Postcards From The Hanging

Tehiya Barak at Yediot Ahronoth:

He asserted that Israel committed war crimes and came out against the Israel Defense Forces, whom he claimed violated basic human rights. Judge Richard Goldstone forgot just one thing – to look long and hard in the mirror and to do some soul-searching before he rushes to criticize others.

A special Yedioth Ahronoth investigation reveals Richard Goldstone’s dark side as a judge during the Apartheid era in South Africa. It turns out, the man who authored the Goldstone Report criticizing the IDF’s actions during Operation Cast Lead took an active part in the racist policies of one of the cruelest regimes of the 20th century.

During his tenure as sitting as judge in the appellant court during the 1980s and 1990s sentenced dozens of blacks mercilessly to their death.This stain on Goldstone’s past kept him from coming out against the death penalty on many occasions and from vehemently criticizing countries who still allow executions. Goldstone didn’t bother confessing and telling about his actions in any of his statements or speeches.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

Goldstone is the author, of course, of a UN report excoriating Israel for alleged war crimes in Gaza. It turns out that this hero of the anti-Israel left (that branch of the left that equates Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories to the policies of white South Africa) sentenced twenty-eight blacks to hang for criminal offenses. To be fair, Yediot’s reporting doesn’t find that these defendants weren’t guilty, and hanging was the law of the land. What is strange is that Goldstone sometimes appeared to embrace his role as punisher of blacks a bit more enthusiastically than might have been necessary:

Even when it came to far less serious offenses, Goldstone sided through and through with the racist policies of the Apartheid regime. Among other things, he approved the whipping of four blacks found guilty of violence, while he acquitted four police officers who had broken into a white woman’s house on suspicions that she was conducting sexual relations with a black man – something considered then in South Africa as a serious crime.

In another incident, Goldstone sentenced two young black men merely for being in possession of a video tape showing a speech given by one of the senior officials in Nelson Mandela’s party.
The most serious charge leveled against Goldstone — one of the most serious, anyway — is that he is a man without a moral compass, who did what he did at the UN because he wants to be remembered as an avatar of human rights, and he knew that one way to become a favorite of the human rights community would be to lead the charge against that community’s most favored target. This new report suggests not only that Goldstone is at best intermittently principled, but that he knew his old hanging-judge record would one day catch up with him.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

This doesn’t prove or even suggest that Goldstone is, or was, a racist or an Apartheid supporter. It’s morally murky territory — the ultimate question is whether and to what degree a white South African could take a position such as a judge for a regime that had such despicable laws. I don’t think the answer is clear. But it certainly adds some texture to the portrait of Goldstone as a man. (He privately called the UN Human Rights Council “hopeless,” then wrote a report vindicating its geopolitical prejudices.) Goldstone seems to be disinclined to make a brave, lonely stand against the prevailing currents.

Matthew Yglesias on Chait:

At some point, though, critics of Goldstone’s work on the Gaza War are going to have to face the fact that whether or not they like what he’s said on this subject it’s just not the case that Israel’s been the victim of a frameup by white supremacists. For example, I take it that nobody is going to question the anti-apartheid credentials of Desmond Tutu and I don’t think Chait is going to endorse this or this or much anything else he’s had to say on the subject.

I posit that people who don’t like the Goldstone Report ought to actually think harder about international humanitarian law. The American right has a longstanding complaint on this score that international humanitarian law’s even-handed nature constitutes de facto unfair treatment of “the good guys.” Their point of view is that, in essence, you ought to look at a conflict, identify who the bad guys is (the Taliban rather than the US, Hamas rather than Israel), and focus your ire on the bad guy instead of nitpicking at the good guy’s conduct. Hawkish Arabs also join in this critique, though of course in their view it’s Israel who’s in the “bad guy” role. Personally, I don’t find this critique persuasive and I believe in international humanitarian law—just like Human Rights Watch does and Desmond Tutu does and Richard Goldstone does, which is why these organizations find themselves in the position of criticizing both Israeli and Palestinian conduct.

Chait responds:

I believe there’s a need for international humanitarian law. The first problem is that the law as defined by organizations like Human Rights Watch makes it not merely difficult to wage war, which is appropriate, but actually impossible. Thus a country like Israel, which is frequently attacked by non-uniformed militias operating among civilians, literally has no ability to defend itself without being branded a war criminal. That to me suggests the construction of the law is a problem.

Second, even within the overly-strict construction of these laws, it seems clear that these organizations attract a lot of individuals who take a deeply unfriendly view of Israel. Thus the Goldstone Report, while raising some very valid criticisms of Israel’s misguided assault on Gaza, also makes a lot of misleading claims. Likewise, Human Rights Watch, while also making a lot of valid criticisms of Israeli military actions, turns out to slant its findings, both in its area of focus and within individual reports. I think the substance of the criticisms of the Goldstone Report and HRW are the primary issue, and I’d recommend the two very thorough, fair-minded critiques I just linked.

