The Congress of the United States went out of its way this week to embarrass itself.
At issue was a House resolution “calling on the President and the Secretary of State to oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration of the ‘Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict’ in multilateral fora.”
The point of the resolution was to tell the Obama administration in general, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular, to do everything in its power to prevent serious consideration of the Goldstone Report, a study of alleged violations of international human rights laws and humanitarian standards by the Israeli Defense Forces operating in Palestinian territory on the Gaza Strip.
The fact-finding mission, led by former South African Constitutional Court judge Richard Goldstone, was authorized by the United Nations Human Rights Council in response to the outcry over the IDF’s invasion and occupation of Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009. That conflict left as many as 1,400 Palestinians dead, along with 13 Israelis. An estimated 400,000 Gazans were left without running water, and tens of thousands were left homeless during the course of the invasion.
Goldstone’s report accused both Palestinian militants who had fired missiles at Israeli communities and Israeli military forces that entered Gaza of committing crimes against humanity and recommended that bad players be brought to justice.
Reasonable people can and have disagreed about components of the report and the UN’s at times bumbling actions relating to it.
But the know-nothing response of the U.S. House was unsettling. As Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, noted before the vote on the resolution condemning the Goldstone Report: “Congress is poised to oppose the Goldstone report without holding a single hearing on a document that few members of Congress, if any, have read.”
“This is a mistake,” argued Ellison, who has spent a good deal of time in Israel and Gaza. “The stance of this Congress will erode U.S. credibility in the post-Obama world, and it will tarnish our commitment to the principle that all nations must be held to the same standards. Rather than undermine the report or Goldstone, we are at risk of undermining Congress’s and President Barack Obama’s reputation as honest brokers.”
In particular, Ellison objected to the smearing of Judge Goldstone as an enemy of Israel. “Why the fear?” asked the congressman. “Judge Goldstone is no Israel basher. He is famous for apprehending Nazi criminals in Argentina, for serving as chief prosecutor for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunals and for chairing the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. He is motivated by his struggle against apartheid in South Africa. A self-described Zionist, he serves as a trustee of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has said that ‘bringing war criminals to justice stems from the lessons of the Holocaust.'”
Ellison’s reasoned arguments, which also noted Goldstone’s determined efforts to assure that the inquiry and the response to it would focus on abuses by bothHamas and Israel, should have carried the day. Jewish groups that believe Israel’s long-term security requires a sincere pursuit of peace with the Palestinians, such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now, urged Congress to adopt a more nuanced stance.
But the House voted 344-36 to reject any consideration of the report or response to it. The 36 “no” votes came from progressive Democrats who have long been active on Middle East peace issues, such as Ellison, Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich, Arizona’s Raul Grijalva, Californians Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee and Massachusetts’ Jim McGovern, as well as Republicans Ron Paul of Texas, Geoff Davis of Kentucky and Charles Boustany of Louisiana.
Twenty-two members voted “present” in a more muted protest. They included Appropriations Committee chair David Obey, D-Wisconsin.
Kucinich was especially, and appropriately, troubled by the actions of the House.
“How can we protect the people of Israel from existential threats if we hold no concern for the protection of the Palestinians, for their physical security, their right to land, their right to their own homes, their right to water, their right to sustenance, their right to freedom of movement, their right to the human security of jobs, education and health care?” the Ohioan asked. “We will have peace only when the plight of both Palestinians and Israelis is brought before this House and given equal consideration in recognition of that principle that all people on this planet have a right to survive and thrive, and it is our responsibility, our duty to see that no individual, no group, no people are barred from this humble human claim.”
Kucinich warned the House that “if this Congress votes to condemn a report it has not read, concerning events it has totally ignored, about violations of law of which it is unaware, it will have brought shame to this great institution.”
A few moments later, the vast majority of his colleagues did just that.
Many of the House members who voted for the resolution probably thought they were acting as friends of Israel. In fact, as Ellison, who has been hailed for his robust condemnations of antisemitism and of knee-jerk anti-Israeli sentiments, notes: “critics of the Goldstone report should recognize that Israel is strong enough to withstand inquiry. Self-reflection is one of the hallmarks of a strong democracy. In fact, Israel has investigated itself in the past in connection with the Sabra and Shatila incidents. When nations like the United States, Israel, South Africa and others have pursued the truth through investigations — however uncomfortable — their people and politics have emerged stronger.”