Rabbibrian's Blog

A Voice for Justice and Peace in Israel/Palestine

The Goldstone Commission and the Time for Repentance

Posted by rabbibrian on September 17, 2009

Tomorrow night is Rosh Hashana.   It is so profoundly sad, and yet so very appropriate, that the Goldstone Commission released it’s report on the Gaza War just 3 days before our holidays that focus on moral reckoning and repentance. The release of the report makes it clear how urgently we need time for moral reckoning and repentance.  The most important event of the past year for Jews in Israel and probably for Jews worldwide was the Gaza War.  It was a turning point for Israel and for the relationship of many Americans and American Jews to Israel.

Reading the press release of the Goldstone report and the B’tzelem report is just devastating.  Here are some excerpts from the official press release (I have bolded certain sections):

The Mission found that, in the lead up to the Israeli military assault on Gaza, Israel imposed a blockade amounting to collective punishment and carried out a systematic policy of progressive isolation and deprivation of the Gaza Strip. During the Israeli military operation, code-named “Operation Cast Lead,” houses, factories, wells, schools, hospitals, police stations and other public buildings were destroyed. Families are still living amid the rubble of their former homes long after the attacks ended, as reconstruction has been impossible due to the continuing blockade. More than 1,400 people were killed during the military operation.

Significant trauma, both immediate and long-term, has been suffered by the population of Gaza. The Report notes signs of profound depression, insomnia and effects such as bed-wetting among children. The effects on children who witnessed killings and violence, who had thought they were facing death, and who lost family members would be long lasting, the Mission found, noting in its Report that some 30 per cent of children screened at UNRWA schools suffered mental health problems.

The report concludes that the Israeli military operation was directed at the people of Gaza as a whole, in furtherance of an overall and continuing policy aimed at punishing the Gaza population, and in a deliberate policy of disproportionate force aimed at the civilian population. The destruction of food supply installations, water sanitation systems, concrete factories and residential houses was the result of a deliberate and systematic policy which has made the daily process of living, and dignified living, more difficult for the civilian population.

The Report states that Israeli acts that deprive Palestinians in the Gaza Strip of their means of subsistence, employment, housing and water, that deny their freedom of movement and their right to leave and enter their own country, that limit their rights to access a court of law and an effective remedy, could lead a competent court to find that the crime of persecution, a crime against humanity, has been committed.

Their findings are serious enough but the last passage quoted is not really about the war, it is their considered judgement that the present policy enforced by the blockade, “depriving people of their means of subsistence, employment, housing and water……could be considered a crime against humanity

This is shocking.  In the opinion of the commission, present Israeli policy in Gaza, not just the violations during the war, could be considered a “crime against humanity.”  This means that the Israeli blockade of Gaza that will be enforced today and probably through our holidays of repentance could be considered “a crime against humanity.”

And in my community, the Jewish community, and among my rabbinic colleagues there is denial and silence.

In addition to the report by the commission, B’tzelem released a report last week challenging the numbers of fatalities during the war as reported by the Israeli military.

Here is an excerpt from their press release:

B’Tselem’s figures, the result of months of meticulous investigation and cross-checks with numerous sources, sharply contradict those published by the Israeli military. Israel stated that 1,166 Palestinians were killed in the operation and that 60% of them were members of Hamas and other armed groups. According to the military, a total of 295 Palestinians who were “not involved” in the fighting were killed. As the military refused to provide B’Tselem its list of fatalities, a comparison of names was not possible. However, the blatant discrepancy between the numbers is intolerable. For example, the military claims that altogether 89 minors under the age of 16 died in the operation. However, B’Tselem visited homes and gathered death certificates, photos, and testimonies relating to all 252 children under 16, and has the details of 111 women over 16 killed.

Behind the dry statistics lie shocking individual stories. Whole families were killed; parents saw their children shot before their very eyes; relatives watched their loved ones bleed to death; and entire neighborhoods were obliterated.

The discrepancy regarding minors was particularly shocking.  How is it that B’tzelem has death certificates, photos and other evidence confirming the death of  three times the number of minors in the report of the Israeli military?  If the Israeli government disputes these figures, it should counter the evidence with substantive data.

