A lawyer in New York City responds to the Goldstone Report and offers a way to undo some of the…
New York, New York
October 19, 2009
Judge Richard Goldstone
Head of the UN HRC Fact Finding Mission on Gaza
Dear Judge Goldstone:
You have urged that fair-minded people read your 547-page Report on the Gaza conflict and, at the end of it, “point out where it failed to be objective or even-handed." I did just that. It is therefore disappointing that you have declined to respond to my letter (although I appreciate your acknowledging that you have read it), which highlights many serious flaws in your investigation and Report. In the hope that you may offer a substantive response, I am reissuing my critique as a formal "open letter" (in substantially the same form as before).
Your Report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read quickly or widely, to paraphrase that infamous war criminal (by your definition) Winston Churchill.
I am profoundly disappointed by the contents of your Report, but I am also troubled by the ad hominem attacks that have been directed toward you. I offer this analysis and critique in the spirit of advancing the cause of truth and in the hope that you may yet be willing to take actions to mitigate the terrible injustice and damage that your Report is causing. To that end, I am respectfully including some suggestions for you at the end of this.
In a nutshell, your Report is a deeply flawed document that is not only unbalanced and inflammatory, but reflects a procedurally deficient rush to judgment incapable of producing any meaningful findings, least of all charges as grave, politically loaded, and emotionally laden as those of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.”
I acknowledge at the outset that your Report was difficult to read not only because of its obvious lack of balance but also because it does raise some hard questions about the precise manner in which Israel reacted to the years of rocket attacks against its towns and people and the threats it faces. I hope that, to the extent it has not already done so, Israel will investigate and explain the incidents you have highlighted, which have undoubtedly been part of a chain of events that has resulted in much human suffering. Sadly though, because your Report is so one-sided and unfair, these important questions may receive less attention than they deserve.
As someone who had expected a relatively fair and balanced investigation because of your involvement, I am struggling to understand why you would go out of your way, beyond even the “very lopsided unfair resolution” (to use your own words) of the group that authorized your Mission, to demonize Israel while legitimizing and even whitewashing Hamas. (For while you may object to that characterization, that is indeed what your Report does, as I describe below.)
I do not intend to focus on factual inaccuracies in your Report (which others better placed that I are already starting to address) but wish to emphasize rather the manner in which your investigation was conducted and its “findings” reported. The imbalance and partiality that permeate your Report are evident at many levels. They are manifested in the methodology you adopted to conduct your investigation and reach your conclusions, in the way in which you chose to characterize your Mission and select which incidents you would investigate and which you would ignore, in the fundamental premises that underlie your investigation and conclusions, in the manner in which you have misrepresented the history of the Middle East conflict, and in your use of language both throughout your Report and in your subsequent public statements. Of course this letter cannot be comprehensive but can only illustrate a few of the many examples where this one-sidedness shows through your purported factual and legal findings.
Your Procedurally Flawed Investigation
I made three points to you while you were conducting your investigation: (i) I implored you not to hold the Israeli government’s refusal to cooperate with your investigation against Israel or allow that to be a source of injustice, (ii) I begged you to try to find out the relevant facts regarding the activities and actions of Hamas and other terrorist groups operating in Gaza and Israel’s efforts to avoid civilian casualties, notwithstanding the refusal of the Israeli government to assist you, and (iii) I urged you to put your findings in their proper context. You said you would take these things into account, but unfortunately I now see my worst fears realized.
Passing Judgment Based on One-sided (and Tainted) Evidence. Your Mission took Israel’s refusal to cooperate as an invitation (or perhaps as an excuse) to allow the scales of justice to weigh with only one pan being filled. Time and time again, you made findings of fact based solely on evidence provided by the Palestinian side of the conflict (even though your Report expressly acknowledges that the testimony you received from witnesses in Gaza was tainted by duress, not to mention obvious, if understandable, bias). Almost every one of your “findings of fact” was arrived at using this formula: the direct evidence the Mission collected said X; no evidence to the contrary has been provided; therefore “on the information available to it, the Mission finds” X. And you did this in the full knowledge that you had heard only half the story. I understand that you and your fellow commissioners were outraged by Israel’s decision to snub you (as is evident in the numerous references to their refusal to cooperate throughout your Report — I stopped counting at 40), but if your investigation was truly seeking to uncover the truth, you quite simply could not have reached conclusions and made such momentous and awful accusations based on one-sided evidence. In your October 19 article in the Jerusalem Post, you state: “Our mission obviously could only consider and report on what it saw, heard and read. If the government of Israel failed to bring facts and analyses to our attention, we cannot fairly be blamed for the consequences.” I strongly disagree. As one entrusted to find the facts, you had a moral if not legal obligation to seek the truth, and if you were not able to do so, you should have said just that, rather than pretending that you have established the truth (“based on information provided”) when you knew that was not so and that you had only heard one side of the story.
