What South African Jews think of Richard Goldstone

ByAMIR MIZROCH
October 1, 2009 21:05

Jewish World The Unforg




'Fury, outrage, disappointment, betrayal" were the words bandied about, the tone of voice noticeably harsh. In telephone interviews with The Jerusalem Post from Johannesburg this week, there was no escaping the fact that South Africa's Jewish community was incensed. This Yom Kippur, had Judge Richard Goldstone asked for forgiveness, which he didn't, he would have found that even the most virtuous members of his old community could not bring themselves to grant it. From their golden boy, he has gone to being the wicked son. There is palpable anger at Goldstone within the mainstream South African Jewish community; a feeling that one of their own has betrayed them, sold them out. Not simply one of their own, but one of their most respected representatives, someone they held in high esteem, a champion of the new South Africa. Here, the much-respected judge has fallen a long way since publishing his scathing report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza; his once formidable stature shattered, his golden aura blackened. The once-brave judge who opened up apartheid's can of worms and took on Yugoslav and Rwandan war criminals, did not do the brave thing this time - he did not defend Israel against the Human Rights Council onslaught. He did the opposite - he lent his standing, his Jewishness, to the attack on his people. If during Operation Cast Lead a small minority of South Africa's Jews signed a petition of "not in my name," then the vast majority of the community is now saying "not in my name" to Goldstone. Very few people think Goldstone did the right thing by taking the job of heading the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission into the Gaza operation. There is some appreciation that his report did, for the first time, criticize Hamas, but there is overwhelming rejection of Goldstone himself and his report's conclusion. "He sold us out," said an angry Ze'ev Krengel, the usually soft-spoken, liberal, Zionist chairman of the South African Board of Governors. "The damage has been done. He proved that terrorism works, that if you fight from within your own civilians you can win." Community leaders had a bad feeling about the commission from the start. They were convinced that its mandate was flawed, despite Goldstone's inclusion of a probe against Hamas, and that the members of the commission had already shown themselves to be biased against Israel. With all that proof, they believe, Goldstone should never have taken on the job. "If [former United Nations high commissioner for human rights] Mary Robinson refused to lead the mission, how could judge Goldstone agree to it?" Krengel asked. Why did Goldstone take the job? The cynical argue that at his advanced age (Goldstone is 71), he was looking for ways to keep his name in the spotlight, to keep himself relevant. Some think he is vying for the position of next UN secretary-general, and that his latest work will endear him to the large non-aligned bloc. People who know him believe he acted out of arrogance; that he thought he could get another high-profile feather in his cap. Others think he truly, naively believed he could make the commission more impartial and more balanced because of who he was: a judge and a Jew. Still others who know him well believe his heart was truly in the right place, even if he was sometimes too ambitious. In the end, there is almost wall-to-wall agreement in the community that Goldstone took on a flawed case, and that he has sullied his good name. GOLDSTONE'S REPORT has capped what has been a very difficult year for South Africa's Jews. The trouble started during the IDF's Gaza operation in January. First came the anti-Semitic tirade by former deputy foreign minister Fatima Hajaig at a pro-Palestinian rally in the Lenasia township outside of Johannesburg at the height of the fighting. "No matter which [US] government comes into power, whether Republican or Democratic, whether Barack Obama or George Bush, the control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money, and if Jewish money controls their country, you cannot expect anything else," Hajaig said. The Jewish Board of Deputies, usually wary of rocking the boat, went after Hajaig with everything they had, demanding a retraction and apology. They got a tepid apology, but the incident made many in the community feel very uncomfortable. Next came an aggressive and sustained anti-Israel campaign by the country's largest trade union, COSATU, one of whose top officials said his organization "would make life hell" for Zionists and their supporters. South African Jews took that to mean them, and COSATU never dissociated itself from those comments. This incident was followed by a COSATU-affiliated labor group refusing to offload Israeli-made goods from a ZIM ship docked at Durban Harbor. That action, while ultimately unsuccessful, received a lot of press coverage. Next came the fiasco at the Limmud conference held last August. David Benjamin, a South African-born Israeli serving in the IDF Military Advocate-General's unit during Cast Lead, was brought out to the conference to talk about Israel. When the South African branch of the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC)got