As we enter the New Year the evidence of serious moral failure in Gaza is overwhelming.  The two reports are just the latest in a series of reports by Israeli and international human rights organizations including the Gisha, Shovrim Shtika, Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The response of the Israeli government has been to try to block the foreign funding of Israeli human rights organizations, to attack all the human rights organizations as anti-Israel, to attack the researchers as anti-Israel, and to insist that the military actions were all appropriate and within international standards for the conduct of war.

Another line of defense is to claim that these charges don’t take into account the war crimes committed by Hamas in launching rockets into Israel.  The Goldstone Commission criticized Hamas.

Here is  a short excerpt of what they said:

The Fact-Finding Mission also found that the repeated acts of firing rockets and mortars into Southern Israel by Palestinian armed groups “constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity,” by failing to distinguish between military targets and the civilian population.  The launching of rockets and mortars which cannot be aimed with sufficient precisions at military targets breaches the fundamental principle of distinction,” the report says. “Where there is no intended military target and the rockets and mortars are launched into civilian areas, they constitute a deliberate attack against the civilian population.”

The Mission concludes that the rocket and mortars attacks “have caused terror in the affected communities of southern Israel,” as well as “loss of life and physical and mental injury to civilians and damage to private houses, religious buildings and property, thereby eroding the economic and cultural life of the affected communities and severely affecting the economic and social rights of the population.”

The Mission urges the Palestinian armed groups holding the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to release him on humanitarian grounds, and, pending his release, give him the full rights accorded to a prisoner of war under the Geneva Conventions including visits from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Report also notes serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and extra-judicial executions of Palestinians, by the authorities in Gaza and by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Yes, the launching of rockets into Israel constitutes a war crime but this in no way justifies Israel’s behavior.

Today Israeli and American Jewish leaders are all focussing on the anti-Israel history of the United Nations, ignoring the fact that this commission was led by a Jew, who insisted that violations of Hamas be part of the investigation. Judge Goldstone is a Zionist and by all accounts a very fair and honorable judge.  I have asked  members of my family in South Africa who know Judge Goldstone and they have the highest regard for his impartiality and dedication to fairness.  Today, I believe he is on his way to celebrate Rosh Hashana with his family in Canada.  Is he also anti-Israel? an anti-Semite?

Is this the best we can get from our leaders?  Even if all of these charges against the U.N. are true, it doesn’t answer any of the substantive charges made by the Commission and by many well respected human rights organizations.

It is time for this denial by Israel and the leaders of the American Jewish community to end.  It’s time for our leaders to stop blaming others and to look inward.  It is painful to look at ourselves, but that is what we are called to do on Rosh Hashana.   Avoiding the pain by attacking others will not help us.

How many reports by well trusted human rights organizations in America and Israel will it take till we acknowledge that serious moral violations were committed in Gaza?  Since the Gaza war, many more Jews find themselves morally opposed to the policies of the Israeli government and to the direction in which Israel is headed.

The silence in the Jewish community about the war,  the blind support of mainstream organizations who are presently engaged in attacking the U.N. or Goldstone, and the silence of the overwhelming majority of the American rabbinate during the war and now is shameful.

As part of our moral reckoning in our upcoming holidays there are many questions that we need to ask ourselves.

Why was there so little dissent in the American Jewish community during the war?

Why was there so little dissent in Israel?

Why is there silence now in the Jewish community about the suffering in Gaza?

Why is our silence during the war compounded by our silence now as the Israeli blockade that makes it impossible for Gazans to rebuild and recover from the mass destruction of houses, farmland and buildings during the war?

Why are only 72 rabbis prepared to speak out against a blockade that is causing so much suffering and may constitute a crime against humanity?

What has become of us, as Jews?   Where are our moral leaders?     Are our hearts closed to empathy or compassion for Palestinians?

These are some of the questions we need to ask ourselves this Rosh Hashana.

On a personal level, I must ask myself.  During the war I was part of a group of rabbis who crafted a statement against the war and we decided not to go public with our opposition.  Why was I reluctant?  Why didn’t we go forward?  Was it just fear of being isolated?  If we knew then, what we know now, would we have acted differently

In July my colleague, Rabbi Brant Rosen and I, along with a minyan of rabbis launched Jewish Fast for Gaza.   I am very pleased that 72 rabbis and over 650 people of all faiths have joined Jewish Fast for Gaza, the only rabbinic opposition to the suffering in Gaza.  Today is our third fast day and there are Jews joined by people of other faiths who are fasting all over the country.  Fasting and raising our voices is a very small act but it is better than nothing.  Unfortunately it will not alleviate the suffering of real human beings living under a blockade, being treated with such cruelty and lack of empathy.