Failure to Investigate Critical Facts. Moreover, your Report shows virtually no effort to look beyond the evidence presented to you (overwhelmingly from the Palestinian side) to find out what really happened in Gaza and — most crucially — why: why Israel launched the (unfortunately named) “Operation Cast Lead” and why individual officers and soldiers took the actions they did in the heat of battle.
To cite one important example, it was widely reported that the Hamas high command was camped out in the Al-Shifa Hospital, which would of course constitute a war crime and would probably have justified Israel attacking that hospital, notwithstanding the civilian presence there. Fortunately for any actual civilians in the hospital, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) refrained (although neither that nor any other act of restraint by the IDF — and there is much evidence that the IDF pulled back from many attacks against legitimate military targets because of the presence of civilians — was deemed worthy of a mention in your Report). You note those reports about the Al-Shifa Hospital but simply state (at 466): “The Mission did not investigate the case of the Al-Shifa Hospital and is not in a position to make any finding with regard to these allegations.” You then immediately go on — astoundingly — to make a formal finding of fact (at 467) that "on the basis of the investigations it has conducted, the Mission did not find any evidence to support the allegations made by the Israeli government [that Hamas used medical facilities for cover]."
A second example of your Mission’s inappropriate wholesale reliance on one-sided evidence relates to your findings that Israel’s attacks on the Legislative Council building (in which you note there were no casualties) and Gaza main prison (in which a prison guard was killed) were war crimes. In your standard formulation, you conclude: “There is an absence of evidence or, indeed, any allegation from the Israeli Government and armed forces that the Legislative Council building, the Ministry of Justice or the Gaza main prison ‘made an effective contribution to military action.’ On the information available to it, the Mission finds that the attacks on these buildings constituted deliberate attacks on civilian objects in violation of the rule of customary international humanitarian law.” It is notable that this finding follows your observation (paragraph 367, footnote 235) that there was evidence that of the approximately 300 prisoners in custody in the prison at the time it was struck, there were “roughly 115 alleged collaborators with Israel [and] about 70 Fatah supporters held on various charges.” Even without Israel’s having to spell it out for you, you might easily have discerned several potential military advantages to be obtained from attacking this prison (which based on evidence your Mission uncovered does not appear to be a facility dedicated solely to civilian activities of the Gaza authorities) and facilitating the escape of its inmates. Your rejection of Israel’s determination to attack the “command and control” infrastructure of Hamas is rooted in the distinction that you insist on drawing between Hamas and its military wing, and your insistence on the legitimacy and sanctity of the former. These highly dubious premises that underlie many of your “war crime” findings fly in the face of the broad recognition of Hamas as a terrorist organization.
Use of Hearsay and Anonymous Accusations as Evidence. Another serious procedural flaw in your Report is your reliance on hearsay and accusations made anonymously to “corroborate” your allegations. One clear example of this is the anonymous report by a group called Breaking the Silence entitled “Soldiers’ Testimony from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009,” which is cited dozens of times in your Report as providing “strong corroboration” and whose validity and veracity you accept without question. Indeed you criticize Israel’s efforts to lobby countries that funded this anonymous report as “contrary to the spirit of the Declaration [on Human Rights Defenders].” As a judge, you must obviously appreciate that such anonymous accusations, particularly to the extent they merely recite what the anonymous speaker heard from some other source, and are thus pure hearsay, would not be admissible as evidence in a court, precisely because the prejudicial impact of those allegations is far outweighed by any probative value they may have. I expect that your response may be that your investigation was not a court of law and therefore not subject to the same evidentiary rules. But I would argue that, in this situation, where the prejudicial impact on Israel and the Jewish people in general of your accusations of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” was obviously going to be so devastating, it behooved you and your fellow commissioners to, at a minimum, adhere to basic principles of evidence and procedural fairness.
