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In Memory of my mom, Miriam Walt

Posted by rabbibrian on November 24, 2009

Today is the 11 th yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of my mom, Miriam Walt.  As I have thought of her over the past few weeks it is music and specifically, her love of folk music that comes to mind.  In her 60’s my mom learned guitar and loved to play folk music: Malvina Reynolds, Peter Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and many others.  She loved that music as it reflected her values, the core values that she passed down to us: love, family, simplicity, joy, peace.  Although she lived with her sister in an upper middle class suburb in New York, she knew how possessions could distract you from the important things in life.  She could fit everything she owned into a suitcase.   She would love to belt out Janis Joplin’s  “Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” at social events often embarrassing members of the family.

In September my family went for the first time to the Newport Folk Festival.  It was the 50th anniversary of the festival and it ended with amazing performances by Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Pete Seeger.  It was such an inspiring concert ending with

Pete Seeger Newport Folk Festival 8.09

Pete playing with along with his grandson, Tao Rodriquez (see above) and whole slew of talented next generation musicians.  They sang songs about the war in Afghanistan and other current issues.  I thought of my mom then as I did when we recently watched the amazing movie Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.  The movie is so joyful and inspiring.  I encourage you to see it, I am sure it will inspire you to focus on what is important in life.

As I remember my mom today I am so grateful for the life wisdom she passed on to me: to focus on the important things in life not on achievement or possessions, to act with integrity, to be kind and just, and, to sing.

Since she died the following words of Mary Oliver have always touched me deeply.

To live in this world, you must be able to do three things:

To love what is mortal;

To hold it against your bones, knowing your whole life depends on it;

and, when the time comes

To let it go, to let it go, to let it go.

I invite you to do something that brings you joy today (sing, dance, listen to music)  in honor of my mom.  Her memory is truly a blessing for all of us.


Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

You shall stand idly by: Goucher caves in to Fear

Posted by rabbibrian on November 23, 2009

Several weeks ago students at Goucher College invited me,  Josh Ruebner of the U.S. Campaign to the End the Occupation, and Zahi Khamis, a Palestinian faculty member at the university  to speak on a panel on “Palestinian Human Rights: Your Involvement” at  the college. A few days before the event, scheduled for Wednesday last week, Sandy Ungar, President of Goucher, told the students that the event could not be held as a public event at the college.

Ungar argued that the panel was biased and would endanger Goucher college.  He gave them two options. Either they could invite a “pro-Israel speaker” or they could hold it as part of their class, during the time of the class, with no publicity. The students had organized the event as the final assignment in their Peace Studies class to create a public dialogue at the college on any issue.  The students rejected the demand to add a “pro-Israel” speaker and decided after some discussion not to cancel the event, but to proceed under the terms of the Administration.  The dialogue would take place in a classroom with space for about 30 people, within the time period assigned to the class and it would not be a public event. Within this context, the panelists would have time for a short presentation and the rest of the “class time” would be devoted to a discussion of the issues raised by the event and possible actions in response.
The students in were understandably irate about two issues:
1. The censorship and silencing of  a public discussion on Palestinian human rights
2. The issue of student rights.

There is a Student Bill of Rights at Goucher that protects the right of students to invite speakers of their choice to speak on the college and that these speakers do  not represent the view of the college.

About 50 students, all of whom heard about the event by word of mouth and through an article in the student newspaper, packed into a classroom.  Following short presentations by the three panelists the students shared their feelings about the action of the Administration and many ideas for actions in response to the censorship.  The students and some faculty expressed their dismay that Goucher had sacrificed it’s principles under pressure.  The students skillfully led a respectful and profound sharing of ideas.
Although the action of President of Goucher is outrageous, this is not an exceptional case, it is only one example of a the many ways in which public discussion of Palestinian rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are censored in America.  It is just another indication how many liberals and Free Speech advocates, such as Sandy Ungar,  end up caving in to fear and pressure, perceived and actual.     Jewish organizations, donors, and leaders exert overwhelming pressure that prevents open debate in communities across America. In this case President Ungar had to choose between his commitment to free speech and his fear that holding this event would lead Jews to see Goucher as a college that is “pro-Palestinian” or inhospitable to Jews. He also feared a loss of revenue, potential action by Jewish donors.

“We don’t want Goucher to end up on a list of schools with a reputation of bringing vehemently pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli speakers to campus”

“I don’t think it would be good for enrollment.”

“For something to be a Goucher public program, it needs to meet a set of requirements, one of which is balance.”

You can read the full history of this issue at Goucher in the student newspaper.

I am not sure who decides which speaker is “vehemently pro-Palestinian” and “anti-Israel” but I fear that Ungar has left that in the hands of the mainstream Jewish community.

It was interesting that in the discussion a participant who had hosted a prospective student on a tour of  Goucher last week reported that the student and her father knew me as a rabbi and were stunned that Goucher had decided not to allow me to speak publicly!   The same was true in Mishkan Shalom, the congregation that I founded in Philadelphia where several of my congregants and their children are  alumni of Goucher college.

Understandably Zahi Khamis, a Paletinian who teaches at Goucher was deeply offended by the action of the administration.  I was so pleased to support him and to express my solidarity with Palestinians who are denied the right to share their reality and perspective.  Josh Ruebner, the third panelist, shared briefly the ways in which the Congress is silenced on this issue and the ways in which the U. S. Campaign acts to effect a change in U.S. policy.

In my short presentation to the students I placed the event in the context of the pressure exerted on journalists, academics, churches and religious institutions restricting discussion of Palestinian rights.   I shared some of my own experience as a rabbi and that of my rabbinic colleagues. In 1988 I lost my first post as a congregational rabbi because I dared to challenge Israeli policy. I was blacklisted by the Jewish Exponent and immediately disinvited from several previously scheduled speaking engagements. For the past six years as Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights –North America, it was my task to arrange public talks by my Israeli colleagues in Jewish settings. There were only a limited number of Jewish communities that were willing to host talks by the Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel.  Several times a week I dealt with situations where rabbis or Jewish communities were wrestling with attempts to prevent or restrict the discussion of the human rights of Palestinians.  I personally know of countless situations where presentations on this issue have been shut down in Jewish settings.  Often even when we were able to find a Jewish venue for a talk, it was only on condition that it be a debate with a “pro – Israel” speaker.   Sandy Ungar’s demand for another pro – Israel speaker and for “balance” was a demand I heard all too frequently and this was often in the context of a talk by an Israeli rabbi.  Needless to say, the idea that Palestinians themselves should be invited to speak of their reality was not even in the realm of possibility!

The charge of “bias” is so ironic given that open discussion of Palestinian rights and of a Palestinian perspectives is so overwhelmingly censored in America.  There are literally thousands of  presentations by “pro-Israel” speakers when it never occurs to anyone to invite a Palestinian for “balance.”

This censorship is not limited to Jewish institutions, it is true in universities, the media, the churches and, of course, in Congress. There is no political issue that is so censored in American public life.  Thankfully, Muzzlewatch, a wonderful program of Jewish Voice for Peace documents many instances this censorship.  They and Phillip Weiss have written about the incident at Goucher.

As a rabbi, I was struck that two of the organizers of the panel at Goucher were committed Jewish students.  One of them was involved in Hillel and hoped to go to Israel for a second time. This was similar to my experience when I spoke at Hampshire college earlier in the year, where several of the leaders of the divestment initiative were committed and knowledgeable Jewish students.   It is clear that there is a new generation of Jews who are involved in Jewish life and understand support for human rights for all, including Palestinians as a core part of their  Jewish identity and commitment.  I was deeply moved by the integrity and commitment of all five students at Goucher who organized the program. They are a source of hope for the future.

Many Jews who work to shut down debate on this issue believe that open debate will threaten Israel and Jews. It is the ignorance of the reality of Palestinian life and lack of open discussion that threatens the American Jewish community. Such  discussion is essential to restoring integrity to our synagogues and Jewish institutions.   I told the students that the reason for my involvement as an advocate for Palestinian human rights was because I see the issue of the treatment of Palestinians by Israel as the most critical spiritual and moral issue facing Jews in our time.  The future of Judaism itself will be determined by whether Jews will live up to the values that lie at the heart of our tradition.

Open discussion is also essential to the resolution of the conflict and to developing an American policy that will promote such a resolution.  Open discussion is also essential in ending the gross violations of the human rights of Palestinians by the Israeli authorities.  The silencing is part of an effort to cover up the reality of these violations and is one of the factors that allows them to continue without any accountability by Israel.