Today the day before Rosh Hashanah, The Goldstone Comission Report presents us with a moral challenge: Will this report  move more Americans, more American Jews and more rabbis to speak out against the present policy of the Israeli government in Gaza?   Will it move more Israelis to demand a truly independent Israeli investigation into all the charges?  Will it move more Israeli Jews to ask questions and open their hearts to the suffering that the policies of their government are inflicting?  I truly hope so.  If this does not happen, I am not sure what our earnest prayers over the coming sacred holidays mean.

May we all have the strength and the compassion to confront these difficult truths and to follow the call of Isaiah: Cry out with an unrestrained voice, Lift up your voice like a Shofar.  May the sound of the shofar remind us of who we are.

Keyn yehi ratzon.  May that be our will and the will of God.

Personal Note: I will be leading services in Ithaca, New York this year and I wish all my Jewish readers  a year of joy and blessing.


13 Responses to “The Goldstone Commission and the Time for Repentance”

  1. Rick in KC said

    60 years of Arab attacks on Jews, and you wonder why we have no sympathy?

    • So, we go back to two wrongs making a right? We claim the moral high ground, and yet we unleash inhumane overwhelming force in what is nothing short of criminal collective punishment. There is a huge difference between self defense and blatant murder of civilians.

    • rabbibrian said

      Yes, I wonder especially after 60 years of attacks by both sides on one another. This is not a conflict between right and wrong, between the evil human beings (the Arabs?) and us? (the Jews?). One thing I know deep in my neshome/soul is that evil and good are part of all of us and of all people, regardless of religion, nationality, race or any other variable. Our rabbis taught that every human being has a Yetzer tov/ an impulse to do good and yetzer hara/an impulse to do evil. Unfortunately it is so much more complicated than you imagine. All religions, all nations, all peoples have both inside of them. Portraying the 60 year conflict as a conflict between peace- loving Jews and violent Arabs, maybe comforting to us (Jews), but it is an illusion that won’t help us end the senseless killing on both sides.

      And yes I not only wonder but I am shocked that we have no sympathy for the incredible suffering we inflicted during the assault on Gaza and that we continue to inflict with the immoral blockade. Aren’t you?

  2. We should thank Rabbi Brian Walt for his courageous perseverance in articulating the Jewish prophetic message of justice. It is the highest Judaic value, one that transcends ethnicity and nationality. Jews around the world need to insist that the State of Israel remains true to this core principle – and moral failures in this domain should not be defendded or excuse. Let us hope the New Year offers space to reflect on this.

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks for your kind comment. It is so inspiring to see a note like this from a rabbinic colleague. Too many of our rabbinic colleagues are encouraging Israel to ignore the report of the Commission and the many other reports on the moral violations in Gaza during the war and as a result of the ongoing blockade.
      Shana Tova.

  3. Thomas Beck said

    This is not meant to lighten criticism of Israel, but one reason the Israelis are resistant to and defensive in the face of such reports is, there’s really no reason for anyone take seriously such criticism of Hamas as this report contains. I mean, does anyone – even Goldstone – really think it will make the slightest impact on Hamas or its supporters? You say there’s no dissent within Israel. There’s less than no dissent within Gaza. Admittedly, Goldstone has mentioned this – he has pointed out that Hamas, far from punishing anyone who launched a rocket into Israel, has actually lauded and lionized such terrorists – but there’s no enforcement mechanism of any kind to protect Israel or to stop such attacks. No one has a clue how to stop them. No one is even working on a way to stop them. To be honest, nobody really cares, except Israelis. Again, this is not a defense of Israel, but if outsiders were really and truly objective and fair-minded and impartial, they’d find a way to really threaten and stop Hamas as well as calling for Israel to punish its wrongdoers, invoking the International Court, etc. Yes, Israel is a state and has responsibilities. But Hamas is in charge of its territory, too, and will only come to act responsibly when the rest of the world demands – DEMANDS, not just tut-tuts and says, oh, we wish – that Hamas behave responsibly, too. Which the world never really does. It’s one thing to call Hamas a terrorist group, but that means nothing whatsoever to Hamas – they don’t care what we think. As long as they can get away with threatening Israel’s existence, as far as they’re concerned the rest of the world can go to hell. Israel has to be held to a high standard – but Hamas has to at least be held to SOME standard, and even Goldstone doesn’t really do so.