More Prejudice than Proof. Indeed, this failure to strike an appropriate balance between what is probative and what is prejudicial is a central feature of your investigation and your Report. There are innumerable examples of offhand remarks and references in your Report to terrible things that Israel and Israelis are alleged to have done, without any justification or evidence offered. Sometimes these are stated as naked allegations (for example, you refer to “concerns of torture and other ill-treatment” of Palestinian detainees) (209), while on many other occasions they are simply stated as facts, even though they are not facts. To cite just one example, at 642 you state: “On 5 February 2003, for instance, Israeli snipers shot and killed two staff nurses who were on duty inside the hospital.” These unsubstantiated and often false allegations reflect a bias and a flagrant disregard for the basic principles of due process and all norms of fairness and justice. One last — and more serious — example of this disregard for the balance between probative and prejudicial is your decision to televise the interviews with Palestinian witnesses. You state (at 166): “The purpose of the public hearings, which were broadcast live, was to enable victims, witnesses and experts from all sides to the conflict to speak directly to as many people as possible in the region as well as in the international community. The Mission is of the view that no written word can replace the voice of victims.” It hardly bears mentioning that any probative value of these interviews (particularly when they tell only one side of the story and, as you acknowledge, were tainted by duress) does not justify the inflammatory effects of televising them before the Report is issued. The fact that you chose to publicize these hearings is a further indication that your Report was designed to play into a trial in the “court of public opinion,” rather than to be a true finding of facts.
The Appointment and Composition of your Mission. Speaking of the “court of public opinion” provides a good segue to my next procedural point. I will not belabor the well-aired point that Christine Chinkin should have been recused at the outset owing to the evidence of her predisposition to find Israel guilty of war crimes. That fact alone should be sufficient to render your Report tainted and unreliable. What has received less publicity was that you and the other two members of your panel were among a small group of eminent jurists who had written to the secretary-general of the United Nations, expressing that “events in Gaza had shocked [you] to the core,” effectively volunteering for the job you were later given. While I could be wrong, I do not believe that this group of jurists had ever written to the United Nations expressing such shock or called for an investigation during the eight years of rocket attacks on Israeli civilian population centers. If that is the case, that would also suggest a predisposition among the signatories of that letter to seek to make an example of Israel only and would call into question their impartiality. I also wonder whether this group or these jurists independently called for similar investigations into other comparable incidents, the shelling of Groznyy, perhaps, or the Sri Lankan government’s actions against the Tamil Tigers.
Double Standard in Assessment of Credibility of Evidence and Intentions. One of the most surprising elements of your Report is the ease with which you made findings of fact regarding the subjective intentions of the Israeli government and individual Israeli solders to strike at civilian targets and to murder civilians. In fact, you assert that you were able to determine the presence of the subjective fault element (mens rea) required for criminal liability “in almost all of the cases [you examined].” (25) Your accusations that Israel willfully and intentionally attacked civilians could not be more stark. To quote just one of very many examples: “In reviewing the above incidents the Mission found in every case that the Israeli armed forces had carried out direct intentional strikes against civilians.” (808) And you purported to be able to make these determinations without once speaking to the Israelis whom you accuse of such horrific actions and intentions. In contrast, you were virtually never able to ascertain any improper intention on the part of the Palestinian parties to this dispute even where the intention behind their actions would seem to be fairly obvious and even though you “enjoyed” their full support and cooperation.
Example: Firing rockets from civilian areas: “On the basis of the information it gathered, the Mission finds that there are indications that Palestinian armed groups launched rockets from urban areas. The Mission has not been able to obtain any direct evidence that this was done with the specific intent of shielding the rocket launchers from counterstrokes by the Israeli armed forces.” (480)
Another example: Hamas fighters mingling with civilians: “The Mission finds that the presence of Palestinian armed fighters in urban residential areas during the military operations is established. . . . While reports reviewed by the Mission credibly indicate that members of Palestinian armed groups were not always dressed in a way that distinguished them from civilians, the Mission found no evidence that Palestinian combatants mingled with the civilian population with the intention of shielding themselves from attack.” (481)
The evidence on which you base your conclusions that Israel consistently and as a matter of policy attacked civilians and civilian objects consisted of the fact of Israel’s technological superiority and on statements by a handful of Israeli leaders. The section on Israel’s strategy in your Report concludes (at 1211): “Statements by political and military leaders prior to and during the military operations in Gaza leave little doubt that disproportionate destruction and violence against civilians were part of a deliberate policy.”