The event at Goucher is a reminder of how difficult it is to have this conversation in America and how so many people deeply committed to free speech and open debate on all other issues make an exception when it comes to Palestinians.  I am sad that another liberal institution had caved in to fear and pressure.

Postscript: To his credit, Ungar had defended the talk by Anna Balzer at Goucher several years ago when the university was attacked in a full page ad in the Baltimore Jewish newspaper.  I guess at that time the president was less fearful of negative consequences for Goucher or…? .

Posted in Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis, U.S. Middle East Policy, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

Goldstone challenges the U.S. government to explain opposition to Report

Posted by rabbibrian on October 23, 2009

Yesterday the New York Times reported that Judge Goldstone had challenged the U.S. government to explain it’s  “deep concerns” about his Report on Gaza.  On the rabbinic call on Sunday night (see my previous two posts),  Judge Goldstone pointed out that Israel, the U.S. government and the many critics of the Report either attack him personally or use terms like the Report is “deeply flawed.”    None of them address the extensive details in the Report of outrageous violations of international law.

I wrote the following letter to the editor of the New York Times this morning.

To the Editor,

Critics of Judge Goldstone’s report on Gaza have consistently ignored the substantive claims in his report (“Gaza Report Author Asks U.S. to Clarify Concerns” October 22,2009).

In a recent phone conference with American rabbis, Judge Goldstone described his shock when he saw the devastation in Gaza.  He asked the rabbis on what basis was the one American school in Gaza razed to the ground?  On what basis does one plow up and bulldoze huge tracts of agricultural land, bomb the water works, destroy the only flour factory, destroy thousands of houses? And so on.

It is not good enough for the American government to call the report “deeply flawed” without addressing the detailed substantive description of the devastating attack on the infrastructure of Gaza during the war, not to mention the number of civilians, including hundreds of children, who were killed.


Rabbi Brian Walt
Co – Founder Ta’Anit Tzedek Jewish Fast for Gaza

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »

Goldstone Transcript: Righteous in our Generation

Posted by rabbibrian on October 23, 2009

We’ve just uploaded the transcript of Ta’anit Tzedek’s recent rabbical conference call with Judge Richard Goldstone. As I wrote in my previous post this conversation with Judge Goldstone was extraordinary.   He reflects on his growing up in South Africa under Apartheid, his reasons to take on this Fact Finding Mission in Gaza, and the evidence that led to the commission’s determination that Israeli forces had intentionally targeted civilians in Gaza.  This Shabbat/Sabbath  we read about Noah who the Torah describes as a righteous person in his generation.  Listening to the audio or reading the transcript, you will hear a decent human being explain how he has pursued righteousness in his life.

See below for a cleaned up, very slightly edited version. You can also listen to an audio file of the entire interview here.

Judge Richard Goldstone: Thank you very much indeed, Rabbi Walt. First, I’d like to thank you and Rabbi Rosen for having arranged this call. I’m deeply appreciative, and I say good evening to all of the people listening in. As Rabbi Walt suggested, I’m going to spend a few minutes just talking about where I’ve come from and say a few words about the Gaza mission.

Firstly, as Rabbi Walt mentioned, I was born and grew up in South Africa. My parents were born in South Africa and my one grandmother was born in South Africa. The others came as very young children in the 1880s. And I grew up in a very typical upper middle-class white South African Jewish home. It was a Zionist home very much. My mother was very active in the Zionist movement from way back in the 1950s, before I was born. And that was the atmosphere in which I grew up. My parents opposed racial discrimination and apartheid but they were not activists at all, and I certainly met no black South Africans in my home. And indeed, until I went to university, to Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, I’d met no black South Africans as peers. So I grew up with the prejudices that were dominant in the white South African community generally, and that applied pretty much to 95% of the Jewish community.

The other point I’d make – and I’m sure Rabbi Walt would agree – I think the South African Jewish community is possibly unique, possibly not, but certainly in the South African Jewish community there’s no split between being Jewish and being Zionist as the two go together and I think are pretty much the two sides of the same coin. And that was certainly my understanding of the position – if one was Jewish, one was a Zionist and one supported Israel. And certainly I did that for my youngest days at university. I became, I think, the first chairman of the Younger [unintelligible] Association and then in 1966 I was recruited and became involved with World ORT. And that was my major commitment in Jewish life, to World ORT. I served for many years as the chairman of South African ORT. I joined the executive committee of World ORT [unintelligible] in 1967 and rose through the ranks to become President of World ORT for seven years. And at the end of that, I’m still the President Emeritus of World ORT.

I don’t believe that being Jewish has shaped my views particularly towards racism and racial oppression. As I mentioned, until I went to university I’d never met black South Africans and it was a watershed event for me. My first week at university was the first time in my life meeting black South Africans as equals, as peers, and striking up friendships and having lunch together in the university cafeteria. And I became angry and frustrated in that very first week at the inequity and unfairness of black students being equals on the campus but the minute they stepped off into the street they lived in a completely different world. They had to carry special ID documents, called passes. If they forgot them at home they were liable to be picked up and put in prison for the night. They went home to enforced segregated poorly developed black townships in Soweto, Alexandra Township. Many of them didn’t have electricity. Many of them didn’t have running water. And when I went home to a comfortable home in a white suburb with tarred roads and parks and electricity,they had to go to these very poor living conditions. And it was really in that first week that I became actively involved in the student anti-apartheid movement. And that, I think, shaped the rest of my adult career.

I’d like to think that being Jewish played a role. I’ve certainly had difficulty in understanding how Jews who have been persecuted for over two millennia can themselves be in support at all of any form of irrelevant discrimination, whether on grounds of color or religion or race and so forth. And yet I suppose we all are products of our own homes and the overwhelming majority of South Africans, if they didn’t actively support apartheid, certainly felt comfortable with it. And did very little to stop the racial oppression in South Africa.

The question of collective punishment was raised by Rabbi Rosen in his introductory remarks and, again, one of the things that shocked me in coming to Gaza was to see how collective had been visited on the people of Gaza, and saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears the affect of the blockade. And I fully support the action that your movement is taking in that regard. I’ve been involved, as Rabbi Walt indicated, with investigating war crimes and serious crimes against humanity not only in my own country but in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda – in Kosevo in particular. I was involved in investigations into the highest level of government when I joined Paul Volcker in the investigation into the United Nations Iraq Oil-for-Food Program. I have for five years now been a co-chair of the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, and I co-sign letters just about every week protesting a human rights violation in many countries around the world, including China and Iran and Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc. So it’s been part of my adult life, and particularly in the last fifteen or twenty years, to be actively involved in this area and particularly with violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

It was in that context that I found it difficult to reject a plea I received from the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who is fellow South African I’ve known for at least the last twenty years. Initially, as is well know, I refused to become involved in the Gaza mission because I was not prepared to get involved with a mandate I considered not to be evenhanded, a mandate that suggested that only Israel had committed violations in the context of Operation Cast Lead. And I thought that was the end of it. But it wasn’t, because I was asked to meet with the High Commissioner and, more importantly perhaps, the President of the Human Rights Council, who was then the Ambassador from Nigeria, who asked me what I would consider to be an evenhanded mandate. And I informed him I would consider an evenhanded mandate an investigation into all relevant violations in the context of Operation Cast Lead, whether committed before, during or after the military operations launched by the Israel Defense Force. And the mandate that I explained was given to me by the President of the Human Rights Council and he said, “Well, if that’s the mandate that you think is evenhanded it’s my job to set up the fact-finding mission. That’s the mandate I’ll give you and I’m sure it will be accepted by the Human Rights Council.” Well, I wasn’t so sure about that, but in fact the President took it to a plenary meeting of the Human Rights Council and there was no objection to the expanded mandate. And I then discussed the mandate with the four sponsoring ambassadors, the four nations that sponsored the original resolution, and they had no objection.

I think that explains why the Human Rights Council last week adopted the whole report. I was always nervous that the Human Rights Council might treat the repor as a sort of a-la-carte menu and approve those parts which were condemning of Israel and would reject those parts which were condemning of the Palestinians, whether Hamas or Fatah. But in fact, those of you who would have seen or read about the resolution know that it adopted the whole report, which obviously includes the findings of serious human violations and humanitarian law violations – war crimes – on the part of Hamas.

It was a more difficult decision, I think, for me as a Jew to accept the leadership of the Commission. I knew there would be strong and negative opposition to my doing it on the part of members of the Jewish community and particularly the government of Israel and its supporters in Israel and the Diaspora. But I really felt that to live with myself and to live with my own conscience, I couldn’t justify having gotten involved in the investigations in many other countries and because I was Jewish refuse to use the same norms and the same principles in relation to Israel.

