Gary Younge, 24 May 2010
Judge Goldstone responds to death penalty story
Former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson writes on Justice Richard Goldstone’s role in South Africa
Israel’s Attack on Goldstone Belies Its Own Support of Apartheid
Akiva Eldar – Who says Jews and racism don’t go together?
It was just one of the stories to emerge from the UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza conflict conducted by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone. The report accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes and “possibly” crimes against humanity. But in a conflict that saw 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians killed compared with about 1,400 Gazans, Goldstone was particularly scathing about Israel’s “deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population” – which he said amounted to “collective punishment”.
The Israeli government and the pro-Israel lobbies concentrated their displeasure not on the substance of Goldstone’s report but the essence of his identity. Branded a “self-hating Jew”, he was effectively barred from his grandson’s bar mitzvah after the South African Zionist Federation threatened to picket it. The prominent US constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz has described Goldstone as a “despicable human being”, “an evil, evil man”, “a traitor to the Jewish people” and the UN’s “token court Jew”.
Then this month came “revelations” from an Israeli newspaper that, as a judge under the apartheid regime, Goldstone sentenced black people to death. This, according to Israel’s government, discredits not only Goldstone but everything he discovered about Gaza and, by association, international criticism of the occupation. “Such a person should not be allowed to lecture a democratic state defending itself against terrorists, who are not subject to the criteria of international moral norms,” argued the Knesset Speaker, Reuven Rivlin.
“Although he was involved in clear racist activity, he had no problem writing such a report,” said the chairman of the Knesset’s state control committee, Yoel Hasson, who called Goldstone a hypocrite. Not to be outdone, Dershowitz (a strident advocate of torture) has now likened Goldstone to the Nazi geneticist Josef Mengele.
This crude one-downmanship in identity politics has no winners and many losers. Facts about racism in the past cannot excuse realities about racism in the present. Playing off the legacy of South Africa’s townships against the plight of the captives of al-Atatra seeks not to alleviate the suffering of either group but in effect to dismiss them. But for all the hyperbole and absurdity, there are important principles at stake about who can claim moral authority, on what basis, and to what end.
Let’s start with the most obvious. This is a cynical ploy by the Israeli government to divert attention from the findings of the UN report. Government officials have almost said as much. A foreign ministry official described the investigation by the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth as “explosive PR material”. Hasson claims: “Had [the Israeli foreign ministry discovered this earlier], it would have greatly helped us in our activity against the report.” But the report is about Gaza, not Goldstone. Having lost control of the message, Israel is now trying to shoot the messenger.
That Israel would try to do so on the backs of black South Africans is a laughable indication of its desperation. For if Goldstone was complicit in apartheid’s crimes, then Israel was far more so. Israel was South Africa’s principal and most dependable arms dealer. As we learn elsewhere in the Guardian today, it even offered to sell the South African regime nuclear weapons.
“Throughout the 70s and 80s Israel had a deep, intimate and lucrative relationship with South Africa,” explains Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship With Apartheid South Africa. “Israel’s arms supplies helped to prolong the apartheid regime’s rule and to survive international sanctions.” No criticism of Goldstone’s complicity from representatives of the Israeli state can be taken seriously that does not acknowledge and condemn Israel’s even greater support of the self-same system.
But just because the Israeli government wants to change the subject doesn’t mean that we have to. Goldstone’s apartheid record matters. For the left to claim it doesn’t, simply because he came up with a conclusion about Gaza that they agree with, would also be cynical. Appointed senior counsel in 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising, Goldstone rose through the South African judiciary during one of apartheid’s most vicious periods. While in power he ordered the execution of two black South Africans and turned down the appeals of many others.
“A historian who finds excuses for such conduct by references to the supposed spirit of the times or by omission or by silence,” wrote the late Trinidadian intellectual CLR James in The Black Jacobins, “shows thereby that his account of events is not to be trusted.”
Goldstone’s claim that faced with a “moral dilemma” he thought “it was better to fight from inside than not at all”, is inadequate. Not only did he uphold apartheid laws, he enforced them. This is not a question of 20:20 hindsight: many in a similar position at that time chose a more principled stand. Both morally and professionally he had other options, and he is compromised by not having taken them.
