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.