Let me say, to conclude this part, that I really did believe – perhaps naively, in hindsight – that the government of Israel would cooperate. I thought this was the first time that the Human Rights Council had ever given an evenhanded mandate in a matter relating to the Middle East. I thought this was a new direction – and it is a new direction, but I thought that the government of Israel would see it in that light and would cooperate. Unfortunately, when I wanted to discuss this with the Israeli Ambassador in Geneva my overtures were rejected. I sent further letters asking for a reconsideration of the initial rejection on grounds that were incorrect. The first rejection was on the basis of the original mandate, which I had rejected.

And I pointed out that that was incorrect and requested the Ambassador to bring this to the attention of his government. I then wrote a letter personally to Prime Minister Netanyahu, offering to come at short notice to meet with him or any members of his government who were relevant to discuss how the mandate should be approached. I requested their advice as to what incidents we should look into and their advice as to how our mission should implement the mandate.  There was no response for almost two months, until I received a letter from the Israeli Ambassador in Geneva saying on his own behalf and on behalf of the Prime Minister – and without reflecting on my own integrity and reputation – the Israel government was not able to work with us, or to cooperate.

So I think that’s the sort of general background of where I was coming from and how I got involved.

Rabbi Brant Rosen: Thank you, Judge Goldstone, so much, in particular for your comments in speaking personally as a South African Jew. I think towards the end we’d like to talk to you a little bit more to reflect on your experience in that regard. But we’d like to have our first set of questions really focus on the report itself, and in particular the methodology that you used to gather the information for the report. I think the first place that would probably be most helpful would be for us to hear you reflect a bit about how you gathered your information, and in particular how you verified the veracity of the information that you gathered. That was the subject of a number of questions that we received.

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, for any of you that have the report, the methodology we adopted is set out in some detail in paragraphs 151 to 174, beginning on Page 41 of the report. But in general – let me first deal with Gaza. I’ll deal separately with the West Bank and with Southern Israel, and I make the distinction because we were allowed to go to Gaza but we weren’t allowed into Southern Israel and we weren’t allowed into the West Bank because of the attitude of the Israeli government. But in respect to Gaza, we interviewed many people. We conducted roughly a hundred interviews in Gaza: with victims, with organizations, with the United Nations, agencies, and so forth. We saw many of the witnesses in the office we were given in the U.N, in the UNWRA offices. We saw many of the witnesses at their own homes and people from the area came to see us in their circumstances.

Let me immediately refute with every conviction that I can muster the mischievous and untruthful suggestion that there was any Hamas presence anywhere near the places where we interviewed witnesses. It just isn’t true. Had it been so, I would have found that completely unacceptable and would have immediately stopped the process. So that just didn’t happen. The suggestion was made – I see there’s an Op-Ed in answer to an Op-Ed I’ve just published in the Jerusalem Post this morning in Israel on Monday suggesting that we were directed or influenced by Hamas in who we saw. Again, that is without any truth at all. We had our own independent staff. We had a staff of about sixteen, almost all lawyers. And in addition, we had interpreters obviously, from Arabic and from Hebrew. But our professional staff were – very few, maybe two or three, came from the permanent staff of the High Commissioner’s Office in Geneva. The other staff were recruited specially and came from about twelve countries, including Italy and the United Kingdom, Scotland and various other countries – South America – people really without any particular history or contract with the Middle East, but people who were experienced in investigations. Some of them had worked for the International War Crimes Tribunal, the International Criminal Court. And they spent some time in Gaza before we got there consulting and finding out what sort of incidents there were that we should consider looking into.

And we were given a very long menu of incidents, from which we chose thirty-six. It could have been 136. We had a very limited timeline of two to three months to investigate. And we decided to choose those situations which appeared to us to be the most serious, where there were the highest fatalities and injuries, to investigate in situations which didn’t appear to involve difficult decisions being taken by soldiers in what’s being called “the fog of war.” We wanted to look at situations that appeared, on the face of it, clearly to involve attacks on civilians in situations that didn’t appear to have any military justification. So obviously we chose what we wanted to look into, and that was the main guidelines on which we operated. We received documentation. We looked at thousands of pages of reports of other organizations. Because we got there fairly late – by the time we got there, there were investigations by Amnesty International, by Humans Rights Watch, by the John Dugard’s Arab League Report, and Ian Martin’s [unintelligible] Report on behalf of the Board of Inquiry that was set up by the Secretary-General into attacks on the United Nations facilities.

So we had a mass of written information, which we familiarized ourselves with. And we then started meeting witnesses, and obviously we asked questions of them. We inquired whether they had any Hamas connections. We obviously didn’t take at face value answers we got – we checked to the extent we could on the information we got. We tested it against information which some of the same people we saw had given previously. We checked for consistency. Obviously, all four members of the mission had had experience in this sort of activity and I think after having been a judge for twenty-three years I’ve got a pretty good idea of weighing up the veracity of people. I’m obviously not a psychologist, and mistakes can be made. But we certainly applied our best efforts in deciding on the credibility of witnesses we heard, the logical rationality of the information they gave us.

In addition, we commissioned UNOSAT, which is the United Nations satellite facility, to give us a full satellite report, which is part of our report. It’s a thirty-four page report with satellite photographs of Gaza before and after the Israeli Defense Force campaign. And we used that to corroborate or not corroborate a lot of the information we got with regard to damage.

So that generally is the approach we took.

Rabbi Brant Rosen: To follow up on the issue of the interviews and the veracity of the interviews, Ambassador Michael Oren has stated publicly that he believes the report is flawed because the only people interviewed were Palestinians and that the witnesses had to testify publicly, which meant they may well have been intimidated into providing false evidence. So how would you respond to such a claim?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, I reject the claim absolutely. The fact that we only spoke to Palestinians in Gaza speaks for itself. But even that is incorrect – obviously the victims were Palestinian, but we spoke to many members of the international community in the United Nations and in the foreign few embassies [unintelligible] representation to journalists.

And very importantly, we spoke to a number of really outstanding non-governmental organizations, both Palestinian and Israeli. I just have the highest regard and respect for some of the – particularly, perhaps, the Israeli NGOs who have been involved in Gaza with tremendous courage and commitment. And obviously, a lot of the information we got from them was important. A lot of photographs – a lot of photographic information, because these NGOs realized the importance of taking photographs immediately, actually during the war itself. And that provided important corroboration.

To give you just one example, I was very distressed at some of the graffiti I saw that we were told had been written on the walls of destroyed or damaged homes by the Israeli Army, in Hebrew and in Russian. And one of the questions I asked our staff was: how do we know this wasn’t put there afterwards as propaganda by the Hamas or Palestinians? And we were shown photographs taken really within very few hours of the damage being done, showing this graffiti on the wall. So it’s that sort of corroboration that’s very important.

Rabbi Brant Rosen: I think for many people who don’t understand how these kinds of investigations work, there’s this sense or concern that you’re only able to get to partial information – that you’re not able to get the whole picture. And I think it’s important for people to understand that you’re able to get the picture given the restrictions that exist during the investigations.  To that point, Judge Goldstone, you were quoted recently as saying that you personally wouldn’t be embarrassed if any of the allegations in your report eventually turn out to be disproved down the line. And some are suggesting that this means you may well be backing away from the findings in your missions report.

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, you know, I’ve read that. It’s a complete, I suppose, misunderstanding. But certainly, it’s a wrong understanding of what I was saying. We weren’t conducting a judicial investigation, obviously. It wasn’t even a quasi-judicial investigation. It was a fact-finding mission. We didn’t make our findings according to the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. We didn’t adopt any formal standard, but I would say it was a prima facie case, reasonableness on weighing up the evidence.

And in most of the incidents we had a look at, the evidence went all one way. But obviously, if there were a criminal investigation and if some of the allegations were found to be true were rejected by a court of law or not being proven beyond a reasonable doubt – well, I would absolutely accept that and it wouldn’t be surprising. The information we’ve got would not be admissible as evidence in a criminal court.

I was in exactly the same position when I arrived at the Yugoslavia Tribunal. We had volumes of evidence and very strong findings made by an expert team on a fact finding mission that had been set up by the Security Council – allegations, hundreds of allegations of rape and torture and murder in Bosnia and Herzegovina – a very similar investigation to ours. We used that, as I mentioned in my interview with the Forward, as a roadmap – which was very useful, to be able to know where to go to investigate. And I see our report being useful in the same way. I still very much hope that by an open and transparent domestic inquiry in Israel and in Gaza the findings we made in our report, I’m sure, will be very helpful to investigators. But if a court of law came to a different conclusion, I wouldn’t have any problem about that.

