Israel's Complicity in Apartheid Crimes Undermines Its Attack on Goldstone

To rubbish the former judge's report on Gaza, Israel has dredged up his record in South Africa – while forgetting its own

On 5 January 2009 the Israeli army rounded up around 65 Palestinians
(including 11 women and 11 children under the age of 14) in Gaza,
several of whom were waving white flags. After handcuffing the men and
stripping them to their underwear, the soldiers marched their captives
2km north to al-Atatra and ordered them to climb into three pits, each
three metres high and surrounded by barbed wire. The prisoners were
forced to sit in stress positions, leaning forward with their heads
down, and prohibited from talking to one another. On their first day
they were denied food and water. On the second and third, each was
given a sip of water and a single olive. On the fourth day the women
and children were released and the men were transferred to military

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".

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".

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.

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.

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

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 constitutional court
justice Albie Sachs, who is also Jewish. "Why should someone be made to
choose between being a Jew and having a conscience?"

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