Aside from the inadequacy of using this sort of circumstantial evidence to determine subjective intentions, and the fact that you have a tendency to take these quotes out of context, it is striking how unhesitatingly and how fully you attribute probative value to public statements by Israeli leaders (even if they appear to have been made in a political context and could easily be understood to be mere “puffery”). On the other hand, your Report does not include any quotes from Hamas leaders regarding their intentions to attack Israeli civilians — or the Hamas charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel and killing of Jews — and even when Hamas does admit that it uses human shields or that policemen killed by Israeli strikes were its operatives, you cast doubt on that admission and suggest that it is mere puffery. Even in cases of “Palestinian armed groups” firing rockets at Sderot in Israel where their intentions are quite obvious, you are unwilling to attribute any subjective intent but merely find that “there is significant evidence to suggest that one of the primary purposes of the rocket and mortar attacks is to spread terror amongst the Israeli civilian population.”
This double standard in your treatment of witnesses is also evident throughout your Report where you accord full credibility to virtually all Palestinian witness and praise their objectivity (even though you acknowledge the presence of duress) but almost invariably cast doubt upon Israeli accounts you received. The Israeli government cannot even acknowledge an error without your Report casting doubt on it, while the only times you seem to doubt the credibility of Palestinian witnesses is when so doing would be exculpatory.
I could go on and on with examples but the point is clear: your Mission simply took the accusations made by obviously interested parties and (by your own admission) coerced witnesses, in some cases “corroborated” by anonymous reports, and repackaged them into “findings of fact” and the most horrific of allegations. Virtually no effort was made to uncover the truth or to get behind the accusations and ask why particular actions were taken, beyond asking Israel to explain and drawing a negative inference from their refusal, on principle, to respond. You may disagree with Israel’s decision to ignore your Mission, but when that becomes the fundamental linchpin on which you reach your conclusions, that is not fact-finding. It is politics. I myself was unsure of the Israeli government’s decision not to cooperate with your investigation, but it becomes hard to argue with those who say that your Report validates the view that the deck was so stacked against Israel that it was not worth playing the game.
Your Selection of Incidents to Investigate
A closely related point is your Mission’s selection of which matters to investigate and which to ignore. Your Mission investigated 36 incidents in Gaza and stated that it “considers that the report is illustrative of the main patterns of violations.” (17) Since virtually all these incidents were cases involving Israeli actions and Palestinian casualties or damage, it is clear that the “pattern of violations” that interested you most were those where Israel could be condemned.
As discussed above, the efforts you made to find the relevant facts underlying the operation left much to be desired. Very little effort was made to investigate the behavior of Hamas and the other “Palestinian armed groups”: Did they direct attacks at civilian targets? Did they use civilians as human shields? Did they hide weapons in civilian buildings like mosques, schools, and hospitals? You do not even raise as a possibility whether Hamas and the other “Palestinian armed groups” intentionally drew fire toward civilian objects to score public-relations victories (I do not believe in their wildest dreams they ever expected the PR and strategic windfall that you have awarded them), although this appears to be a central element of their moqawamma (“resistance”) strategy. I understand that seeking those facts was difficult — the people you were talking to would not talk about that (because of both bias and intimidation) and the people who would talk about it (the Israelis) refused to talk to you — but that should not relieve honest fact finders of their obligation to try to find the facts. Reviews by others of the video clips of interviews with Palestinian witnesses posted on your website suggest that you did not even press witnesses for answers to these questions. Instead you simply relied on the absence of countervailing evidence to validate the “facts” reported to you by those biased and intimidated witnesses.
On a few occasions, you accepted the “possibility” that there might be another side to the story that you “could not entirely discount,” that is, that there may have been inappropriate actions on the Palestinian side. For example: “The Mission finally notes that it cannot entirely discount the possibility that Palestinian civilians may have been killed as a result of fire by Palestinian armed groups in encounters with the Israeli armed forces, as argued in a submission to the Mission, although it has not encountered any information suggesting that this was the case.” (361) “While the Mission would not rule out the possibility that there might be individuals in the police force who retain their links to the armed groups, it believes . . .” (417) “The Mission accepted, on the basis of information in the reports it had seen, the possibility of mortar attacks from Palestinian combatants in the vicinity of the school.” (444) The Mission cannot discount the possibility that Palestinian armed groups were active in the vicinity of such [United Nations] facilities.” (483)
However these matters were never investigated to the point of ascertaining whether they amounted to war crimes or whether they justified the Israeli actions under investigation. For the most part, you were satisfied simply to state that you were unable to make any determination regarding these matters: “The Mission is unable to make any determination on the general allegation that Palestinian armed groups used mosques for military purposes.” (484) “On the basis of the investigations it has conducted, the Mission did not find any evidence to support the allegations that hospital facilities were used by the Gaza authorities or by Palestinian armed groups to shield military activities.” (485) “On the basis of the information it gathered, the Mission found no indication that the civilian population was forced by Hamas or Palestinian armed groups to remain in areas under attack from the Israeli armed forces.” (486)
On other occasions, where the evidence of bad behavior on the Palestinian side was so clear you could not deny it or profess ignorance, you proceed — astonishingly — to justify it or explain it away.