Rabbi Brant Rosen: Thank you. I want to now refer back to a comment you made in your introduction, vis-à-vis the Human Right’s Council’s endorsement of the report last week. And maybe this is an opportunity for you to clear up a little bit of confusion. I believe it was quoted in your Forward interview, an interview you made with a Swiss newspaper in which you said that the HRC’s endorsement of your report was unfortunate because it only included censure of Israel and not of Palestinians. But you said in your introduction that it included both. I wanted to make sure –

Judge Richard Goldstone: Let me explain what happened. I was at a conference in Berne in Switzerland, an annual conference organized by the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was on Wednesday of this last week, and I was sent the then draft resolution that was being put before the Human Rights Council the next afternoon. And in fact, I got it early on Thursday morning, if I remember correctly. It could have been Wednesday night. But I was concerned, because I read a roughly thirty-six-paragraph resolution that was in three parts, and only one part – Part B – dealt with the report. And there wasn’t a word in this resolution other than condemnation of Israel. I was concerned, and I’m still disappointed, that the resolution dealing with our report wasn’t a separate resolution. I think it should have been. It shouldn’t have been mixed in with condemnations about East Jerusalem and other matters that were not relevant to our report.

But it was in that context that I spoke. At the conference I was on a plenary panel and also had a press conference with the Swiss media, and I said that I was saddened by the fact that the whole resolution only condemned Israel, where our report also condemned Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups.

As a result of my complaint, the matter was taken up in Geneva. And it resulted in an additional paragraph being inserted into the section dealing with the report, condemning the targeting of any civilians and calling for accountability of all parties. And that was a clear reference to all sides. Even if it might not have gone as far as I would have liked, it seemed to me that that at least put into the resolution findings that involved both sides. So we’re talking about, in fact, two different resolutions – the original draft, which I objected to, and the resolution that ultimately went before the Council, which had the additional paragraph.

Rabbi Brant Rosen: Well, thank you. That’s helpful to clarify. Brian, would you like to take over?

Rabbi Brian Walt: Judge Goldstone, I think we want to move to the second area of questions, and I’d like to ask you more about the substance of the report and particularly about this question of intention, which has become such a big issue. For Israelis and for many supporters of Israel, there is a legitimate conversation about how one wages a war and how mistakes can happen in a war where civilians are hurt, and especially in a war where it’s between a nation state and a resistance group or what some people call terrorists. In your report, the report does go further and suggests some level of intentionality on the part of the IDF and I’d like you to elaborate on: what’s the evidence that led you to this claim? What do you have to back up the claim?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, I think there are two aspects one must look at. The one is in respect of the intent to attack civilian targets in urban areas, in built-up areas. The example I’ve been giving, because it struck me particularly in a very hard way, was the mortar shelling of a mosque during a service. The mosque was full of worshippers in the combined morning and afternoon service. They were combined because of war and a mortar shell came through the front door of the mosque and killed fifteen people and injured many more. That clearly is unacceptable under any interpretation of the law of war.  Now, the evidence by the Israel Defense Force in all the reports they put out – and we studied them carefully – is that they’ve got the sort of munitions and the technology that that doesn’t happen in error. And in the absence of any explanation to justify it, we came to the conclusion – certainly on the balance of probability – that that was intentional.

When we saw the terrible destruction Gaza, five thousand homes wholly or partially destroyed – in fact, many more partially destroyed – that’s not by error. That’s by design. The Parliament building, which was completely destroyed, the American school was completely destroyed – these are civilian targets. It wasn’t a mistake. The Israeli Defense Force doesn’t do those things by error.

And it’s consistent with that approach that there was this terrible damage to the infrastructure of Gaza. On what basis does one plow up, bulldoze, fields — huge tracts of agricultural land? On what basis does one bomb the water works? On what basis does one destroy a large part of the egg-producing capacity of Gaza? Tens of thousands of chickens killed. On what basis does one destroy the only flour factory in Gaza? And so on.

Now, all of those things were done intentionally. And there’s certainly been no response – our report has been out five weeks, over five weeks, and there’s been no, no explanation of any of the events to which I’ve been referring.

Rabbi Brian Walt: And do you draw a distinction, then, between the attacks on the infrastructure and the attacks on human life, or do you regard them as the same?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, it seems to me to be consistent – there’s one thread running through, and that was to punish the people of Gaza. It was a collective punishment. And I don’t believe that sufficient distinction was made between civilians and combatants in that respect.

Rabbi Brian Walt: So let me ask you about another question that has come up. These questions all have come from the rabbis and also from Rabbi Rosen and I collecting all those questions. This is a question that was submitted by a rabbi who’s participating in the call, and it’s the concern that the IDF claims that Hamas uses Gazan civilians as human shields in staged attacks from the midst of civilian areas – from schools, from mosques – and it goes directly to the question you just addressed, because the Israeli government claims that Hamas was hiding in these civilian structures. And furthermore, one of our questioners cited video evidence that has shown up on YouTube of Palestinians using rocket launchers from a school compound. Now, your report seems to suggest that you didn’t find much indication of this.

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, the incidents we investigate – that’s true. And we said very clearly in our report that we didn’t exclude that that may have happened in situations that we didn’t investigate. So that certainly, as far as our report is concerned, is an open question. But certainly, as an international humanitarian lawyer – and incidentally, the YouTube reference that was made – we had a look at those photographs and other photographs we were sent. There’s absolutely no basis on which one can say when those photographs were taken. So if that happened three or four years ago, that would have no relevance, obviously, to Operation Cast Lead.

But to give you example, if three or four Hamas militants come onto a school ground, assuming they came onto the grounds of the American school in Gaza City and launched mortars from there and then ran away there’s no basis – there could be absolutely no justification for bombing and destroying the whole school. I obviously recognize the difficulty of fighting what’s being called an asymmetric war – a war between the Israel Defense Force on the one hand and non-state actors on the other. It’s very difficult, especially in a built-up area like Gaza. But by the same token, the laws of war require that the principle of distinction that is fundamental to the law of war, the distinction between civilians and combatants, has to be taken into account.

We investigated one situation, in fact, where homeowners that we consulted with described to us how two Hamas militants came with rocket launchers into their back garden, to their backyard, and were busy erecting the mortars. And the homeowner chased them out and said, “Don’t you dare do this from here. You’re going to endanger us.” And they left. But assuming that they had, at gunpoint, stopped being chased away and refused to be chased away and launched their mortars and then ran away I don’t believe that any international lawyer would justify the bombing of the home of those civilians who objected to this happening.

Rabbi Brian Walt: But the one way in which it doesn’t seem completely irrelevant – for instance, you say that the photographs don’t have any relevance or that of course if someone came and then ran away it doesn’t give justification to bomb the school. But it does in some way give some understanding as to how an army that’s fighting that war could make a mistake or could attack a particularly civilian structure that has been used by armed forces, by non-state armed combatants.

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, of course mistakes can be made, as I say, in the fog of battle. But then it’s a matter to put before an investigation.

Rabbi Brian Walt: Right. And so you believe that what you found there is significant, is overwhelming evidence that you could safely say that this was not error, it was –

Judge Richard Goldstone: It was by design.

Rabbi Brian Walt: By design.

Judge Richard Goldstone: Correct.

Rabbi Brian Walt: That’s correct. Okay. And what you’re saying now is that what you would recommend is an investigation to really investigate that claim and the incidents that you describe in the report and in other reports and have a judicial investigation eventually.

Judge Richard Goldstone: That’s correct. Now, I would add another dimension, which is very important. We didn’t investigate because it wasn’t our mandate and we didn’t have the ability to investigate, on the assumption that these acts or any of them were deliberate, who was responsible. The question of individual guilt is a matter that seems to me to be calling out, crying out for investigation. Who gave the orders to bomb the American school? For what reason? I mean, we didn’t investigate the American school, but I drove past it on a few occasions. And it seemed to me to be a strange incident because the American school, on my understanding and from what we were told, was an anathema to Hamas. The American school stood for the United States Imperialism, for not teaching Islam, and it was a sort of focal point of opposition on the part of Hamas. And frankly, I would love to know why the Israeli Defense Force decided to completely destroy the whole school. I mean, it’s really razed to the ground.