As for Goldstone, again, I don’t think his Apartheid history makes him anything like a Nazi. But he’s an important character in the whole drama. His champions have portrayed him as a brave truth-teller, and his critics as a weak bureaucratic figure currying favor with the powers that be. The revelations about his history do lend more plausibility to the latter interpretation.


As I noted in my previous post on this controversy, I find it a bit curious that strident defenders of Israeli foreign policy take a harder line on Richard Goldstone’s apartheid-era conduct than does Nelson Mandela and the leadership of the African National Congress. It’s almost enough to make you think that some of these attacks on Goldstone are offered in bad faith, and are more motivated by dislike for his conclusions about Israeli conduct during the Gaza war than genuine concern about his past conduct


This is a good example of the general phenomenon I’m talking about. Begin with the characterization “strident defenders of Israeli foreign policy.” I’m certainly more strident than Yglesias. But I (hesitantly) opposed the Gaza incursion. I blame Netanyahu, not the Obama administration, for the recent Israel-U.S. blow-up. Goldberg made his name authoring a book critical of Israel’s occupation, wrote a long op-ed blasting Aipac, and so on. Goldberg and I do find Israel distinctly more sympathetic than Hamas. Yglesias would probably object to somebody who painted the United States as no better than al Qaeda. That wouldn’t make him a “strident defender of American foreign policy.” At best Yglesias has picked an imprecise description, and at worst he’s outright misleading his readers.

Next, there’s the charge that I’m taking “a harder line” than Mandela and the ANC on Goldstone’s enforcement of Apartheid. It’s not really that hard a line — I called it “morally murky,” and explicitly said that it doesn’t suggest Goldstone is or was a racist or an Apartheid supporter. Yglesias proceeds to cite Goldstone’s subsequent, post-Apartheid work with the Commission on Public Violence and Intimidation, which helped lead Mandela to appoint him to the Constitutional Court. But of course the charge isn’t that Goldstone was a conscious supporter of Apartheid — it’s that he was a get-along, go-along functionary. Working to investigate the Apartheid system after it fell hardly refutes that picture. Moreover, it explains pretty well why Mandela would have reason to embrace Goldstone. Mandela was a politician who had to reconcile a bitterly-divided country, not some sage who was free to make philosophical judgments untainted by politics that the rest of us must abide.

Of course, Yglesias isn’t saying we must abide Mandela’s judgments. He’s saying, or implying, that Goldberg and I lack credibility as critics of Apartheid, that our sole interest in the matter is as allegedly reflexive defenders of Israel. Goldberg was an anti-South Africa activist in the 1980s and was arrested while protesting on behalf of divestiture. I wasn’t an activist for any cause, and I can’t really prove that I “really” opposed Apartheid, but, well, I did.

Yglesias leaps directly from the fact that Mandela appointed Goldstone to a court to his conclusion that only “bad faith” could explain anybody mentioning Goldstone’s history with Apartheid. Accusations of bad faith are both impossible to disprove and an effective tactic for avoiding the substance of the issue. As I’ve said before, the important question is the truth of Goldstone’s findings. He did report evidence of Israeli war crimes in Gaza. He also made a lot of shaky or hard-to-justify claims. Part of the controversy around Goldstone has dipped into questions of his character — supporters paint him as a fearless truth-teller, critics as a man who molds himself to the ideology of whatever institution he’s attached to. I think his Apartheid history has some relevance to this small but non-trivial question.

Andrew Sullivan:

The hounding continues for anyone who dares criticize the policies of Israel with respect to the blockade and pulverization of Gaza. The personal viciousness of the AIPAC crowd never ceases to amaze.

Israel Matzav at Sullivan:

Yes, that’s Sullivan’s entire post. You didn’t really expect him to substantively address facts that don’t fir with his narrative, did you?

Sasha Polakow-Suransky at Foreign Policy:

Goldstone’s apartheid-era judicial rulings are undoubtedly a blot on his record, but his critics never mention the crucial part he played in shepherding South Africa through its democratic transition and warding off violent threats to a peaceful transfer of power — a role that led Nelson Mandela to embrace him and appoint him to the country’s highest court.

More importantly, Ayalon’s and Rivlin’s moralism conveniently ignores Israel’s history of arming the apartheid regime from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s. By serving as South Africa’s primary and most reliable arms supplier during a period of violent internal repression and external aggression, Israel’s government did far more to aid the apartheid regime than Goldstone ever did.

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

High-level exchanges of military personnel soon followed. South Africans joined the Israeli chief of staff in March 1979 for the top-secret test of a new missile system. During Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Israeli army took South African Defense Force chief Constand Viljoen and his colleagues to the front lines, and Viljoen routinely flew visiting Israeli military advisors and embassy attachés to the battlefield in Angola where his troops were battling Angolan and Cuban forces.

There was nuclear cooperation, too: South Africa provided Israel with yellowcake uranium while dozens of Israelis came to South Africa in 1984 with code names and cover stories to work on Pretoria’s nuclear missile program at South Africa’s secret Overberg testing range. By this time, South Africa’s alternative sources for arms had largely dried up because the United States and European countries had begun abiding by the U.N. arms embargo; Israel unapologetically continued to violate it.