    • rabbibrian said

      Yes, the opposition to the violations by Hamas must be serious, but there are several flaws in your argument:

      1. Israel is the one with huge military, diplomatic and political power, while Hamas is relatively very weak. This is not a conflict between equals.
      2. Israel’s diplomatic, military and political power enables it to totally ignore any of the pressure even from the United States that gives it huge amounts of aid, not to mention political and diplomatic cover.
      3. Israel has not changed it behavior in any significant way in response to criticism or pressure from the outside. Opening a few checkpoints, while creating other, well publicized removal of some settlers who return a few days later, just doesn’t cut it. Especially when it is accompanied with equally well publicized expulsions of Palestinian families in Jerusalem who have lived in their houses for 61 years after leaving their homes in West Jerusalem in 48.

      Lastly, there is only one way of containing Hamas and Israel and that is by a negotiated settlement. There is no military solution. Just yesterday 2 rockets were fired into Israel. Even after the massive assault by Israel, the continuing blockade, the international isolation, the rocket fire continues. It is time for Israel and Hamas to negotiate. One makes peace with one’s enemies not one’s friends.

  4. David Frankfurter said

    These are strong and necessary words, Brian. It’s important to recognize that no holiday works in any religious sense unless it involves soul-searching (rather than defensive anger and complacency). So good for you to be the one who makes the new year and day of repentance worth something.

    For those who continue to see the “arabs” as the problem, it should be noted that during the last many months with no bus-bombings and no rockets from Hamas, the mayor of Jerusalem has sought to remove Arabic from Jerusalem signs, the Israeli government is beginning settlement expansions, Hebron settlers continue pogroms against Palestinians and their farms, and the slow eradication of the district of Silwan continues.

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks, David. Yes the relatinonship between relative quiet and progress towards reconciliation is one very distressing aspect of the conflict. Contrary to popular belief, times of relative quiet, like the last many months are usually the times when Israel continues to escalate aggressive and counter-productive actions. Thanks for pointing out the details of Israel’s actions over this time of relative quiet. It is not only in Silwan but the government has launched a major effort to continue the dispossession of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarah and other Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. In response to Obama’s request for a settlement freeze, Netanyahu has not only rejected this perfectly reasonable request, but has also brazenly declared that the expropriation of Palestinian property and the building of Jewish neighborhoods in jerusalem will continue, by which he actually means an escalation of these immoral actions that make any settlement of the conflict much less likely.

  5. Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta said

    Great and important article. Yasher Koach!
    Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta

  6. Beth Harris said

    I had the great blessing to attend the Rosh Hashanah service that Rabbi Brian led today in Ithaca. I had not been to such an inspired, principled, down-to-earth High Holy Days service since the death my Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank in Seattle in 1998. I felt like I had come home.

    I have felt sickened by the U.S. official response to the Goldstone Report. This is an opportunity for t’shuvah, change–not only within Jewish communities, but among U.S. politicians. We must force them to grapple with the implications of our government’s complicity with the Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.

    Rabbi Brian, I will see you again at Kol Nidre. Your voice in our community during these difficult times is so important.

    • rabbibrian said

      Thanks Beth for your kind comments. I couldn’t agree more that we must focus not only on Israel, but on our government’s complicity with Israel in the ongoing suffering in Gaza.

  7. Thomas Beck said

    Although the report did “criticize” Hamas, there is no possible way for them to imagine that it might have the slightest actual effect on anything. What makes Goldstone think that Hamas cares what he says or that any Palestinian group has any intention of doing what he recommends? That’s not to diminish the severity or rectitude of his admonishments against Israel, but until there is a real way to hold Hamas accountable – and nobody except Israel has ever really tried – the lack of such a mechanism makes it easier for Israel to hide behind the notion that the report is not truly even-handed. No doubt that Israel is responsible for some pretty despicable actions with regard to Gaza; but no doubt also, there are people in Gaza determined to make ceaseless war against Israel – and the world has completely given up really trying to make Hamas stop. If you really want to bring Israelis to justice – don’t just “criticize” Hamas but come up with a way to STOP Hamas. Really, once and for all. Make Hamas stop. Make them, don’t just ineffectually beg them. Otherwise, there really is a certain hollowness to the idea that you’re being evenhanded.

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