Rabbi Brian Walt: Thank you so much. To end this section – I’m watching the time – many people claim that the report focuses in an unbalanced way on Israel. And in one particular way there seems to be consensus, or a large body of opinion, that Hamas or the armed groups in Gaza will never launch an internal investigation. And on the other hand, Israel has in the past launched an internal investigation, and there is reason to hope that Israel could, if it chose to, launch such an investigation. Do you think there are any sanctions that can realistically be placed upon Hamas and do you believe there’s any reasonable chance that they would carry out an internal investigation?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, I think if Israel carried out an internal investigation there would be huge pressure on Hamas to do the same. I think politically it would be difficult for them. The impression I got was that certainly some leaders of Hamas would like nothing more than to be recognized by the international community. They want to become part of negotiations and it seems to me from the cooperation that they indicated that certainly we got, in facilitating our visit to Gaza – and obviously, we couldn’t have come into Gaza if Hamas had said, “We’re not having you here.” Obviously, our lives would have been in imminent danger from the minute we set foot into Gaza. It’s the de facto government of the Gaza strip. So I think there would be tremendous pressure on them to do that. And I’ve been asked whether I thought that Hamas administration in Gaza is capable of an open and transparent investigation into the firing of rockets and mortars into Israel and, frankly, I don’t know. All I know is that they do have an operating justice system. They have murder trials and they sentence people to be executed and they’re caught, and there’s a very active Palestinian bar. But if they’re not then it’s a matter, it seems to me, for the international community – and particularly the United Nations – to insist that the investigation in Gaza should be done locally but certainly with strong international assistance. There would be enough lawyers and judges in the Arab world to make it possible. It’s a question of political will, not a question of ability.

Rabbi Brant Rosen: Judge Goldstone, if I might, just one final question about the substance of the report – this is reference something you mentioned earlier in reference to Israeli actions against Palestinians in occupied territory other than Gaza, namely the West Bank. The question is: if this was really a report focusing on potential war crimes during the period of Cast Lead, what would the relevance be in focusing any attention on Israeli actions in the West Bank?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, the mandate related to violations in the context of Operation Cast Lead. For example, one of the areas we looked at were actions taken by Fatah, by the Palestinian authority, to put down pro-Hamas demonstrations during Operation Cast Lead. The assassination of Hamas members on the West Bank, the detention and torture of Hamas or perceived Hamas members – this reached a crescendo during Operation Cast Lead and were clearly human rights violations that were associated with it.

Rabbi Brian Walt: So, Brant, can we move on to the next set?

Rabbi Brant Rosen: Yes, absolutely.

Rabbi Brian Walt: We have one mass set and then some final questions. The last set focuses more on what you started with, which was so moving, your description about how you were asked –I didn’t actually put this all together, that the person who asked you originally was herself South African, and then Nigerian – and the wrestling inside yourself about how you, as a Jew, speak out about Sri Lanka and China and all other countries in the world. And you were being asked to do something that challenging, which was about a country with which you had particular connection as a Jew.

We have several questions about this from the participants in this call, and I will just read you one that came to me. Do you think the fact that you are Jewish played any role in you being chosen to head the Commission? Did your Jewish identity play any role in your own experience of the investigation or writing the report? You answered that fully in the first part. But some people have criticized you for allowing yourself to be used, if in fact you were chosen to head the Commission partly because you were Jewish. There are people who are critical of you for having allowed yourself to be used by the United Nations as a Jew to help to do this investigation about Israel, and thus giving them cover. What do you say to such criticism?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, I reject that completely. I don’t believe I was chosen to lead the mission because I’m Jewish at all. Firstly, I wasn’t the first person approached. I happen to have been the first person that insisted on and managed to get an evenhanded mandate. But I was chosen obviously because of the experience I’ve had with investigating war crimes. This was the reason. And my Jewishness obviously would have been taken into consideration by the President of the Human Rights Council, whose decision it was. But certainly, being Jewish, I would have imagined – if I were in his position – would have been more negative than positive. I think I would have been, if I were in his shoes, concerned – as I’m sure he must have been, and as I was – that being Jewish would make me unacceptable to the Palestinians. And the immediate reaction from Hamas was a negative one. One senior Hamas member rejected the mission because it was being headed by a Jew. So the suggestion that I was, as it were, co-opted to – being misused or manipulated, I really can’t accept at all.

Rabbi Brian Walt: I wanted to ask: as a committed Jew, were you surprised by what you saw in Gaza? In what way did it differ from what you expected, and has it affected the way you think about Jews in Israel?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, certainly I was shocked. I’ve been shocked twice in my life in that context. The first was my first visit to Sarajevo after I became the prosecutor of the Yugoslavia Tribunal, where I’d read many reports about the damage done to Sarajevo and the bombing of mosques and so on. I’d seen video films of it but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I was flown over it in a helicopter during the war. It was a really dangerous trip, but I couldn’t believe mile after mile of absolute destruction. And it came back to me on the visit to Gaza, because one can’t drive a block in Gaza City or in Rafah or any of the other areas without seeing destroyed buildings, without seeing people living in makeshift tents. Because this is the one shocking aspect, as far as I’m concerned, and that is that the thousands and thousands of homes that have been destroyed are still in the condition they were at the time of Operation Cast Lead some six months before we went there because no rebuilding can be done because of the blockade and no building materials are allowed in. So it was the extent of the destruction that shocked me.

Rabbi Brian Walt: And how has that affected the way you –

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, you know, it hasn’t obviously affected my attitude to Israel. My love for Israel remains unaffected. I’m critical of the Israeli government. I’m critical of the leaders of the Israel Defense Force. I understand the position of the foot soldiers. They take instructions and pretty much are affected by the philosophy that is applied to them.

Rabbi Brant Rosen: To the extent that you’re comfortable talking about this, the intense personal criticism that you’re receiving now from Israel, from American Jews, and even perhaps from South Africans as well – could you reflect a little bit about how that affected you, if you expected this response, and how you understand the intensity of this attack?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, certainly I expected criticism. But I didn’t expect the venom and the personal, what I consider really to be unfair, attacks. It’s saddened me. It’s upset me. It’s the sort of thing that keeps me awake at night – and not only for myself, but even more for my family because this obviously has had a tremendous affect on them. They live in Jewish communities; one in South Africa and one in Canada, and this obviously has a very serious affect on them.

Rabbi Brant Rosen: Is this the first time you’ve experienced something in this regard?

Judge Richard Goldstone: No, no, it’s not, not at all. I went through a very similar situation when I was investigating violence in South Africa, with huge criticism from many people in the white community – and in the Jewish community, who thought that what I was doing was unnecessary: why should a Jew get involved in these things? And that was still during the apartheid or towards the end of the apartheid era. So there were also – I got typed letters and there were letters to newspapers criticizing me for doing this, not so much as a Jew but as a white South African.

Rabbi Brian Walt: And do you understand that, Judge Goldstone, to be somewhat similar in structure in that you were then being criticized because you were breaking with your racial group –

Judge Richard Goldstone: Breaking ranks – absolutely.

Rabbi Brian Walt: – and now you’re breaking rank with your tribe, with your people, the Jewish people?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Absolutely. And one’s treated as a sort of traitor.

Rabbi Brian Walt: But that somehow your commitment to – not somehow, but your commitment to a universal ethic of human rights transcends those?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, absolutely. And this is why I admire what you’re doing, because I think as rabbis it’s very important to have that commitment to morality and to the norms – certainly I’m not an expert on Judaism or Judaic philosophy, but certainly I’ve grown up to believe that the Jewish tradition is a highly moral system and certainly one that recognizes the humanity of all people.

Rabbi Brant Rosen: You know, as Rabbi Walt and I have talked about this with one another, one of the things that occurs to us as rabbis is that there are these two Jewish values that often feel in conflict. One is this notion ” Kol Yisrael arevim zeba’ze’” – that, you know, we have a responsibility to our tribe, to our people. And on the other hand, there’s a very central Jewish value of Divine image and are worthy of dignity and justice. And how we as Jews work out that tension, I think, is very important. I’d love to hear if you have any thoughts about this – in your work, both as someone who’s a committed Jew but also someone who is committed to universal human rights, if you feel that tension as well.

Judge Richard Goldstone: I understand that. But I think at the end of it, one’s got to have one’s own moral – one has one’s own moral norms. And certainly, I hope that they’re consistent with Jewish ethics and Jewish teaching.

Rabbi Brian Walt: We want to honor your timeframe. You gave us an hour and we’re extending it a little bit and we’re almost at the end, so I really appreciate you spending the time with us. If we can just go on a little bit with some final questions, is that all right with you?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Yes, absolutely.