But his record did not end with apartheid. While he may not have led the drive to a non-racial democracy, he followed it eagerly. When the system started to collapse, he fully embraced change. Nelson Mandela asked him to chair the commission into public violence primarily because he was trusted by both sides. As such, he was an archetypical transitional figure. After that he went on to produce respected reports into the ethnic conflicts in Rwanda and Yugoslavia. So while his credibility as a human rights advocate might be diminished, it is by no means destroyed.
Finally, there is the insidious role that Israel has attempted to play as ideological gatekeeper for acceptable political behaviour among Jews. The attempt to tarnish any criticism of Israel, regardless of its merits, as unjust is untenable; to castigate them as un-Jewish is deplorable. “What saddens me today is that any Jew who speaks out with an independent voice, especially with the conduct of the state of Israel, is regarded as a self-hating Jew,” says retired South African supreme court justice Albie Sachs, who is also Jewish. “Why should someone be made to choose between being a Jew and having a conscience?”
Gary Younge’s book Who Are We – and Should It Matter in the 21st Century? is published on 3 June
Miriam Shaviv, 6 May 2010
We asked Judge Goldstone to confirm the report in Yediot that as a judge in the South African court of appeal, he sentenced 28 people to death. Here is what he had to say:
I have seen a translation of today’s “preview” in Yediot. The facts relating to the death penalty are:
1. During the nine years I was a trial judge from 1980 to 1989, I sentenced two people to death for murder without extentuating circumstances. They were murders committed gratuitously during armed robberies. In the absence of extenuating circumstances the imposition of the death sentence was mandatory. My two assessors and I could find no extenuating circumstances in those two cases.
2. While I was a judge in the Supreme Court of Appeal from 1990 to 1994, all executions were put on hold. However, automatic appeals still continued to come before the Supreme Court of appeal. We sat in panels of three and again, in the absence of extenuating circumstances, some of those appeals failed.
3. It was a difficult moral decision taking an appointment during the Apartheid era. With regard to my role in those years I would refer you to the joint public statement issues in January by former Chief. Justice Arthur Chaskalson (the first CJ appointed by President Mandela) and George Bizos, (Nelson Mandela’s lawyer and close friend for over 50 years). The statement was published in full by the South African Jewish Report on about 23 January…
Finally, I would say that these events took place 25 – 30 years ago. At that time a number of democracies had not abolished the death sentence. I do not understand why my actions as a judge im those years precludes me from campaigning today against the death sentence or precludes me from judging war crimes whether committed in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda or the Middle East.
Other of the Yediot allegations are either false or distorted.
Akiva Eldar, 25 May 2010
Those who are celebrating disclosures about Richard Goldstone’s relationship with apartheid-era South Africa ought to read a new book about Israel’s ties with that regime.
The author, a senior editor at the important journal “Foreign Affairs,” noted that Israel was not the only country to have violated the embargo on South Africa. Other members of this dubious club included several “enlightened” nations, among them Arab oil states. But with Israel, the relationship went far beyond security and economic interests and became a sturdy friendship.
Polakow-Suransky relates that in November 1974, Shimon Peres, who at the time was minister of defense in then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s first government, returned from a secret visit to South Africa. Peres wrote to thank his hosts for their contribution to establishing a “vitally important link between the two governments.” Peres continued: “This cooperation is based not only on common interests and on the determination to resist equally our enemies, but also on the unshakeable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and refusal to submit to it.”
This is the same Peres who not long ago said that former South African judge Richard Goldstone is “a small man, devoid of any sense of justice.”
Twelve years later, on a visit to Cameroon, Peres, who was then prime minister, asserted: “A Jew who accepts racism ceases to be a Jew.” And to prevent misunderstandings, he added: “A Jew and racism do not go together.” It was at about that time, Polakow-Suransky wrote, that several of Israel’s most lucrative defense contracts with the white minority regime came into effect.
According to Polakow-Suransky, trade between the two countries – and especially security cooperation – continued to flourish even after Israel’s first unity government decided in 1987 to impose sanctions on South Africa.
Then as now, “security considerations” cast a spell on the media. The author cites an editorial published by Haaretz during the 1973 Yom Kippur War: “No political fastidiousness can justify the difference between one who has been revealed a friend and one who has betrayed friendship in our hour of fate.” The editorial related to South Africa’s decision to provide essential replacement parts for Israel’s Mirage fighter planes at a time when many black African countries that had benefited from Israeli aid programs were cutting ties with Israel.
Those on the right and in the media who are celebrating Goldstone’s relationship with the apartheid regime would do well to read this book attentively.