wind of Benjamin's visit, they accused him of being a war criminal - arguing that his position in the army made him responsible for allowing attacks on civilian targets - laid a charge against him at a Johannesburg police station and demanded his arrest. This was, of course, picked up by the media. The situation got worse when the PSC, at an acrimonious demonstration outside the annual Jewish learning seminar, accused WITS University's Vice Chancellor Loyiso Nongxa of hosting a "war criminal" on the university's Parktown campus, where Limmud had rented out lecture halls. Furthermore, the PSC accused Jewish security guards at the Limmud conference of "apartheid-style" racial profiling by not allowing black students onto the campus during the conference, a charge denied by witnesses at the event. The vice chancellor, under intense pressure from the PSC, responded to the charges by establishing a committee of inquiry into the matter, led by another respected Jewish South African anti-apartheid activist and human rights champion, Geoff Bundlender. Nongxa, in an e-mail sent to the entire WITS staff, said he was "appalled at what is happening in the Middle East… at atrocities committed against civilians" - and Nongxa wasn't referring to the civilians of Sderot. Bundlender, who has been interviewing Limmud and PSC officials, is expected to release his report in the coming days. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, an aggressive anti-Israel demonstration, organized by the PSC and led by anti-Zionist Jewish politician Ronnie Kasrils, was held after Cast Lead outside the main Jewish community center in Johannesburg, and not, as in the past, outside the Israeli Embassy in Pretoria. This sent out a message that the Jewish community, and not just Israel, was being targeted, according to Geoff Sifrin, editor of the South African Jewish Report. "This was the first time that a Jewish institution was targeted, and it led to a feeling of embattlement," Sifrin told the Post. ALL OF these events of the past year combined to put the Jewish community in an uncomfortable position, a sense of accumulating discomfort. And it is into this maelstrom that Goldstone's report, with its scathing and unbalanced attack on Israel, landed with such force. A sense of sustained embattlement, mixed with disgust at his "betrayal," has given birth to the fury at Goldstone. Here was a respected Jewish judge vindicating the accusation made by the PSC: that, in essence, David Benjamin was a war criminal, that Israeli soldiers could be considered war criminals. With his report, Goldstone went a step too far for the mainstream South African Jewish community. There are, however, more nuanced voices among some in the Jewish community who know Goldstone very well, and who feel that the blame should be shared by the Israelis. The sense among these people is that in the absence of Israeli cooperation with the Goldstone mission and a genuine attempt to investigate the IDF's actions, the report could never have been balanced. They posit that Goldstone was not reacting to a perception of Israeli excess, and that he is far too objective to have been influenced by the perceptions of others. Without a doubt, Operation Cast Lead has caused tremendous harm to Israel's reputation in South Africa. Some in the Jewish community see the attempt to minimize Gazan civilian casualties as essentially backfiring, primarily because of the extent to which it lengthened the conflict. The net result was bad publicity for Israel, week after week. Even though Goldstone hasn't lived among them for years (he lives in London), local Jews are very upset, especially since many in South Africa know the Goldstone family and have taken pride in the fact that one of their own was such a global champion of human rights. They feel that Goldstone has been coopted, drawn into the ongoing, increasing anti-Israel movement. According to Krengel, Sifrin and others, the vast majority of South African Jews can be characterized as very Zionist. "That's not to say they're not open to Israel being criticized - they are. But it has to be within reason," Krengel told the Post. "It's so sad that a respected elder member of the tribe would bash Israel so unfairly." South African Jews who are considered - by the official Jewish community leadership - to be anti-Zionist make up about 10 percent of the community, but they are a vocal minority with a lot of colorful characters. "I'd say the South African Jewish community is made up of 90% staunchly pro-Israel people, and 10% staunchly anti-Israel, and Goldstone is very much part of latter group," said Krengel, the top Jewish official. Only a small proportion of Jews in South Africa would agree with what Goldstone has done and support the findings of his commission, he added. Krengel and the others, who preferred to remain anonymous, say they are "very, very angry" at Goldstone. "In the end, the biggest loser will be Richard Goldstone, who will go down in history as the person who judged Israel unfairly," said Krengel. "He had the power to right the wrongs [of the anti-Israeli Human Rights Council], but he didn't. He did the opposite." For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs

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