Rabbi Brian Walt: Thank you. These are some final questions. A question was submitted to us by a rabbi who notes that it was submitted by his grandson, who’s a student in international relations at Johns Hopkins and asked him to pose the question: how do you think your report, with its harsh condemnation of Israel for responding militarily to rocket attacks from an evacuated territory, affects the likelihood that the Israeli public would be willing to risk further withdrawals from any place in Palestine?

And Israel has warned, the Israeli government has warned, along the way that acceptance of your report will damage – I’m now going beyond the question. Israel has warned that acceptance of your report will damage the peace process. How do you respond to this charge, and how do you understand the connectionb etween the pursuit of peace and human rights?

Judge Richard Goldstone: Well, firstly, I really strongly believe – and it’s not just a fancy phrase – I really do believe that there can’t be any enduring or lasting peace without justice. I think you’re not going to get peace before victims are acknowledged – victims on all sides. I think that the victims of Southern Israel need acknowledgement. The evidence that was given to us in Geneva and the telephone calls – many phone calls were made by our staff to victims and people in Southern Israel to get their views. And we took advice as to whom we should speak – they were community leaders. It’s very important for them to get that acknowledgement. And it’s saddened me that Israel has completely downgraded to the point of ignoring, I think, a pretty full treatment of the victimization and the terror caused by thousands of rockets and mortars to the people of Sderot and Ashkelon and other parts of Southern Israel. I think the people there need that acknowledgement. They’ve suffered grievously. Their children are in fear and terror every day of hearing air raid sirens giving them less than forty-five seconds to get into shelters. You know, it’s really amazing that the death toll in Southern Israel has been as low as it is. It’s pure happenstance and luck. If one of those rockets had hit a kindergarten during school hours, the death toll could have been in hundreds.

So it’s really important, and I don’t believe that you can really have a lasting peace until these things have been put on the table, looked at, investigated, opened, the people responsible being prosecuted or a form of truth and reconciliation commission, as we had in South Africa – it needs to be done officially. And you can’t brush it under the table. You may get a ceasefire, but you’re not going to get peace. And that’s my firm belief from the experience I’ve had in South Africa and Yugoslavia and Rwanda and what I’ve read about and seen in Chile and other countries around the world.

As far as the Israeli public is concerned and stopping the occupation, this was a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. So it wasn’t done in pursuance of a peace negotiation or a peace treaty – it was driven by the politics of the situation. It wasn’t done out of any motive of giving freedom or recognizing the right of self determination for the people in Gaza at all. It had the effect of splitting Gaza from the West Bank and it was seen for what it was, a political maneuver. And if anybody thought that was going to bring peace and quiet from Gaza, obviously it wasn’t. And I don’t believe that there was ever any chance of that.

And as far as the Israeli government’s attitude to our report inhibiting the peace process – I mean, this is a shallow and I believe false allegation. What peace process are they talking about? There isn’t one. The Israeli Foreign Minister doesn’t want one – at all. The whole question over one state or a two-state solution – you know, what peace process are they talking about that is going to be impeded?

Rabbi Brian Walt: What do you think now are the possible scenarios of what will happen over the next six months regarding the report and what do you think would be the ideal scenario over the next six months?

Judge Richard Goldstone: You know, I hate being a prophet. I don’t have a crystal ball that I can trust. But certainly, it’s my hope – if you ask me what I hope will happen, it’s certainly domestic inquiries in Israel and in Gaza. There seem to be more calls for inquiries coming from Israel, and I see one of the Kadima members of the Knesset has called for an inquiry today. And I just published an Op Ed in the Jerusalem Post, as I mentioned, and there’s already a response from Allen Baker, formerly of the Foreign Office – who is, not surprisingly, highly critical of me, but ends off by also suggesting that there should be an inquiry, an investigation, in Israel.

If the Israeli government set up an appropriate open investigation, it would really be the end of the matter. That’s where the report would end as far as Israel is concerned, certainly with respect to most of the recommendations we’ve made. The other recommendations I think should go forward. There are questions that we looked at of environmental damage done by Operation Cast Lead, and we believe that should be looked at by appropriate United Nations experts. And it’s not only environmental damage to Gaza but also to Southern Israel, so Israel has got an interest in it. But certainly, the heart of the report would become pretty irrelevant if there were a bona fide open investigation.

Rabbi Brian Walt: I want to just thank you. Brant, I think we’re at that point, right?

Rabbi Brant Rosen: Yes.

Rabbi Brian Walt: I want to thank you so much, Judge Goldstone, for spending this time with us. I’d like to ask the people on the call to stay on the call. We have a few things we still want to cover about what we are going to do in relationship to this call. But I just want to say that for all of us it is such a gift. There are people on the call that are part of Taa’nit Tzedek, there are people who are not, there are people of different points of view on the call, and our intention was exactly what happened tonight – just to hear directly from you about your thinking about this and the values that informed you. And also the facts of the matter, because in the controversy there are a lot of charges being made that aren’t necessarily true. And I can’t thank you enough for your generosity in giving time to Taa’nit Tzedek and to our cosponsors and to the rabbis on this call.

Obviously we, as rabbis, are charged with being moral leaders of the Jewish people. And I know you along the way said you’re not an expert in Judaic ethics and so on. I must say I disagree — I think you’re an embodiment of Jewish ethics, but that’s my own particular evaluation of the work that you’ve done that I just find totally admirable and very inspiring in terms of your courage and your conviction about the idea that all human beings are entitled to human rights, and to protect an international humanitarian law that in some way draws a lot of its energy from the terrible experience that our people had during the Holocaust. So I really want to thank you so much.

Judge Richard Goldstone: Rabbi, thank you. Thanks to both Rabbi Rosen and Rabbi Walt for having set this up and for the most enjoyable hour and a quarter. I must say the time went very quickly.

Posted in Gaza, Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis, U.S. Middle East Policy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

A remarkable conversation with Judge Goldstone

Posted by rabbibrian on October 19, 2009

Last night Judge Goldstone spoke to about 150 rabbis in a conference call that we, Taanit Tzedek  Jewish Fast for Gaza, organized.   It was a remarkable conversation with a true moral hero of our time.   As I listened to Judge Goldstone I was so moved by his courage in taking on the assignment as head of the Fact Finding Mission and his clear commitment to apply the same standards to Israel that he applied in South Africa, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and all over the world.   You can listen to a recording of the conversation on our website.   If you have an hour, I would strongly recommend it.  It is an inspiring conversation with a moral hero of our time.  During the call a rabbinic colleague sent me an email, “He makes me proud to be a Jew.”   I felt the same way.   I also recommend a detailed blog post by Rachel Barenblatt and an article on the JTA website.

For me, personally, the call was one of the highlights of my rabbinic career.  I felt so blessed that I had been given the opportunity to organize and to participate in such an important conversation.

I have so many reactions to what Judge Goldstone said and will just share one or two of these.

Judge Goldstone spoke movingly about his experience growing up under Apartheid, about his  first relationships with Black South Africans at the university that transformed his life and set him on the path to becoming an advocate for the human rights of all.   It brought back memories of my own experience at college in South Africa, where I learned so much about justice and activism that has informed my work as a rabbi.

Reflecting on his own Jewish identity, he pointed to the complete integration for South African Jews of Zionism and Judaism.  Judaism and Zionism were one, there was no distinction between them.  This is true of my experience as well.

This is the second time I have heard Judge Goldstone talk.  The first was when he spoke at the National Press Club.  On both occasions, he has calmly and clearly countered the many distortions of the Report, the many lies that have been spread about him and the process of the investigation.  At the press club he faced questions that repeated these distortions and his answers were so clear and compelling.  Unfortunately it seems to have had little effect.  Jews in Israel, South Africa and the U.S. are determined to kill the messenger, to characterize him and his Report as “anti Israel” or even “anti Semitic.”   The alternative of looking at the overwhelming evidence of egregious and shocking actions by the Israeli forces in Gaza is just too confusing and painful.

The reality of what happened in Gaza is shocking and he is bearing the brunt of this painful reality that our community is determined to avoid.  All our pain and confusion, all our efforts to avoid the truth are channeled into vicious attacks on him.  He shared that these attacks keep him up at night and how painful it is for him to see the ways in which the members of his  family are suffering as a result of his demonization in our community.  He shared that the only other time he had been attacked as viciously was   during Apartheid when he was the head of a commission looking into secret government armed groups who were torturing and killing opponents of Apartheid.  Then he was attacked by Whites and Jews as a traitor to the white community; now he is attacked as a traitor to the Jewish community.  In both cases his courage in placing his moral commitments above any ethnic, religious or racial affiliation, elicited vicious attacks.

