When Richard Goldstone returned home to South Africa last May for his grandson’s bar mitzvah — an event that he was almost unable to paticipate in because of protests planned against him — he also attended a separate meeting whose details were kept secret until now.
In the wake of Goldstone’s bombshell retraction of a key finding in the famous report that bears his name, those aware of what occurred at that meeting, individuals who have known him through the years, felt moved to disclose what happened. They joined many others in puzzling over what had prompted the famous jurist to change his mind — and, they hoped, Israel’s fate.
The meeting, an official parlay between Goldstone and a cross-section of 10 of the South African Jewish community’s top leaders, had a profound impact on Goldstone, said one participant and another senior official briefed on it afterward.
“Debating face to face with the community really shook him,” said David Saks, associate director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, who received a read-out on the meeting right after it took place. “When he saw the extent of the anger and he couldn’t answer the accusations against him… I think he realized he was wrong.”
Since April 2, friends, acquaintances and many people who have never met the man have been debating what motivated Goldstone to declare in a Washington Post opinion piece that he no longer believed that Israel had a policy of targeting Palestinian civilians during its military incursion into Gaza in 2008–2009. It has been two-and-a-half years since the United Nations committee he chaired issued the report that contained this allegation as one of its key findings. Why now?
Observers point to several possible turning points in Goldstone’s view, including the South Africa meeting. Some who have been following Goldstone say a public debate he had at Stanford University in March also seemed to have an impact.
“In all the previous cases where I had heard him speak, he had re-asserted the charges in the report,” said Avi Bell, a Bar-Ilan University law professor who participated in the debate. “But this time was different. He focused instead on the way in which the report was not a failure. He was trying to defend himself and his part in it, without necessarily defending the conclusions of it.”
In his op-ed piece Goldstone himself cited a report filed in March by a U.N. committee monitoring the status of investigations by Israel and the Palestinians into the human rights violations alleged by the Goldstone report. But that report’s assessment of Israel’s investigations was far more critical than Goldstone’s own characterizations of them.
Virtually everyone agrees that the impact of Goldstone’s change of mind has been huge. Jewish groups, in particular, have rushed to demand that the entire report now be withdrawn on the basis of the fact that its lead author has revised his stand on one of its conclusions.
Yet the report contains many specific allegations of war crimes committed by both Israel and its adversary Hamas. And some of the key findings — such as the committee’s conclusion that Israel intentionally destroyed numerous civilian buildings and crucial infrastructure, including electricity and water supplies — stand essentially uncontroverted, though Israel rejects the contention that this violated the laws of war. The report’s highly detailed accounts of 11 instances of alleged intentional targeting of Palestinian civilians have in some cases been taken up for formal investigation and preliminary confirmation by Israeli military investigators themselves.
But it has been the Goldstone Report’s charge that civilians were intentionally targeted as a matter of Israeli policy that has outraged Israeli officials and Jewish leaders around the world. It has led many of them to all but brand Goldstone as a traitor, an anti-Semite who has promoted a “blood libel.” Israeli leaders deem his report a threat to Israel’s existence.
“We face three major strategic challenges,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last year, “the Iranian nuclear program, rockets aimed at our citizens and Goldstone.”
Goldstone declined a request to be interviewed for this article. But speculation now by others about Goldstone’s personal change of mind ranges from the psychological to the view that Goldstone’s Washington Post claim should be taken simply at face value: that recent information the Israel Defense Forces has brought to light through its own investigations compels a different view.
Some see a combination of both. Avrom Krengel, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation, who aggressively critiqued Goldstone’s report at the May meeting with him said: “It’s interesting with Goldstone. He’s not an assimilated Jew. He very much regards himself as, and wants to be, part of the community. That always came into play. He’s not a Finkelstein or Chomsky.”
Krengel’s reference was to the American public intellectuals Norman Finkelstein and linguist Noam Chomsky, who, he claimed, invoke their Jewishness “in order to use it as a weapon of credibility, to criticize and attack Israel.”
Krengel’s presentation at the May meeting seemed designed to puncture by turns both Goldstone’s intellectual defenses and his heart. Krengel and other board members told Goldstone his findings that Israeli soldiers had committed war crimes had made it impossible for young South African Jewish émigrés who served in the Israeli army to return home for visits.