Example: Firing rockets from civilian areas: “The Mission finds that there are indications that Palestinian armed groups launched rockets from urban areas. . . . Palestinian armed groups do not appear to have given Gaza residents sufficient warning of their intention to launch rockets from their neighbourhoods to allow them to leave and protect themselves against Israeli strikes at the rocket launching sites. . . . Given the densely populated character of the northern half of the Gaza Strip, once Israeli forces gained control of the more open or outlying areas during the first days of the ground invasion, most — if not all — locations still accessible to Palestinian armed groups were in urban areas.” (480) In other words, you explain and even seek to justify Hamas’s actions endangering civilians because it would have been dangerous for it to fight Israel otherwise.
Another example: Booby-trapping houses: “From the information it gathered, the Mission does not discount the use of booby traps by the Palestinian armed groups. The Mission has no basis to conclude that civilian lives were put at risk, since none of the reports records the presence of civilians in or near the houses that were allegedly booby-trapped.” (482) Your willingness to accept a “no-harm-no-foul” defense for booby-trapping civilian houses is as telling as your reluctance to find improper intentions on the Palestinian side.
These few examples (of the many more that could be cited) should suffice to demonstrate that your Mission chose only to investigate one side of the conflict (Israel), and made its findings based on evidence presented by only one side of the conflict (the Palestinians).
Your Characterization (and Extension) of Your Mission HRC Resolution S-9/1, that “very lopsided unfair resolution” (again, those are your words) which was introduced by Cuba, Egypt, and Pakistan and passed by many of the world’s most repressive regimes, established your “fact-finding mission” to gather evidence to support their determination that Israel had violated the human rights of the Palestinian people. When you agreed to head the Mission, to your credit you insisted to the president of the HRC that your Mission be authorized to look at violations on all sides. It is therefore very surprising that you made so little effort to find the facts relating to violations on the Palestinian side, as described above. Equally surprising is how you chose to characterize your Mission and even broaden its scope in certain respects, all of which appear to have the purpose and most certainly had the effect of heightening criticism of Israel. It is interesting that even the terminology in which you chose to cast your allegations against Israel is more extreme than that used in the “very lopsided unfair resolution,” which spoke in terms of human-rights violations but did not talk about “war crimes” or “crimes against humanity.” That phraseology, with all its evocative connotations for the Jewish people, is all yours.
Seeking Political Impact Rather than Truth. Instead of viewing yourselves as a fact-finding mission, with the specific purpose of uncovering the truth, you chose to characterize yourselves as a victim-oriented mission: “The Mission gave priority to the participation of victims and people from the affected communities.” (22). “The Mission has made victims its first priority and it will draw attention to their plight.” (136)
Such a victim-focused investigation is not an appropriate method for establishing the facts in a conflict such as this. There are undeniably more victims on the Palestinian side of the conflict, but “draw[ing] attention to their plight” is not a fact-finding objective. It is a political objective. In some cases, such as the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which appears to have been, at least in part, the model for your proceedings, that may be appropriate and very laudable. However, that is not the job of a fact-finding mission in the midst of an ongoing political conflict. The question that the honest fact finder should be trying to answer is not how can I “draw attention to their plight” but whose victims are they? It is clear from your Report, and apparently from the videotaped interviews that your Mission has published, that you were far more concerned about effects than causes, and not asking enough of the right questions.
Lawmaking Rather than Fact-Finding. A second manner in which you extended the scope of your fact-finding mission was in your decision to go beyond fact-finding and to express legal opinions on which you then based your accusations of war crimes. For example, the question of whether Gaza should still be considered “occupied” following Israel’s unilateral and complete withdrawal is a legal question and a highly contentious one. Certainly Israel maintains that Gaza is no longer occupied, and there are strong arguments in that regard. That substantive question is beyond the scope of this letter, but the point is that you chose to reach a legal conclusion in the context of a fact-finding mission, based very grave accusations on that legal position, and did so with no due process and no opportunity for debate on the merits of the legal issue.
A second instance of lawmaking is your holding that the “Israeli system of investigation does not comply” with the “standards of impartiality, independence, promptness and effectiveness” required by international law. I will leave it to others better placed than I am to address the substance of your holding and note only that it is my understanding that the Israeli standards for investigating the actions of its own military are not very different from those followed by the United States, Britain, and other modern countries with active and honorable militaries.
Similar (although probably a matter of mixed fact and law) is your finding that the Gaza police force was a civilian police force entitled to protection under international humanitarian law. To be sure, you did some fact-finding. You unearthed the details regarding the IDF’s attack on the Gaza police stations at the outbreak of the operation. You also established that, after Hamas seized control of Gaza in July 2007, it “merged the Gaza police with the ‘Executive Force’ it had created after its election victory” and that “a great number of the Gaza policemen were recruited among Hamas supporters or members of Palestinian armed groups.” You noted that you had been provided with information on Gaza police members’ alleged affiliation with armed groups that purported to be “based to a large extent on the websites of the armed groups” themselves, and you accepted (in your usual noncommittal way regarding allegations against Palestinians that you preferred not to investigate) “that there may be individual members of the Gaza police that were at the same time members of Palestinian armed groups and thus combatants.” You nevertheless concluded: “From the facts gathered by it, the Mission finds that there is insufficient information to conclude that the Gaza police as a whole had been ‘incorporated’ into the armed forces of the Gaza authorities” and that the Gaza police were a “civilian law-enforcement agency.” Clearly Israel had a different view on this issue, but again you were happy to reach this conclusion — and the resulting verdict of guilty of “war crimes” — without their input.
Piling on Gratuitous Anti-Israel Criticisms.You also expanded the scope of your Mission beyond what was required by the HRC’s “very lopsided unfair resolution” in other notable respects. You expend more than 20 pages criticizing Israel for “repressing dissent” and limiting freedom of association as well as for excluding the press and human-rights monitors from Gaza during the operation. This is not only gratuitous given the primary scope of your Mission and the many important areas you decided not to investigate at all but ironic in the extreme given the critical mass of highly repressive countries that commissioned your Report. Israel is a robust democracy — the only one in the Middle East — and has a vigorous free and highly critical press and a strong commitment to human rights. Very few of its accusers can claim that. The limited actions taken in the middle of a war to prevent the opening of a second front (even your Report acknowledges that, “in the main, the protests were permitted to take place” ) have to be seen against this backdrop. I know I am not alone in wishing that eminent jurists like yourselves would devote as much time and effort to criticizing repression of dissent in Iran, China, Zimbabwe, Cuba, and a host of other countries as you have investigating and formulating such allegations against Israel.
It is also telling that you and your fellow commissioners even felt compelled — in the context of a fact-finding mission regarding the war in Gaza — to call into question Israeli laws that are central to its identity as the Jewish homeland, including the so-called Law of Return that guarantees Israeli citizenship for all of Jewish ancestry.
The above examples show that the way you chose to characterize your Mission and the scope you established for your investigation and Report reflect a biased and political effort. What did you do when the “very lopsided unfair resolution” of the HRC commissioned your group to find facts to support their determination of human-rights violations by Israel? You did that and more: you decided to use your Mission as a political vehicle to “draw attention to [the victims’] plight; you established new legal standards, which you then found Israel did not live up to; you gratuitously (and ironically) lambasted Israel for repressing dissent and freedom of the press and association; and you even gratuitously raised questions concerning Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.
Fundamental but Dubious Assumptions
Without denying that there are matters raised in your report that deserve further investigation and explanation by Israel, it appears that your wholesale condemnations of Israel and accusations of “war crimes” rest in large part on certain fundamental premises or a “worldview” shared by you and your fellow commissioners. These premises reflect assumptions that underlie much of your Report, but their validity is not incontrovertible. Indeed they are highly contentious and to the degree that these assumptions are wrong, your Report’s conclusions are invalid.
Legitimizing Hamas. One of these fundamental assumptions that permeates your entire analysis is that Hamas is a nonviolent political organization distinct from its military wing. This characterization of Hamas is entirely implausible. It requires more than naiveté to reach that conclusion, in light of all the readily available evidence, including that organization’s refusal to renounce the use of violence or even to recognize the existence of the State of Israel (which together torpedoed the peace process and damned Gaza to its present state of destitution), the express statements of Hamas’s own leadership regarding the use of violence and terrorist tactics, and the fact that the Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel and genocide against the Jewish people (which remarkably does not merit a mention in your Report). Because it openly embraces terrorist tactics, Hamas is widely condemned as a terrorist organization. In light of all the readily available evidence, the suggestion that Hamas can be neatly separated from its military wing is spurious.
Earlier I stated that your Report not only legitimizes but whitewashes Hamas. Although the press has chosen not to highlight this, a close review of every reference to Hamas throughout your Report will reveal that, while there are some perfunctory condemnations of “armed Palestinian groups” (which include Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades) and some measured criticism of the “Gaza Authorities” regarding things they could have done better (sins of omission rather than commission), Hamas itself gets off virtually scot-free in your Report and even emerges looking like an innocent victim. My point here is not to refute as a substantive matter that highly troubling aspect of your Report — I shall leave that to others — but simply to observe that a critical assumption underlying many of your claims of “war crimes” is that Hamas should be considered independent of its infamous military wing. To the extent that this assumption is flawed, the conclusions on which it is based are invalid. But the very fact that you approached your fact-finding mission with this as a basic assumption indicates a perspective that calls the conclusions drawn by your Mission into question.
Gaza Still Occupied? A second fundamental assumption, discussed above, is the notion that Gaza remains occupied by Israel, notwithstanding its complete unilateral withdrawal four years ago, which, in your view, has “‘done nothing’ to alter the character of Israel as an occupying Power.”  Again, I will leave it to others to debunk this dubious legal conclusion, noting simply that it is one of the foundations on which you build your case for the prosecution. The implications of your position are dramatic. For example, although Israel facilitated the supply of significant humanitarian aid to Gaza and even your Report acknowledges “that the supply of humanitarian goods, particularly foodstuffs, allowed into Gaza by Israel temporarily increased during the military operations” (72), you nevertheless condemn Israel as violating the Fourth Geneva Convention for not doing enough “as Occupying Power” to provide such supplies. In other words, your report twists Israel’s humanitarian efforts (done from its perspective out of kindness rather than legal obligation) into a war crime because you reached a different legal conclusion on the status of Gaza. If you are wrong in your conclusion that Gaza remains occupied, then rather than being condemned as war criminals, Israel should be commended for its humanitarian efforts to support the Palestinian civilian population even while that it was in the midst of a bloody war to root out the terrorists who had converted their homes into rocket-launching sites.
Placing Blame. Perhaps the most fundamental and flawed assumption underlying your Report is the position that the tragic situation of the Palestinian people, and especially those in Gaza, is all Israel’s fault. That your Mission is of this view is clear from the way you characterize (or rather mischaracterize) the history of the region; it is clear from your use of language throughout your Report; it is clear from your failure to seek to understand why actions were taken — why Israel shut border crossings? Why Israel built the security barrier? Why Israel felt the need to undertake the Gaza operation at all? And it is clear from your refusal to acknowledge what Hamas and its charter say unequivocally that Hamas exists to destroy the Jewish state. Your perspective is also clear from specific statements, including the curious analysis you offer in one of your concluding paragraphs: “After decades of sustained conflict, the level of threat to which both Palestinians and Israelis are subjected has not abated, but if anything increased, . . . The State of Israel is therefore also failing to protect its own citizens by refusing to acknowledge the futility of resorting to violent means and military power.” (1711) It is telling that it is Israel you criticize in this regard, and it is unclear what you expect Israel to do in the face of a foe that refuses to negotiate but only wants to fight.
There are other elements of the “worldview” with which you and your fellow commissioners approached your assignment and which impacted your Report — assumptions regarding Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state at all, for example, or regarding the legitimacy of a separation barrier to protect Israeli civilians from terrorist attacks, or whether Israel is a decent country. (For example, at 132 you state: “The Mission is also of the view that the Israeli system presents inherently discriminatory features that have proven to make the pursuit of justice for Palestinian victims very difficult.”) This is not the place to debate these interesting topics; I mention them solely to make the point that there are perspectives and prejudices that underlie your investigation that cannot but influence your findings.
Your Ahistorical Context
While you accepted that the Gaza operation and events under investigation should not be considered in isolation, nevertheless you and your fellow commissioners did not mean they should be placed in the context of the thousands of rockets that were fired from Gaza at Israeli towns since Israel’s unilateral and complete withdrawal from Gaza. No, to you, Israel’s actions “are part of a broader context, and are deeply rooted in the many years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.”
