Rights Council has frequently failed to live up to its duty to investigate all major human rights abuses, regardless of their state origins. So while the council boldly created the Goldstone mission to investigate crimes in Gaza, it stayed scandalously silent about the massacres and mass incarcerations of Tamils in Sri Lanka, which were alleged to have taken place within months of the Gaza attack.
This kind of selectivity is a gift to defiantly lawless governments like Israel’s, since it allows states to hide behind their critics’ hypocrisy. (“They should call us the day the Human Rights Council decides on a human rights inquiry on some other place around the globe,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said, explaining away his government’s refusal to cooperate with Goldstone.) But a new standard has been set. The Goldstone Report, with its uncompromising moral consistency, has revived the old-fashioned principles of universal human rights and international law—enshrined in a system that, flawed as it is, remains our best protection against barbarism. When we rally around Goldstone, insisting that this report be read and acted upon, it is this system that we are defending. When Israel and its supporters respond to Goldstone by waging war on international law, characterizing any possible legal challenge to Israeli politicians and military officials as “lawfare,” they are doing nothing less than recklessly endangering the human rights architecture that was forged in the fires of the Holocaust.
One of the people I met in Gaza was Ibrahim Moammar, chair of the National Society for Democracy and Law. He could barely contain his disbelief that the crimes he had witnessed had not sparked an international legal response. “Israel needs to face war crimes trials,” he said. He is right, of course. In a just world, the testimonies collected by Richard Goldstone and now published in book form would not merely raise our consciousness; they would be submitted as evidence. But for now, in the absence of official justice, we will have to settle for what the survivors of Argentina’s most recent dictatorship have called “popular justice”—the kind of justice that rises up from the streets, educating friends, neighbors and family, until the momentum of its truth-telling eventually forces the courts to open their doors.
It starts with reading the report.