“Goldstone said this was not supposed to affect them,” Krengel related. “I showed him where the report cites with approval the implementation of universal jurisdiction, and mentioned the dossier handed to the NPA [the South African National Prosecuting Authority],” urging it to investigate South Africans in the IDF accused of war crimes.
“Your request that countries prosecute Israeli soldiers under universal jurisdiction principles will prevent thousands of Jews from visiting their parents and grandparents in certain countries and force their absence from family celebrations,” Krengel told Goldstone in his formal statement.
“I think the meeting with the Fed made a difference,” Saks said. “It was a heavy meeting. They went in very hard against him. There were no smiling handshakes afterwards. Avrom’s opening statement was pretty merciless.”
The meeting in South Africa came on the heels of Goldstone’s 11th hour decision to attend his grandson’s bar mitzvah — a decision he took only after threats were withdrawn by prominent community members to protest outside the synagogue. Did all this add up to an emotional punch that would cause Goldstone’s turnaround? It may be too simplistic to reduce the process to that. But several friends cited what they viewed as the cumulative toll of a stream of calumny hurled at the famously unemotional jurist.
“It has been like watching an innocent man whipped at the stake,” said Goldstone’s friend Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founder of Ms. magazine. “His dedication to Israel is so strong and rooted. He suffered at the thought that his work was being used to delegitimize Israel. It truly wounded and pained him.”
“His family is taking terrible strain,” reported a close South African friend who would speak only on condition of anonymity. “He told us, ‘If I had known what it would do to my family, I wouldn’t have done it.’”
According to these friends, Goldstone didn’t fully understand how politically charged any criticism of Israel could be, and was blindsided by the anger and emotion the report engendered.
Some partisans, even on opposite sides, found it difficult to accept Goldstone’s own explanation of why he changed his mind about the nature of Israel’s culpability for an estimated 762 Palestinian non-combatant deaths, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem (the IDF puts this number at 295). In his opinion piece he cited a new U.N. committee’s recent finding that “Israel has dedicated significant resources to investigate over 400 allegations of operational misconduct in Gaza.” Those military investigations, Goldstone wrote, “have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, [but] they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy.”
Goldstone’s acceptance of these closed investigations by the Israeli military of itself represented a dramatic turnaround. In an in-depth interview with the Forward in October 2009, he explicitly rejected such probes as inherently flawed.
“If I was advising Israel, I would say have open investigations,” he told the Forward then. He offered the example of Israel’s investigation into the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres by an independent panel appointed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin as a model to emulate. The call for an open and independent investigation was one he repeated at his May meeting in South Africa, citing this as “the first and primary” recommendation of his U.N. report.
To those who know Goldstone, this willingness to relax his initial standards indicates a desire to soften the impact of his report on Israel, in particular as the enormity of this impact was driven home to him.
“I am not aware that the U.N. Gaza report has been or is being used to delegitimize Israel by questioning her right to exist as a member of the international community,” he told the South African Jewish leaders last May. “I would object to any such use being made of it.”
Perhaps he came to believe that his report was, indeed, being used in this way.
As he put it in his Washington Post op-ed, Goldstone was also affected by the fact that Hamas did not even make an effort to follow up on his recommendation.
This interpretation of his motives was supported by the news that after publication of his op-ed, Goldstone accepted an invitation from Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai to visit the country where he had become a pariah.
“All of our views of Goldstone before he took this on were that he was one of the community who we were extremely proud of,” Krengel said. “The key to all our actions at the time was to show him and the world that it was not business as usual, that he had done a terrible thing and had to confront and acknowledge that.”
Larry Cohler-Esses and Gal Beckerman reported from New York. Claudia Braude reported from Johannesburg, South Africa.
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Larry Cohler-Esses was the Forward’s assistant managing editor and news editor. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others.
Gal Beckerman was a staff writer and then the Forward’s opinion editor until 2014. He was previously an assistant editor at the Columbia Journalism Review where he wrote essays and media criticism. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Bookforum. His first book, “When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry,” won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award and the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, as well as being named a best book of the year by The New Yorker and The Washington Post. Follow Gal on Twitter at @galbeckerman