Judge Richard Goldstone spoke yesterday at Yale in the framework of the George Herbert Walker Bush Jr. Lecture in International Relations. Obviously a most prestigious platform for someone of stature, but inappropriate for a figure who is not only highly controversial, but has done much to marginalize himself, as Noah Pollak and Adam Yoffie pointed out the previous day in the Yale Daily.
The talk did not directly address the “Gaza Fact-finding Mission Report” as Goldstone referred to it, but it did tackle the subject of “Accountability for War Crimes,” and Goldstone brought in Israel on occasion as an example of the issues he raised.
Perhaps the single most striking feature of the talk was its staggering superficiality. Goldstone might have a reputation (at least among those familiar with his report) for being biased, but not for being a lightweight. And yet in the less than forty minutes of his formal lecture, at no point did one get the impression that one was listening to a trained legal mind, much less a brilliant one. Most of the lecture could have been written by an undergraduate who combined entries at Wikipedia on International Law, Nuremberg Trials, Geneva Convention, and Rome Treaty, with a warmed over version of “war is not the answer,” and “why can’t we all just get along and follow the law?”
In the world of academia, where presumably we have high standards, such a mediocre performance – especially when widely praised – attests to a distinct deterioration in academic discourse. That people, like Phillip Weiss (below), can find Goldstone’s presentation “brilliant” and “wise” suggests that we are (once again) in an age of misapplied superlatives, grade inflation, and partisan judgments.
Goldstone’s initial discussion sounded quite reasonable: in order for “universal jurisdiction” to work in a court like the ICC, they have to deal specifically with “grave breaches.” The court has to have credibility, it must be trusted for its fairness, in order for it to work. And in order to gain that kind of credibility, it needs to focus on deeds that are “so shocking to the minds of people that they constitute crimes against humanity.” Proportionality is a matter of judgment, and in such cases, great leeway is given to commanders in the “fog of war” in making such judgments.
So far so good, although I confess I couldn’t figure out from these remarks why he ever took on the Gaza Mission. Could that letter to the Times from Amnesty International signed by three of the four future members of the Gaza Mission, including Goldstone, be a clue? After all, the signatories had expressed how the recent events (not the previous eight years of suicide bombings and rockets aimed at civilians), “have shocked us to the core.” Nothing similar appeared from these signatories at the death of some 20,000 civilians in Sri Lanka only months later, nothing about the millions in Congo. But the Israeli attacks on Gaza, in which, even by the most hostile Palestinian counts, fewer than a thousand civilians were killed, that “shocks to the core.”
I kept thinking to myself, “how could he, with these principles and concerns in mind, have accused Israel of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity”?
That impression was further confirmed when he began his most “interesting” discussion, of the principle of “equality.” Initially, the discussion seemed to reinforce my puzzlement. Equality relates intimately to human dignity: [below is a paraphrase taken from notes, the lecture will be available online in about a week]
…if some are given greater rights, the greater the inequality the greater the indignity… Most if all human rights violations are the product of such indignities… Without dehumanization people don’t commit crimes against humanity; the people who engage in genocide have already dehumanized their targets.
Isn’t this precisely what Elihu Richter and Maurice Ostroff had warned Goldstone about in their memos about the way Hamas operates. How could the man who says this have gone to Gaza and come out without a word about the industry of hatred and dehumanization that rules the public sphere there? Worse yet, how could this man say these things when his own report had allowed and highlighted a Palestinian “witness” accusing Israel of this execrable practice.