The blatant hypocrisy of the latest attack on Goldstone is nothing new. In November 1986, Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s U.N. ambassador, gave a stirring speech to the General Assembly denouncing apartheid and insisting that “Arab oil producers provide the umbilical cord that nourishes the apartheid regime.” (Never mind that Israel remained absent from the 1980 U.N. vote to impose an oil embargo on South Africa in deference to its friends in Pretoria.)

Netanyahu was right that Arab and Iranian oil was flowing through middlemen to the apartheid regime, but he categorically denied Israel’s extensive military and trade ties with South Africa, calling charges of lucrative arms sales “flat nonsense” and accusing his critics of trying “to defame Israel.”

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

Declassified South African arms-procurement figures (which exclude lucrative cooperative ventures and shared financing arrangements) reveal the full extent of Netanyahu’s lie. The “independent IMF figures” he cited (which excluded diamonds and arms) suggested trade was a minuscule $100 million annually. It was actually between five to 10 times that amount — depending on the year — making the apartheid regime Israel’s second- or third-largest trading partner after the United States. Not all of the weapons Israel sold were used in external wars, and there is no denying that Israeli arms helped prolong the rule of an immoral and racist regime.

Before casting stones from their glass house, Ayalon, Rivlin, and Israeli journalists would do well to examine — and acknowledge — their government’s own shameful history of collaboration with the apartheid regime.

Daniel Larison:

It is supposed to be some sort of contradiction that Goldstone upheld harsh laws as a judge then and now is trying to hold another government accountable for its military excesses against a civilian population, but at worst this shows a habit of judging actions according to the law that exists. It could just as easily show a desire to hold even powerful states accountable for their violations of international law. Goldstone has been criticized as a “man of double standards,” but if his record shows us anything it is that this is precisely what he is not. Indeed, the reason why he has been subjected to these attacks is that he is not applying one standard for one group and another for a different group. What drives his attackers crazy is that he has applied the law to both sides of the conflict. His attackers might insist that Israel be given on a pass on any excesses and crimes it commits because Israel is on “our side” or is “like us” or “shares our values,” or more basically because Israel has a “right to defend itself” (which some of them take to mean a license to do whatever it wants). If the judgment seems biased against the vastly more powerful side, that is mostly a function of the disparity of power between the two sides. That “bias” could only be avoided if the jurist were constantly compensating for the disparity in power rather than looking at the actions committed.

Ron Radosh at Pajamas Media:

Readers of this blog know that PJM previously reported, as Jennifer Rubin noted at Commentary’s “Contentions” blog, that we spotted  “Goldstone’s apartheid record a few months back.” If you follow the link to her citation, you will find my old column and the link to documented reports that show more evidence of Goldstone’s actions in support of apartheid. In particular, the lengthy article by Ayal Rosenberg, who knew Goldstone, contains further revelations about his sorry record as a judge.


Actually the de Klerk government, with Mandela’s support, began the shepherding of South Africa to democratic transition, much to the consternation of Afrikaaner hard-liners who wanted to hold out towards the end. And Goldstone’s sorry role was part and parcel of his now documented opportunism.

Scores of other white judges, professionals, doctors and lawyers opposed to apartheid left South Africa, preferring exile to raising their children in the confines of an inhuman oppressive state which they opposed. Goldstone, however, stayed in South Africa during apartheid and its aftermath, putting career first and serving both masters — Botha and his successors and later Mandela — allowing himself to rise in the ranks of the judiciary and to render decisions serving the interests first of apartheid and later of the ANC.

Second, Palakow-Suransky pulls a clever trick — that of conflating the actions of a state, however morally questionable, with the actions of an individual who can take a moral position and oppose and question the actions of a government in which he lives.  Polakow-Suransky brings up the well known fact that in the 1970s through the 1990s, Israel was an arms supplier to the apartheid government in South Africa. The author writes that this military aid  “did far more to aid the apartheid regime than Goldstone ever did.”

The truth is that all governments have and do make alliances of necessity that many find objectionable. There were plenty of people in and outside Israel who criticized this policy at the time. Others argued that Israel’s enemies themselves made unsavory alliances. Indeed, the ANC and the African liberation movements as a whole supported the most pro-Soviet and  totalitarian states including the Soviet Union, as well as corrupt African and Arab regimes that gave them support. No one’s hands were entirely clean at the time.

None of this can serve as an excuse for the actions of Judge Goldstone, who could have used his position to rule against apartheid when it might have helped destroy it, or could have with many of his contemporaries gone into exile in protest. Instead, he stayed in the judiciary, first serving the apartheid regime and then shifting as the tides turned to support the ANC. Obviously, career and power was his first concern.

In Polakow-Suransky’s eyes, there is nothing that anyone should apologize for, except the state of Israel. That, of course, is precisely the thrust of the Goldstone Report. The logic is that of the political left world-wide, and this blogger at Foreign Policy does not depart from it.

The truth about Goldstone, whatever rationales people come up for him, is now out. No wonder that this week, the judge is most probably not a very content man.


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Filed under Africa, History, Israel/Palestine

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