Litmus tests are dangerous conveniences. We all have them, we all use them, perhaps thinking of them as our own personal “red lines”: Cross them, and you’re in the enemy camp. Be cruel to a child, oppose progressive taxation, make excuses for torture or for terrorism, deny the Holocaust or view Israel with contempt and you have crossed mine, you are on the other side. These single factors are for me decisive, and that’s the standard definition of a litmus test.
And that’s its danger, too. People are endlessly and awesomely complicated, and taking a part as representative of a whole can get you into trouble, can lead to mistaken judgments, can bespeak laziness or arrogance, can ruin the chance to persuade or be persuaded, to teach, to learn. Accordingly, take care: Know which red lines are fundamental, drawn in bold and enduring (say, to take an easy example, pedophilia) and which are a peripheral, drawn in a more tentative pink (e.g., Jackie Mason).
What prompts these reflections is the curious emergence of the Goldstone report as a litmus test of pro-Israelism, used for that purpose by both left and right.
True, the Goldstone report is very tough on Israel. But given Judge Richard Goldstone’s background and, still more important, given the details of specific excesses cited in the course of the 575-page report, it is a document that plainly calls for very close examination. In effect, it is a search for probable cause, and yes, it finds sufficient evidence to warrant indictment — not conviction, but a full and fearless examination of the evidence. It cannot be shrugged away, or shouted away, nor should it be mindlessly, much less gleefully, endorsed.
A good-faith examination of the evidence is, in fact, what the report itself proposes. Goldstone calls on both Israel and Hamas to conduct genuinely independent investigations of its “findings.”
Such a proposal is hardly incendiary. By now, it has been endorsed not only by the White House but also by, among others, Israel’s deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, and his colleague in the Likud party Michael Eitan, as also Avishai Braverman and Isaac Herzog of Labor, all four currently members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet. The idea, we’re told, is being actively debated in the upper reaches of Israel’s political echelon, and were it not for the determined opposition of embattled Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is adamant in his refusal to permit a civilian inquiry, who insists that the Israel Defense Forces is perfectly capable of investigating itself, a commission of inquiry might well by now have been appointed.
But here in the United States, inquiry’s not our game. Most Jewish organizations have seen fit to denounce Goldstone, indignantly hitching their star to a bandwagon. There is scant evidence that many speaking out have actually read the report in its entirety. And in blogs and correspondence, the lazy shorthand of litmus testing predominates.
A man of the left, sitting next to me during Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s talk at the recent J Street conference, muttered angrily during Yoffie’s harsh critique of Goldstone — and then, during Yoffie’s still harsher critique of Israel’s settlement policies, which accorded with his own, became visibly perplexed. The pieces didn’t add up. Days later, a blogger wrote to me that if I agree with Yoffie’s view of Goldstone (I don’t), “you should consider in what company you find yourself, namely the rightist government of Bibi Netanyahu.” By extension, Rabbi Yoffie is presumably already in Netanyahu’s company” — a fact that will surely come as a shock to both men. As if anticipatory guilt by association should suffice to determine one’s judgment.
A friend on the other side of the argument, himself the leader of a major national Jewish organization, tells me: “I tend publicly to support the country I love but privately to ask that country to have an investigation.” As if publicly calling for an investigation is a show of non-support. Tell that to Dan Meridor.
David Harris of the American Jewish Committee calls on the United Nations to “put an end to the Goldstone commission, instead of peddling its utterly discredited conclusions in the corridors of the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court,” this as if the report’s proposal for independent commissions of inquiry had not been explicitly put forward as a central and urgent recommendation of the Goldstone commission.
And so forth.
And now comes H.R. 867, which the House of Representatives on November 3 passed by a vote of 344 to 36. The resolution was mindlessly endorsed by an array of Jewish organizations despite the fact that it was tendentiously framed, was about as one-sidedly pro-Israel as the U.N. Human Rights Council (under whose auspice Goldstone was produced) was anti-Israel. The bill called on the president and secretary of state “to oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration” of Goldstone. It began with 32 “whereas” clauses intended to provide the factual context for the “unequivocal opposition” it seeks.
Depend on those 32 for a true depiction of the report’s context and you might as well send in your $19.95 for a fool-proof cure for your baldness (and if you call in the next 10 minutes, etcetera). You won’t learn that Judge Goldstone insisted that the commission inquire into the behavior of Hamas, and that when it did it found Hamas and not only Israel guilty of war crimes; you won’t know that Israel refused to cooperate with the Goldstone commission; you won’t know that 26 pages of the report are devoted to the rocket and mortar attacks on Sderot and other communities in southern Israel. In short, you won’t know that HR 867 is just another grandstand.
Oompahpah, oompahpah, that’s what they’re playing on the grandstands and on the bandwagons that bring them there. And the lyrics? Blah blah blah.