Fair Policy, Fair Discussion

October 23, 2009

Goldfarb, Goldstone, Bernstein, and human rights

Filed under: Discourse in America,Human rights — Helena Cobban @ 3:20 am

Michael Goldfarb, who was the deputy communications director for John McCain’s campaign, worked for a while in that temple of neoconservative organizing, the Project for a New American Century, and is a kind of scuzzy attack-dog for the pro-settler hard right, has now decided to come after– poor little moi.

A hat-tip to Richard Silverstein, co-rabbi of our “off-broadway” bloggers’ panel at J Street, next Monday noon-time, for having read Michael Goldfarb’s blog so the rest of us don’t have to…

Long story short, Goldfarb is attacking me because, he says, “she likes to compare Israel to Hamas.” And he picks a pretty good quote from this late December 2008 post on my Just World News blog, to prove it:

    Most people in the west have been wilfully mis- or dis-informed about Hamas and believe either that it is made up of wild-eyed men of violence who perpetrate violence for its own sake, or that its main goal is the violent expulsion of all Jewish people from Israel/Palestine. These impressions are quite misleading. Yes, Hamas has used significant amounts of violence against Israelis since it was founded in 1987. But so too has Israel, against Hamas. Indeed, Israel has killed many times more Hamas supporters and leaders than Hamas has ever killed Israelis. Does that mean we understand Israelis to be only “mindless, wild-eyed men of violence”? No. For both sides, we need to try to understand what they seek to achieve with the violence they use; as well as the conditions under which they can be expected to moderate or end it.

So here’s the thing that Michael Goldfarb and people of his extreme-right, pro-settler ilk really don’t seem to understand: For the vast majority of the people on God’s earth today, Palestinians are just as fully human as Jewish people, and just as deserving as Jewish people of our compassion and our understanding.

That, it seems to me, is the true value of the “human rights” approach to world affairs. To understand that no one bunch of people, however described– “Jewish”, or “Arab”, “American”, “Burmese”, “Georgian”, “Muslim”, or even “Quaker”– is deserving, at a deep level, of any more deep human concern than any other people. To understand that all “peoples”, as such, have made wonderful and distinctive contributions to the expression of full human flourishing, and that–even more importantly– all human persons, whichever of these groups they self-affiliate with, are equally deserving of our concern and our objective judgment regarding their actions.

And that the basis for any such judgment must be quite “culture”- and politics-neutral.

That is the true value of putting a human-rights frame on world affairs. But the Michael Goldfarbs, the Norman Podhoretz’s, the Alan Dershowitz’s, and Robert Bernsteins of this world truly don’t get this. They truly think there is something so “special” about Jewish people and their experience in the world that somehow the (and especially the allegedly “Jewish” state, Israel) deserve to be given a free pass on the application of any neutral standards of behavior, such as would be applied to anyone else.

So Michael Goldfarb can’t bear it when I write,

    Yes, Hamas has used significant amounts of violence against Israelis since it was founded in 1987. But so too has Israel, against Hamas. Indeed, Israel has killed many times more Hamas supporters and leaders than Hamas has ever killed Israelis. Does that mean we understand Israelis to be only “mindless, wild-eyed men of violence”? No. For both sides, we need to try to understand what they seek to achieve with the violence they use; as well as the conditions under which they can be expected to moderate or end it.

And more importantly, Goldfarb, Bernstein, and many other die-hard supporters of “Israel– right or wrong” truly couldn’t bear it when the distinguished Jewish (and as it happens, also Zionist) criminal investigator Judge Richard Goldstone came out with the report in which he tried to apply a single unified “human rights” standard to the behavior of the decisionmakers on both sides of the Israel-Hamas divide.

Bernstein’s case is particularly egregious. In Monday’s New York Times this guy who, ways back when had been he had the founding Chair of Human Rights Watch, back when it was still “Helsinki Watch”, had an anguished op-ed piece in which he wrote that he now felt he had to break publicly with HRW because of its alleged “unfairness” in criticizing Israel.

The argument Bernstein made was revealingly disingenuous. He still seems stuck in the “Helsinki era” mindset of using the human rights issue as a weapon in Cold War rivalry. Hullo! The Cold War has been over for 20 years next month!

Also, though the frame he tried to use was the distinctly Cold War frame of “democratic” versus “undemocratic” nations, he made no reference at all to the fact that there had in fact been an election in Palestine in January 2006, that was free and fair, and which Hamas won… Or, to the tragic response the election of that leadership met with from Israel, Washington– and come to that, from Bob Bernstein, too.

This reminds me of the piercing comment that the great Jewish-American liberal Ira Glasser recently made about Norman Podhoretz: “He has not only lost the ability to feel for or identify with the persecution of others; he has lost all ability to see why anyone else would.”

… Bernstein’s piece came out Monday. Then on Tuesday, Netanyahu trotted out his ridiculous “whining baby” argument against the whole, weighty corpus of the “laws of war”, which in modern times have been assembled over the course of 150 years now.

Honestly, what a whiny baby. The last person who claimed that “things are so different now” that the laws of war all have to be upended was, of course, Alan Dershowitz, back when he was arguing that somehow in the “age of terrorism” it would be necessary and justifiable to start engaging in torture.

The bottom line on the whole furor over Goldtsone in rightwing Israeli and Likudnik American circles is, however, that the reaction of the whole of the international community– not just Judge Goldstone, but certainly including him– to the assault the israeli government launched against Gaza last winter just about ensured that no Israeli government will dare to launch any kind of similar assault any time in the near future– if ever.

I think Aluf Benn had it just about right in this recent article:

    Operation Cast Lead in Gaza was perceived in Israel as a shining victory. Rocket fire from Gaza was brought to a halt almost completely. The Israel Defense Forces emerged from its failure during the Second Lebanon War and deployed ground forces with few casualties. “The world” let the operation continue and did not impose a cease-fire. A wonderful war.

    Ten months later, it seems the victory was a Pyrrhic one. Israel did not realize that the rules have changed with Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president.

    …Even if the legal process that Goldstone initiated ends up being halted, and Israel is not put in the dock in The Hague, its hands have been tied. The world, led by Obama, will not let it initiate a Cast Lead II operation.

So now, frustrated by their inability to dream up a “Cast lead II”, Israel’s hardliners are taking out their frustrations by railing against Goldstone and “demanding deep changes in the laws of war”. Oh yes, that, and also in a fit of continuing pique, continuing to keep the 1.5 million of Gaza tightly– and quite illegally– besieged.

Beware the whiny babies when they have guns and exercise real coercive power.

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1 Comment »

  1. The x=Nazi or 20xx=1938 meme is getting a little tired these days. It began with Nasser – or was it before? – but it has continued an infinite number of times. So far, it still continues to have some effect on some people. But you have to ask how long. How many more times are we seriously going to believe we are in 1938?

    Comment by Alexno — October 26, 2009 @ 11:41 pm | Reply


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