When the call ended I got a small reminder of this dark side of our community, when I received an email that read,  “Expletive you, you self hating Jew, if it was 1940, you would have been a kapo.”

I so admire Judge Goldstone’s courage.  We are all indebted to him and as my colleague Rabbi Brant Rosen told me a little while ago, the Jewish community owes him an enormous apology.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Leaders of Jewish Group Support Goldstone Report

Posted by rabbibrian on October 15, 2009

Today is the fourth monthly fast day of Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza.  I am pleased to share the press release below that describes the statements that Rabbi Brant Rosen and I have made in support of the Goldstone Report and of the upcoming conference call for rabbis with Judge Goldstone that we have organized.  I find that fasting reminds me throughout the day of the reality in Gaza.  Please consider doing something today to alleviate that suffering.  On our website you will find some suggestions. We would also appreciate you sending the press release below to friends, colleagues and members of your community.

May we all do whatever we can to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza.





On Sunday October 18, Rabbis from across the country will participate in a conference call with Judge Richard Goldstone, the chair of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.   The Report, which found that both Hamas and Israel had committed “war crimes” and possibly “crimes against humanity,” has generated a great deal of controversy in the American Jewish community and in Israel.

The Rabbinic conference call has been organized by Taanit Tzedek – Jewish Fast for Gaza, a monthly fast launched in July by a group of rabbis to protest Israel’s blockade of goods and services into Gaza.  The conference call is co-sponsored by The Rabbinic Cabinet of Brit Tzedek, and Rabbis for Human Rights –North America.

Rabbi Brant Rosen and Rabbi Brian Walt, co-founders of Jewish Fast for Gaza,  have both publicly supported the recommendations of the Goldstone Report calling on Hamas and Israel to launch a credible public investigation into  the findings of the Report.

In an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune “A Call to Moral Accounting,” Rabbi Rosen wrote, “Israel’s behavior in Gaza has consistently betrayed our shared Jewish ethical legacy.  This was true before the war, when the Israeli blockade denied Palestinians basic necessities; it was true during the war, when Israel responded with disproportionate force to Hamas rockets; and it has been true since the war, as Israel has deepened the blockade, preventing Gazans from rebuilding their homes.”

Rabbi Rosen further called on America’s Jews, “to examine the Goldstone findings, and consider their implications.  We must consider the painful truth of Israel’s behavior in Gaza, and understand that we must work, together, to discover the truth — and then urge on all relevant parties in the search for peace.”

Rabbi Brian Walt, who grew up in South Africa, organized the upcoming call with Judge Goldstone.   Rabbi Walt said,  “Goldstone has been long known for his work in the field of human rights law, as a judge on the Constitutional Court of the newly democratic South Africa and chief prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda. I have always seen this work, and the judge’s commitment to the impartial application of the rule of law, as a reflection of the Jewish heritage, in which our people rightfully takes great pride.”

Rabbi Walt acknowledged that it is very painful for Jews who care deeply about Israel to read the Goldstone Report and it was undoubtedly painful for Judge Goldstone to conduct this investigation.  “I am confident that making these recommendation wasn’t easy for Judge Goldstone, as it cannot be easy for any person who cares deeply about Israel. But if we uphold human rights, we cannot expect the State of Israel to be exempt from international law. A true moral hero is one who follows the principles he believes in, even when it is uncomfortable or painful. Judge Goldstone has done just that, and as a South African-born Jew and rabbi, I am proud and grateful.”

The organizers of the call with Goldstone hope that it will server to stimulate new discussion among rabbis and in the Jewish community about the ethical issues discussed in the Report.

The Jewish Fast for Gaza was founded in July 2009 to break the silence in the Jewish community over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, to end the Israel’s ongoing blockade, and to call for direct negotiations between Israel and all Palestinian parties, including Hamas, towards a negotiated peace settlement.

For more information: Send an email to Rabbi Brian Walt at rabbibrianwalt@gmail.com

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

“It’s so sad that a respected member of the tribe would bash Israel so unfairly”

Posted by rabbibrian on October 15, 2009

“He sold us out,” says Ze’ev Krengel, Chair of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.   “It’s so sad that a respected, elder member of the tribe would bash Israel so unfairly.”

I grew up as a committed Jew in South Africa under Apartheid.  One of the most disturbing realities of Jewish life was the shameful silence of synagogues and Jewish communal organizations, including the Jewish Board of Deputies, about the cruel racism of Apartheid.   Individual Jews played a very important role as activists against Apartheid, but the more Jews were connected with Jewish life the less likely they were as individuals to be active opponents of Apartheid.  Jewish communal institutions and leaders, including most of the rabbis, were shamefully silent about Apartheid.

As a rabbi, and as a Jew who grew up in South Africa, I have always been so proud of those Jews who broke the silence of our community with courageous and principled opposition to Apartheid and those, who since the transformation of South Africa, have become human rights advocates in South Africa or around the world.

Judge Richard Goldstone is one those Jews.  As a judge he issued a judgement against the eviction of an Asian woman under the notorious Group Areas Act, a core Apartheid law that determined where people could live according to their race.  His judgement ended the evictions enacted under that law.  In the last years of Apartheid, as the chair of a commission into the use of violence by the secret agents of the Apartheid government against its opponents, he uncovered murder squads set up by the government and revealed the details of their despicable acts of violence.   In the early years of the new democratic South Africa, he served as a judge on the Constitutional Court.

In the international arena he became the chief prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda.   Judge Goldstone is also a committed Jew and Zionist, a member of the Board of Trustees of Hebrew University, a president emeritus of World ORT, to name just two of his Jewish communal commitments.

The vilification of Judge Goldstone  is just shocking.  Israeli and American Jews have accused him of being an “anti-Semitic” and much worse.  “He sold us out,” says Ze’ev Krengel, Chair of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.   “It’s so sad that a respected, elder member of the tribe would bash Israel so unfairly.”  Among South African Jews there is fury and a barrage of public criticism.

The attacks on Goldstone are unfounded.  Jews in South Africa were so proud of Judge Goldstone when he was a member of the Constitutional Court or prosecuting the crimes in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.   How does one justify celebrating Goldstone’s dedication to the rule of law in South Africa, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and anywhere else in the world, but not in relation to Israel.   A commitment to human rights means a commitment to the human rights of all human beings and it must include  those living in Israel, those living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, and those living in under an Israeli blockade in the Gaza Strip.  We can’t expect Israel or the members of our “tribe” to get a “pass” on human rights violations.

For Jews, it is profoundly upsetting to even imagine that the Israeli forces may have committed such egregious violations of human rights in Gaza as detailed in the Goldstone Report.  Reading the report is painful.  It breaks our heart to think that Israel may be guilty of war crimes or of crimes against humanity.

The way to counter these claims is by a credible investigation but the government of Israel has steadfastly refused to initiate such an investigation.  It has refused to do so not only in relation to the Goldstone report, but also in response to reports by many highly respected Israeli and international human rights organizations that have issued numerous disturbing reports about Israeli actions in Gaza.  All these detailed reports support the findings of the Goldstone Report.  Until the government of Israel agrees to launch a credible, transparent investigation that contradicts the findings of the Goldstone Report, we have no choice but to confront the painful reality of the evidence presented by the Goldstone report and the reports of Israeli, American and international human rights organizations.  Most Jews haven’t read any of these reports.  If we care about Jewish ethics, Israel and the Jewish people it is time we do so.

Attacks on Judge Goldstone constitute an attempt at deflection, to turn our attention from the disturbing substance of the report, by attacking the messenger.  The statements by Israeli leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and most recently, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the Unites States, claiming that the report denies Israel the right to defend itself, is also an attempt to deflect attention from the report. Personally, Judge Goldstone is a Zionist and has repeatedly affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself and that the report does not address the issue of the right to wage war by either side.  The report focused solely on how Israel and Hamas acted during the war and particularly on the question of  whether appropriate efforts were made by both sides to minimize harm to civilians.  This was the sole focus of the report, not whether either side was justified in their attack.

Other efforts at deflection include a consistent focus on the original mandate of the mission and the bias of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.   Judge Goldstone has made it clear that he only agreed to take on leadership of the mission once the mandate was changed to investigate the actions of both Hamas and Israel.  This change was accepted by the President of the Human Rights Commission and by the commission.  It is true that the  Human Rights Commission has focused an unfair amount of attention to human rights violations by Israel.  The substance of the Goldstone report stands regardless of the nature or history of the Human Rights Commission.

In the face of a barrage of criticism, Goldstone has upheld the highest ethical traditions of our people and our history.  He took on the mission because “I believe in the rule of law and the laws of war and the principle that in armed conflict civilians should to the greatest extent possible be protected from harm.”

