Defending Goldstone

Richard Goldstone's report to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Israel's invasion of Gaza appears to have struck a nerve. Even given the extreme defensiveness typical of Israel's government and its apologists, the reaction to Goldstone's investigation has been astonishing in its hyperbolic fury.

"The Goldstone Report goes further than Ahmadinejad and the Holocaust deniers by stripping the Jews not only of the ability and the need but of the right to defend themselves," wrote Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, in a recent New Republic piece. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Isi Leibler suggested that the Jewish community, in both Israel and the diaspora, excommunicate traitors. "The exploitation of Judge Goldstone's Jewish background by our enemies intensifies our obligation to confront the enemy within -- renegade Jews -- including Israelis who stand at the vanguard of global efforts to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state," he wrote, comparing such Jews to "apostates during the Middle Ages who fabricated blood libels."

Of course, one can understand why Israelis don't like the report, which was released a month ago. It's a profoundly damning document, accusing Israel of committing war crimes against civilians in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead. Among the incidents it details, one of the most harrowing involve the extended al-Samouni family. After raids on several family houses, about 100 family members -- mainly women and children -- were ordered to congregate at the home of Wa'el al-Samouni. Soon after, the house was shelled, killing 21 people and injuring 19. Ambulances attempting to evacuate the wounded were repeatedly turned away by Israeli soldiers. "The information before it leads the Mission to believe that the Israeli armed forces arbitrarily prevented the evacuation of the wounded from the al-Samouni area, thereby causing at least one additional death, worsening of the injuries in others, and severe psychological trauma in at least some of the victims, particularly children," the report says.

The ugly story of the al-Samouni family had been covered by Israeli journalists well before the Goldstone report. (Other abuses were as well. "During Operation Cast Lead, Israeli forces killed Palestinian civilians under permissive rules of engagement and intentionally destroyed their property, say soldiers who fought in the offensive," began a Haaretz story from March.) In general, the vituperations against Goldstone don't bother trying to argue in any substantive way with his findings. Instead, they impugn his character and his team's methodology or wildly misstate his conclusions. "The report does not only hamstring Israel; it portrays the Jews as the deliberate murderers of innocents -- as Nazis," Oren wrote in The New Republic. "And a Nazi state not only lacks the need and right to defend itself; it must rather be destroyed."

In fact, the report doesn't even hint at a Nazi analogy. The only people invoking the Holocaust are Goldstone's antagonists, who write as if Hitler's legacy were to leave the Jewish state eternally exonerated. There's something frantic and desperate in their rhetoric -- something embattled and insecure and indicative of suppressed guilt or bad faith. Their ideology depends on Israel being the blameless victim. To criticize how Israel fights is to try to deny Israel the right to fight at all, since Israel is by definition a moral paragon. In this view, nothing Israel has done could invite Goldstone's conclusions, so Goldstone must be driven by existential hostility to the Jewish people. Israel's finance minister went so far as to call Goldstone an anti-Semite.

This takes more than a little chutzpah. In fact, those who wanted a fair hearing for Israel couldn't have asked for a more honorable investigator. Goldstone is a Jew and a Zionist with an impeccable record as a defender of human rights. When he was appointed, Yuval Shany, the director of the Minerva Center for Human Rights at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, expressed happy surprise. "Richard Goldstone is a fair-minded jurist, and I don't think anyone can say he's hostile to Israel in any way," he told the Los Angeles Times.

A South African judge who fought apartheid, Goldstone later served as chief prosecutor for the war-crimes tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. He publicly agonized over taking on the Gaza investigation. "It wasn't easy for him to see and hear what happened," his daughter told Israeli radio. "I think he heard and saw things he didn't expect to see and hear, and I am 100 percent sure he [conducted the investigation] in the hope that the Israelis would come to cooperate, and he wanted to help find a long-term solution for the state of Israel."

Ironically, Israel did much to ensure that his investigation couldn't be truly fair. It refused to cooperate with the probe and blocked Goldstone from entering Israel. As The Forward reported, "The Goldstone Commission was thus unable to examine Israeli homes hit by the rockets. And it could not interview Israelis injured by them, but for a few who traveled to Geneva at the Human Rights Council's expense to testify." Then, in a ploy so brazen it's almost impressive, Israel's partisans turned around and claimed that the report was hopelessly biased because it didn't include evidence of Hamas' crimes against Israeli civilians.

Goldstone's report calls on Israel and Gaza to conduct independent investigations and suggests that the issue be referred to the International Criminal Court if they don't. That almost certainly won't happen. While countries including England and Sweden support the report, the White House, not surprisingly, is working to quash it. Oren may lump together "Ahmadinejad's genocidal rhetoric and the iniquity of the Goldstone Report," but the report poses no real danger to Israel's government.

The reaction to it, though, is another story. It's entirely understandable that Israelis feel threatened and beleaguered. Still, this reflexive demonization of critics, this inability to take in painful information, is corrosive. Even if the Goldstone report were only half accurate, it would be an urgent warning that Israel is fast losing its ethical bearings. Should the country proceed on its current course, ever more robust feats of rationalization will be required to justify its behavior. Shooting messengers is never a sign of strength.