The Guardian, Tuesday 15 September 2009
Judge Goldstone and the pollution of argument
Attacks on human rights groups that probe Israel's Gaza
offensive are an insult to reasonable public debate
The despicable attacks on human rights organisations investigating Israel's
Gaza offensive in January confirm Churchill's observation:
"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." The mission led by the South African
judge Richard Goldstone to investigate international human rights and international humanitarian law violations during Israel's offensive, established by the UN Human Rights Council
(UNHRC), is the latest victim. His findings are about to be made public. The knives have been out for the mission for months.
Now they are being plunged into him and his colleagues. Until the report is out Goldstone can't defend it. So the smears and
misrepresentation are left free to pollute public discourse.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has assiduously responded to a deluge of scurrilous attacks
on its credibility and staff, yet totally unfounded allegations – for example, about accepting Saudi government funding
and failing to give a critical report to the Israel Defence Forces before releasing it to the public – are constantly
being recycled. HRW messed up by failing to see that the nerdy and, to most people, disturbing hobby of its weapons expert
Marc Garlasco (he collects German and American second world war memorabilia) could be used to discredit his role as author
of highly critical reports of Israel's military conduct in Gaza. But when this story broke last week, the equation implied
in some allegations – "Nazi" object-collector plus "Israel-basher" equals "antisemite" – was baseless and defamatory.
That he also worked on reports critical of Hamas and Hezbollah was ignored. As another excuse to attack HRW, and deflect attention
from its reports' findings, the Garlasco affair was a gift.
The human rights world is not beyond reproach. UNHRC has hardly been impartial on Israel. Goldstone accepted his role only after the council
president agreed to the alteration of the mission's mandate to cover all parties to the conflict, not just Israel. But mistrust alone does not explain the extraordinary
scale of the attacks on human rights organisations, including all Israeli ones, for their reports on Israel.
In the 1970s, Jewish groups pressing the Soviets to allow Jews the right to leave the USSR worked with the human rights movement and based their
arguments on human rights principles. But now the promoters of the concept of the "new antisemitism" – that Israel is the collective Jew persecuted by the international
community – hold the international human rights movement largely responsible for it. Unable to face the fact that occupation
and increasingly extreme rightwing governments turned Israel into the neighbourhood bully, and misreading the fallout for
Jewish communities as abandonment by progressive forces and governments, many Jewish leaders and opinion-formers have become
the human rights movement's fiercest critics. With antisemitism framing this attack, reasoned argument becomes nigh on impossible.
Does it then come down to a matter of whose reputation you trust? If so would it be critics of human
rights agencies like Alan Dershowitz, the prominent American lawyer who thinks torture could be legalised or Melanie Phillips,
a columnist who calls Jewish critics of Israel
"Jews for genocide", and Gerald Steinberg, who runs
NGO Monitor? Or Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor
of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, who is putting his considerable reputation on
the line in taking the UNHRC assignment? Frankly, I don't think there is a contest.
By declaring the reports of human rights agencies biased, the attack dogs are reinforcing the damage
Israel is doing to itself. They put Israel in the company of serial human rights abusers that
make the same complaint. And by refusing to respond to letters from HRW, denying the Goldstone mission entry to Israel, rubbishing testimony from Gazans unless it supports Israel's
version of the offensive, and allowing the army to investigate itself, Israel
merely shows it cannot even tolerate reasonable criticism. This is a sign of weakness, not strength.
Goldstone, meanwhile, has attracted extra venom from some who label him a traitorous Jew. Would they
say the same about another Jew, René Cassin, one of the prime drafters of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
Cassin was deeply influenced by the Holocaust, and the universal declaration was drawn up in direct response to it. It contains
the bedrock principles upon which today's human rights agencies base their work. Judge Goldstone is heir to Cassin's legacy.
For NGO Monitor, Netanyahu and others
attempting to discredit human rights agencies, Palestinian and Israeli human rights are in conflict. For Cassin, human rights
were about morality; respect for the inherent dignity of all men and women. His vision, promoted by human rights bodies, offers
hope for human progress. We owe it to Palestinian and Israeli alike to listen to Judge Goldstone with open minds – he
might just bring us closer to the truth of what happened to human dignity in Gaza
in January 2009.
Editor's note: This article was amended at 17.00 BST on 15 September to correct the name of NGO Monitor and to delete the reference to Gerald Steinberg's role as advisor
to the Lieberman foreign ministry, since this is incorrect.