The report that he has prepared is very painful and disturbing to us as Jews who care deeply about Judaism and Israel. Unfortunately attacking the messenger will not free us from confronting the painful truth of what happened in Gaza.  Israel’s actions in Gaza violated international law and Jewish ethics.  This was true before the war when Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza and it is true today as the blockade continues.

I hope that Israel follows the recommendation of the Goldstone Report and launches a credible investigation of the charges.  If it doesn’t, I must support the report’s recommendation that the charges against Hamas and Israel be transferred to the Security Council and ultimately to the International Criminal Court.  I am sure that making this particular recommendation was not easy for Judge Goldstone.  For all who care deeply about Israel, this is very painful.  If we believe in human rights, we cannot expect the State of Israel to be exempt from international law.

The experience of living as a Jew under Apartheid has inspired many South African Jews to become dedicated defenders of the human rights of all.  In our tradition ethics has always been at the core of our faith and our understanding of what it means to be Jewish.

A true moral hero is one who follows the principles he believes in, especially when it is uncomfortable or painful. Judge Goldstone has done just that.  As a Jew who grew up in South Africa,  I am proud and grateful.

Posted in Gaza, Israel, Jewish Ethics, Judaism, Palestinians, Rabbis, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Israeli Ambassador: U.S statement could have been drafted in Tel Aviv.

Posted by rabbibrian on October 5, 2009

It could have been drafted in Tel Aviv, it was so wonderful. The statement upheld the morality of the IDF, it upheld Israel’s right to defend itself against terror, it upheld the integrity of the Israeli legal system.”

“I spent several hours calling people in Washington, thanking them [for being] willing to show such courage and such commitment to the US-Israel alliance. It was very, very inspiring.”

This statement by Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., highlights how closely the United States followed the Israeli lead on the Goldstone Report.  I find this just outrageous.  Why did the U.S. decide to toe the line so closely with Israel on the report?  It seems that the United States bartered some concession from Israel  in terms of final status talks in return for complicity with Israel in squashing the Goldstone Report.  You can read more about this, and also some possibilities as to what Israel and the U.S. promised the P.A. in return for withdrawing the Goldstone Report at the United Nations Human Rights Council, on Richard Silverstein’s blog.

This trading between the U.S., Israel and the P.A. resulting in immunity for Israel is  just shocking.  I wonder if the Obama Administration is counting on Netanyahu to fulfill whatever promises Israel made regarding the “peace process.”   Didn’t they learn anything from their experience with Netanyahu in haggling over a settlement freeze?   More importantly, how can one separate human rights issues from the issue of peace.

Oren refers to three aspects of the American report that he celebrates:

1. “It upheld the morality of the I.D.F.

After countless reports by Israeli human rights organizations over the past two decades documenting human rights violations by the I.D.F. (just visit the B’tselem website for a listing of their reports) our government perpetuates the lie of the I.D.F. as  “the most moral army in the world?”  There is every reason to believe that the Israeli army is no different from any other army.  For the past forty two years, the I.D.F. has been an army of occupation and during this period of time it has committed countless human rights violations against the Palestinians.  I remember a conversation I had with one of the leaders of Shovrim Shtika/Soldiers Breaking the Silence describing the shocking actions that he and his soldiers took as a matter of course during their service in the Occupied Territories.  On several visits to Israel and the Occupied Territories I have seen with my own eyes, the way the I.D.F. violates the rights of Palestinians in so many ways.

If the Israeli army is in reality “the most moral army in the world”, why doesn’t Israel follow the recommendation of the Goldstone report and appoint an independent, credible, transparent investigation into the allegations about Gaza and prove it.  Not only hasn’t Israel done this, it has taken many steps over the years to try to prevent any independent observers from being on the West Bank.  Failing a credible, independent investigation, I don’t understand why anyone should believe this claim.

2. “It upheld Israel’s right to defend itself against terror”

Despite the fact that Judge Goldstone has repeated over and over again that his report did not in any way address the issue of whether Israel had a right to launch the assault on Gaza or, for that matter, whether Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups have the right to resist the Israeli blockade by attacking Israel, the Israeli and U.S. government continue to argue that the report questioned Israel’s right to defend itself. This issue was out of the purview of the Goldstone Commission, it focuses strictly on whether both parties, Israel and Hamas, violated International Humanitarian Law by attacking civilians.  The reason Israel repeats this claim is to  deflect attention from the substance of the report that focuses on human rights violations by both sides.

3. “It upheld the integrity of the Israeli legal system.”

This assertion is a response to the call for a credible, transparent and independent investigation into the charges of the Goldstone Report.  No country or military in the world should be trusted to investigate serious charges that are made about their conduct.  Israel does not have a great record of accountability in terms of violations committed by its forces against Palestinians and despite Israel’s claim of many investigations in process, this is true in relation to Operation Cast Lead as well.  Here is what Jessica Montell, executive director of B’Tselem, says about the investigations that Israel touts in regard to Operation Cast Lead.

FOR MONTHS, Israeli human rights organizations have urged our government to open credible, independent investigations into the hundreds of allegations of military misconduct in Gaza. The authorities have stubbornly refused, largely making do with military debriefings that categorically absolve our forces of any wrongdoing. Only a handful of military police investigations have been opened, and the one criminal investigation to be concluded is the exception that proves the rule. A soldier in the Givati brigade was tried, convicted and sentenced – for stealing a credit card.

As an American citizen, I am shocked at the role that our government has played.  I don’t understand how Michael Posner, himself a dedicated human rights advocate, can support this position.  I don’t trust the U.S. government to investigate allegations of human rights violations by our army and I don’t trust Israel’s govenment either.   It requires an independent investigation and that is what Goldstone suggested.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

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.

Posted in Gaza, Israel, Palestinians, Rabbis, Settlements, Uncategorized | 13 Comments »

Ezra Nawi in the New York Times

Posted by rabbibrian on June 29, 2009

I wrote about Ezra Nawi two weeks ago and this morning’s New York Times has an article about him.  The mainstream media doesn’t cover heroes like Ezra often and I encourage you to read the article.

In response to my post two weeks, Geraldine Brooks commented:

“The only thing that will be left here is hatred.” Ezra Nawi to the soldiers arresting him.
I urge everyone to watch the Youtube video of Ezra’s arrest. It’s three minutes and it tells you everything you need to know. This man should be given a medal by the State of Israel for defending Jewish values. Instead he’s facing jail.”

In the Times, Nawi is quoted as saying:

“I don’t have a solution to this dispute. I just know that what is going on here is wrong. This is not about ideology. It is about decency.”

The reason he is facing jail is because the Israeli government does all it can to prevent people of conscience from providing support to the Palestinians under Occupation.  In my earlier post I pointed out that Nawi is in the same situation as internationals who support Palestinian human rights, as Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights and others from Israeli human rights organizations who are the eyes and ears of the Occupation.  Rachel Corrie and other internationals have been killed, Rabbi Ascherman and others have been arrested and harassed.

Nawi  is due to be sentenced on Wednesday.  You can see the video that Geraldine Brooks referred to and also send a letter to your local Israeli consulate by clicking here on a page sponsored by A Jewish Voice for Peace.

I hope you do so.

On a related note:  This morning’s Times also has an article about Israel’s latest effort to avoid a total freeze on the building in settlements.  In a meeting between Ehud Barak and George Mitchell scheduled for tomorrow, Israel will propose  a temporary freeze for three to six  months in return for a Palestinian agreement to negotiate the end of the conflict and actions by Arab nations that will build confidence, like permitting Israeli airplanes in their airspace.

The Israeli response to Obama’s demand for a total freeze on settlements is a temporary freeze that will not include construction already underway, nor would it include East Jerusalem. It  is cast as a concession that requires concessions by the Palestinians and the Arab states.   Freezing settlements is not a concession, it would merely put an end to the flouting of international law and U.S. policy by the Israeli government.  Freezing settlements is an essential first step to be followed by the dismantling of many, if not all, of the settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.  Without this,  the two state solution is a fantasy. In any scenario the Palestinian state will be tiny broken up into different enclaves.   While the New York Times presents this as an Israeli shift on a settlement freeze, the “shift” is way too small and is part of a long Israeli tradition to deflect demands to end the Occupation by agreeing to a series of Middle East Peace talks while it continues to create facts on the ground.    I hope Mitchell holds firm on the demand for a complete freeze on settlements or at least pushes for a real shift in policy.  This  is also,  as Nawi said,  just about “decency.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »