It’s ironic that only a few days after watching the BDS smear machine enter its third year of using The Goldstone Report as the basis of endless attacks on the Jewish state, that an editorial written by Goldstone himself (in which he recants his ugliest and most actionable accusations against Israel) was rolling off the presses of The Washington Post.
By now, word of this huge event has sped across the globe nearly as fast as the recent Friday video, which means there are plenty of places to read news and analysis, as well as editorial responses ranging from “it’s about time” and “too little too late” to commentary a bit less polite. And I suspect it is only a matter of time before we start hearing from those who were portraying Goldstone as the world’s only righteous Jew last week telling us that he has become yet another sell out (with hints that a joint Mossad-AIPAC mind-bending squad finally got to him).
But before placing this latest turn of events into comfortable categories with associated war cries (something you can already see happening in the comments section to the original Goldstone article), it’s worth considering what Goldstone’s journey might be saying to all of us who try to keep our moral bearings in a world where corruption is not just omnipresent, but institutionalized.
First we must keep in mind that Richard Goldstone, because of who he is and his own life choices, has had to contend with moral dilemmas that most of us never experience. When he served as a judge in the Apartheid South Africa judicial system, for example, he needed to weigh what good he thought he could do to mitigate the excesses of that system while still serving in a role that required him to condemn black Africans to death.
Now some of us (including me in more intemperate moments) used this part of his life to brand Goldstone a “hanging judge” whose role in “judicial murder” made him disqualified to sit in judgment of Israel or anyone else. But thinking more generously (and taking into account Goldstone’s defenders who pointed out – correctly – that among South Africa’s new rulers Goldstone was seen as part of the solution to the post-Apartheid transition, not as a war criminal), Goldstone’s judicial role during the Apartheid era presents the more morally challenging (and relevant) question of how much do you work within a corrupt system in order to reform it from within vs. the often far weaker position of trying to change or destroy an evil system from the outside?
In his years since the fall of Apartheid, Goldstone’s role as chief prosecutor in international tribunals covering Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia presented him with less morally ambiguous challenges. But when the chance to play investigator (some would say judge) to the parties taking part in 2008-2009’s Gaza conflict arose, so did a moral challenge greater than anything Goldstone had encountered to date.
For in this case, there could be no doubt as to what the institution looking to hire Goldstone wanted to accomplish: to investigate Israel and only Israel and leave all other topics (notably the Hamas war crimes that triggered the war in the first place) off the table. Now Goldstone prided himself on getting the UN to expand its mandate to include both parties of the conflict, but the very fact that the institution making this “compromise,” originally tried to create a one-sided star chamber should have given him a hint that this moral challenge was more similar to the one he faced as an Apartheid judge than as a arbiter of less morally ambiguous cases such as Rwanda.
A clue to Goldstone’s decision (some would say his fall) can be seen in his Washington Post mea culpa in which he demonstrates his sincere belief that the goodness, virtue and sound judicial temperament he brought to the situation would mitigate the excesses of what he recognized was starting out as an unjust process. In other words, he was demonstrating what high-school students reading Greek tragedy for the first time would recognize as a “tragic flaw,” in this case, a belief that his own reputation and virtue could transform a corrupt institution (the United Nations and its ghastly so-called Human Rights Council), reforming it in the process into something that would no longer just be an Israel-libel factory but could possibly pave the way to true international justice.
But as he discovered, these forces of corruption were far more interested (and far more able) to co-opt Goldstone’s reputation for their purposes than vice versa. Beyond Goldstone himself, the investigative team was stacked against Israel to a ridiculous degree. Information gathering was shoddy, conclusions drawn from that information were disproportionate and one-sided. And most telling, once the Report was made public, it became the cornerstone of a propaganda war that relied heavily on leveraging Goldstone’s name, Jewishness and reputation to focus the Goldstone Report missile in one and only one direction.
At any point in this process, Goldstone could have resigned and gone public with his criticisms of flaws that could be seen by all before, during and after the investigation and report’s publication. But instead he chose to not only stand firm but to travel the world to defend the accuracy of the work now deeply associated with his name. In other words, the very corrupt institutions he was hoping to change had instead co-opted him to such a degree that he had no choice but to defend what he had done, regardless of the cost to Middle East peace, to his own reputation, and (most significantly) to the cause of international justice he thought he was championing.
To a certain extent, this is simply an extreme example of “The Vampire’s Kiss,” a phrase I use to describe a BDS phenomenon whereby organizations that are asked to boycott or divest from the Jewish state are asked to place their most precious possessions on the line in order to take part in the BDS “movement.” For the UCU (the educational union in Great Britain), for example, they were asked to participate in an academic boycott, i.e., to place that which academics see as most sacred (academic freedom) on the sacrificial alter. Similarly, churches are asked to divest not in the name of political opinion, but in the cause of “Christian Witness,” i.e., in the name of God himself.
In Goldstone’s case, he convinced himself that his virtue and reputation could change a corrupt process and possibly help issue in an era of international justice. But in making a deal with this particular devil, he actually helped turn whatever tools of international justice currently exist (some of which he helped forge) into weapons of war.
Should Goldstone have known better? As noted above, he (unlike most of us) has experience with making personal moral choices that have heavy international consequences. Goldstone will have to deal with the damage to his own reputation due to poor choices on his own (hopefully with a metaphorical Greek chorus in the background alerting him to the tragic consequences of moral vanity). Unfortunately the rest of us will not be able to help him on that journey, busy as we are with cleaning up the wreckage his decisions have caused.
But before leaving Richard Goldstone behind, we should recognize that the compromise he was offered (and took) that led to a tragic fall is something that will likely be offered to all of us at some point in our lives.
After all, the Middle East conflict is not the only place where the forces of corruption have grown so vast and powerful that they can employ whole armies of bureaucrats to declare that black is white, and phalanxes of PhDs to prove that night is day. So, while not losing site of the need to fix the damage Goldstone has created (hopefully with the help of the problem’s originator – beyond a single Washington Post Op-Ed), we need to use his experience to learn a lesson that even a million people telling us that something is right should never drown out that small voice in our own head telling us otherwise.