Goldstone, South African Jewish officialdom, & Truth

By Rabbi Brian Walt
[Walt grew up in South Africa; was graduated by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College; was the founding rabbi of Mishkan Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia; was the founding director of Rabbis for Human Rights/ North America; and most recently is co-founder of Taanit Tzedek, the Jewish Fast for Gaza. This is from his blog, at ]

“He sold us out,” says Ze’ev Krengel, Chair of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. “It’s so sad that a respected, elder member of the tribe would bash Israel so unfairly.”

I grew up as a committed Jew in South Africa under Apartheid. One of the most disturbing realities of Jewish life was the shameful silence of synagogues and Jewish communal organizations, including the Jewish Board of Deputies, about the cruel racism of Apartheid. Individual Jews played a very important role as activists against Apartheid, but the more Jews were connected with Jewish life the less likely they were as individuals to be active opponents of Apartheid. Jewish communal institutions and leaders, including most of the rabbis, were shamefully silent about Apartheid.

As a rabbi, and as a Jew who grew up in South Africa, I have always been so proud of those Jews who broke the silence of our community with courageous and principled opposition to Apartheid and those, who since the transformation of South Africa, have become human rights advocates in South Africa or around the world.

Judge Richard Goldstone is one of those Jews. As a judge he issued a judgment against the eviction of an Asian woman under the notorious Group Areas Act, a core Apartheid law that determined where people could live according to their race. His judgment ended the evictions enacted under that law. In the last years of Apartheid, as the chair of a commission into the use of violence by the secret agents of the Apartheid government against its opponents, he uncovered murder squads set up by the government and revealed the details of their despicable acts of violence. In the early years of the new democratic South Africa, he served as a judge on the Constitutional Court.

In the international arena he became the chief prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Judge Goldstone is also a committed Jew and Zionist, a member of the Board of Trustees of Hebrew University, a president emeritus of World ORT, to name just two of his Jewish communal commitments.

The vilification of Judge Goldstone is just shocking. Israeli and American Jews have accused him of being an “anti-Semitic” and much worse. “He sold us out,” says Ze’ev Krengel, Chair of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. “It’s so sad that a respected, elder member of the tribe would bash Israel so unfairly.” Among South African Jews there is fury and a barrage of public criticism.

The attacks on Goldstone are unfounded. Jews in South Africa were so proud of Judge Goldstone when he was a member of the Constitutional Court or prosecuting the crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. How does one justify celebrating Goldstone’s dedication to the rule of law in South Africa, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and anywhere else in the world, but not in relation to Israel. A commitment to human rights means a commitment to the human rights of all human beings and it must include those living in Israel, those living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, and those living in under an Israeli blockade in the Gaza Strip. We can’t expect Israel or the members of our “tribe” to get a “pass” on human rights violations.

For Jews, it is profoundly upsetting to even imagine that the Israeli forces may have committed such egregious violations of human rights in Gaza as detailed in the Goldstone Report. Reading the report is painful. It breaks our heart to think that Israel may be guilty of war crimes or of crimes against humanity.

The way to counter these claims is by a credible investigation but the government of Israel has steadfastly refused to initiate such an investigation. It has refused to do so not only in relation to the Goldstone report, but also in response to reports by many highly respected Israeli and international human rights organizations that have issued numerous disturbing reports about Israeli actions in Gaza. All these detailed reports support the findings of the Goldstone Report. Until the government of Israel agrees to launch a credible, transparent investigation that contradicts the findings of the Goldstone Report, we have no choice but to confront the painful reality of the evidence presented by the Goldstone report and the reports of Israeli, American and international human rights organizations. Most Jews haven’t read any of these reports. If we care about Jewish ethics, Israel and the Jewish people it is time we do so.

Attacks on Judge Goldstone constitute an attempt at deflection, to turn our attention from the disturbing substance of the report, by attacking the messenger. The statements by Israeli leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and most recently, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the Unites States, claiming that the report denies Israel the right to defend itself, is also an attempt to deflect attention from the report. Personally, Judge Goldstone is a Zionist and has repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself and that the report does not address the issue of the right to wage war by either side. The report focused solely on how Israel and Hamas acted during the war and particularly on the question of whether appropriate efforts were made by both sides to minimize harm to civilians. This was the sole focus of the report, not whether either side was justified in their attack.

Other efforts at deflection include a consistent focus on the original mandate of the mission and the bias of the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Judge Goldstone has made it clear that he only agreed to take on leadership of the mission once the mandate was changed to investigate the actions of both Hamas and Israel. This change was accepted by the President of the Human Rights Commission and by the commission. It is true that the Human Rights Commission has focused an unfair amount of attention to human rights violations by Israel. The substance of the Goldstone report stands regardless of the nature or history of the Human Rights Commission.

In the face of a barrage of criticism, Goldstone has upheld the highest ethical traditions of our people and our history. He took on the mission because “I believe in the rule of law and the laws of war and the principle that in armed conflict civilians should to the greatest extent possible be protected from harm.”

The report that he has prepared is very painful and disturbing to us as Jews who care deeply about Judaism and Israel. Unfortunately attacking the messenger will not free us from confronting the painful truth of what happened in Gaza. Israel’s actions in Gaza violated international law and Jewish ethics. This was true before the war when Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza and it is true today as the blockade continues.

I hope that Israel follows the recommendation of the Goldstone Report and launches a credible investigation of the charges. If it doesn’t, I must support the report’s recommendation that the charges against Hamas and Israel be transferred to the Security Council and ultimately to the International Criminal Court. I am sure that making this particular recommendation was not easy for Judge Goldstone. For all who care deeply about Israel, this is very painful. If we believe in human rights, we cannot expect the State of Israel to be exempt from international law.

The experience of living as a Jew under Apartheid has inspired many South African Jews to become dedicated defenders of the human rights of all. In our tradition ethics has always been at the core of our faith and our understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

A true moral hero is one who follows the principles he believes in, especially when it is uncomfortable or painful. Judge Goldstone has done just that. As a Jew who grew up in South Africa, I am proud and grateful.