Anatomy of a backfired smear campaign against Judge Goldstone

by Yaniv Reich on May 13, 2010

After what presumably amounted to months of desperate searching, Judge Goldstone’s detractors finally found the “smoking gun” to forever lay to rest his damaging—and still unrebutted—report on Israeli and Hamas-orchestrated war crimes in Gaza. It turns out that he is a judge, a white man, from South Africa, of sufficient age and experience to have been professionally active while South Africa was still organized by apartheid. In that capacity he on two occasions sentenced a black man to death as legal retribution (South Africa had a death penalty then) for aggravated crimes of murder with no possible extenuating circumstances. Moreover, he upheld the death penalty convictions of an additional 26 defendants in appeals that reached his court, and for which no extenuating circumstances could be produced to avert capital punishment.

The death penalty is grotesque and anachronistic, as Goldstone is surely aware considering he was one of a unanimous vote in 1995 to abolish the death penalty in South Africa. Of course, Israel not only still has a death penalty but also an active policy of targeting assassinations, which certainly have no trials or considerations of extenuating circumstance.  But the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Israeli papers, the Jeff Goldbergs and Alan Dershowitzes of the world have seized on the fact that Judge Goldstone upheld the laws of the land twenty plus years ago as somehow incontrovertible proof that the decades of subsequent experience in methodically documenting war crimes means nothing. Goldberg said “he is a man without a moral compass.” Dershowitz compares the international jurist to Joseph Mengele, the Nazi “Angel of Death”, because both of them were just “following orders.” The Israeli Foreign Ministry has been sending informational materials to its consulates around the world, so that they can share this “explosive PR material” about Goldstone’s past with concerned media representatives.

It’s all rather pathetic, really. At least these efforts reek of such desperation that they do nothing more than discredit those who try to deliver them. Who buys these arguments anyway besides a tiny proportion of the world’s population, who happen to be Jewish, ultra-nationalist, and terrified of a world in which Jews cannot just bomb or murder indiscriminately?  I mean, can you even imagine what might be if Israel was “forced” to sit down and negotiate a ceasefire with Hamas instead of being able to destroy 58,000 homes, murder 330 children as well as 1100 others, drop white phosphorous on schools?

Friends of a feather flock together

The most remarkable part of this smear campaign is the hypocrisy of it all. Do Goldberg and Dershowitz think we don’t know that Israel was one of apartheid South Africa’s best friends at a time when nearly all its other friends had abandoned it?

“The Israel-South Africa alliance began in earnest in April 1975 when then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres [future revolting Nobel laureate] signed a secret security pact with his South African counterpart, P.W. Botha. Within months, the two countries were doing a brisk trade, closing arms deals totaling almost $200 million; Peres even offered to sell Pretoria nuclear-capable Jericho missiles. By 1979, South Africa had become the Israeli defense industry’s single largest customer, accounting for 35 percent of military exports and dwarfing other clients such as Argentina, Chile, Singapore, and Zaire. . . .

In fact, Israel was profiting handsomely from selling weapons to Pretoria [in the 1980s]. Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman estimated that the two countries did $400 million to $800 million of business in the arms sector in 1986. According to declassified South African documents, the figure was likely even greater: A single contract for modernization of South African fighter jets in the mid-1980s amounted to “approximately $2 billion,” and arms sales in 1988 — one year after Israel imposed sanctions against the apartheid regime — exceeded $1.5 billion. As the former head of the South African Air Force Jan van Loggerenberg told me bluntly: “Israel was probably our only avenue in the 1980s.”

Do the smear campaigners really believe that the world has forgotten about this?  That’s one point.

Apartheid calling apartheid black

The second point, however, relates to Israel’s current reproduction and magnification of apartheid’s worst crimes.  Do Goldberg and Dershowitz not see that every single day a hundred new people come to see Israel for what it is—an apartheid monster far more brutal than anything South Africa ever witnessed? But don’t take it from me. Listen to South Africans:

  • “The horrendous dehumanization of black South Africans during the erstwhile apartheid years is a Sunday picnic compared with what I saw and what I know is happening to the Palestinian people.” (Willie Madisha, ex-head of the Congress of South African Trade Unions).
  • “When you observe from afar you know that things are bad, but you do not know how bad. Nothing can prepare you for the evil we have seen here. In a certain sense, it is worse, worse, worse than everything we endured.  The level of the apartheid, the racism and the brutality are worse than the worst period of apartheid.” (Mondli Makhanya, Editor-in-Chief, Sunday Times of South Africa).
  • “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land. It reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”  (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner)

On the definition of a non-sequitur

The third issue with this smear attempt is its non-sequitur “logic.”  The only portion of Goldstone’s history that is relevant for assessing the credibility of the Gaza-focused Goldstone report is his nearly 15 years of work documenting war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, etc.  This experience is, contrary to his work as a trial judge, of direct relevance to his competence as an investigator into war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas.  By all accounts, he conducted these investigations with the utmost credibility and professionalism, and there is absolutely no reason to believe his standards were somehow lowered after some heartfelt conversations with Hamas operatives combined with his own, lifelong-hidden anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel.  To believe this Israeli war crime-serving story to be true is simply preposterous.

Apartheid’s victims don’t see Goldstone this way

Third, if Goldstone’s moral compass was indeed so skewed, we should expect his victims to be among his biggest detractors.  Oddly enough, he carries a massive, positive reputation in South Africa for his work in pushing the country toward democracy, including by publishing a document (that put him at great personal risk) on the use of covert state-sponsored terror gangs deployed against South Africa’s black citizenry.  The first chief justice of post-apartheid South Africa, who was appointed by Nelson Mandela, came to Goldstone’s defense: “Not every judge appointed during the apartheid era was a supporter of apartheid. . . . There were a number among them, including Richard Goldstone, who accepted appointment to the bench in the ’70s and ’80s in the belief that they could keep principles of the law alive.” Nelson Mandela himself lauded Goldstone’s “moral compass” when he appointed him to serve on South Africa’s first post-apartheid constitutional court.  Hardly the response one would expect after listening to Israeli Deputy FM Danny Ayalon compare Goldstone to Nazi judges.

On timing, chutzpah, and relativistic ethics

Finally, there is the chutzpah of raising this issue only when it serves Israeli hasbara efforts.  As Stephen Walt questions, imagine a counterfactual situation in which Goldstone’s investigation had determined that Israel committed no war crimes in Gaza.  Imagine further that Palestinians began criticizing Goldstone’s judicial experience within apartheid as “explosive PR material” (as the Israeli Foreign Ministry has).  Does anyone believe for a second that Goldberg and Dershowitz and Ayalon and all the other hasbara lackeys of the world would have lent any support to this criticism?

Goldstone himself pointed this out: “I have been judged by my fellow South Africans and by President Mandela for my role both during and after apartheid, and I find it curious that no one in Israel ever raised the issue except to laud me, prior to my Gaza report.”

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