The “historical context” offered by your Report is not a history that any objective person with any knowledge of the Middle East would recognize. On the contrary, what you chose to include in the brief historical context you provide is a simplistic canned recitation of the revisionist “Palestinian narrative.”
Numerous affirmative statements in your Report mischaracterize the history of the region but more telling is what you chose to leave out. How, for example, can you purport to deal with the conflict between Israel and Hamas without once mentioning that the charter of Hamas calls for the destruction of the State of Israel? How can the historical context you cite make no reference at all to the persistent pan-Arabist rejection of the State of Israel, the many wars that were waged against Israel by many Arab states, the terror campaign waged against Israel by Hamas (save for a couple of lines that cites the number of suicide bomb attacks “according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs”)? Your Report fails to address the fundamental question of why the Gaza operation was launched at all, or why Israel had to build its security barrier (which you criticize), or why the border crossings were frequently closed. Indeed a reader of your Report with limited knowledge of the situation would have to conclude based on the absence of any of this background and the numerous accusations you make against Israel of intentionally targeting Palestinian civilians that Israel’s intentions were genocidal (which would be ironic since it is, of course, Hamas that propagates a genocidal philosophy against Israel and the Jewish people). They would also have to conclude that the IDF was terribly incompetent, given their low rate of success if they were deliberately targeting Palestinian civilians, with some 2,300 to 3,000 sorties flown during the operation and their overwhelming firepower from land, sea, and air. Without minimizing in any way the terrible tragedy inherent in any loss of life of innocent civilians, the number of casualties relative to the amount of firepower brought to bear surely indicates that significant efforts were made, including through careful targeting and provision of warnings, to avoid loss of life.
You purport to go through a detailed chronology of events that seems to show how every rocket attack by the “Palestinian armed groups” was in fact a response to some Israeli provocation. The clear suggestion from your recitation of events is that what happened in the years between Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the Gaza operation was not just a “cycle of violence” (the mantra favored by reporters who wish to draw a moral equivalence between Israel and its attackers) but that the problems were actually instigated by Israel. Set against the incontrovertible fact (that again — astoundingly — your Report does not even mention) that Hamas’s stated goal is not the liberation of Gaza but the destruction of Israel, it can only be said that the historical context in which you place the operations under investigation is derived from a Palestinian fairy tale.
I could go on, but I think the point is clear that the historical context you adopted and with which you approached your assignment is a biased and ahistorical one, which reflects a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel political worldview that dictated the tone and preordained the outcome of your investigation.
The Language of Your Report Illustrates Its Bias
As already shown by the various quotes taken from your Report, the language used throughout your Report defies any claim of evenhandedness. This is evident in the big themes, as when you wax eloquent about “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination” without ever noting the denial by Hamas and others who refuse to accept Israel’s legitimacy of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination (and indeed, you even call the latter into question yourself). And it is evident in the hundreds of little references peppered throughout your recitation of the historical background and your “findings of fact” that are stated in ways unfavorable to Israel (and questionable in fact). To mention just a handful of arbitrary examples: there is the recitation of Israeli aircraft attacking a “car maintenance workshop” (without any explanation that it was probably also a rocket factory) (261); there is the description of the tunnels built under the Gaza-Egypt border as “a lifeline for the Gaza economy and the people” enabling them to get “fuel . . . as well as consumables” without even mentioning the smuggling of rockets, IEDs, and other weapons (253 and 320); there are the unsubstantiated incidental “drive-by” allegations of intentional attacks on civilians (for example, that an Israeli plane “fired a missile at a group of Palestinian children who were sitting in a street” ); there are all those references to “blockades” and “occupation” (even after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza); and of course there is the refusal ever to use the word terrorist or terrorism except when quoting an Israeli source. Indeed, an analysis of the use of the word terror of your report will reveal the ironic fact that Israel is the only party in connection with whom you use the word terrorize and the party you frequently accuse of spreading terror, with just one acknowledgment of the terror caused by more than 8,000 rockets fired by Hamas and its ilk (without mentioning them by name, of course).
Differences in Tone and Equivocation. Your “findings” and accusations against the Israeli government and the IDF, which overwhelmingly dominate your Report, are expressed unequivocally and in words of one syllable using the most serious accusation that can be made: “war crimes.” You repeat this charge against Israel over and over again. See, for example, paragraphs 1169 to 1173, even though you did offer your standard perfunctory acknowledgement that you did not have all the facts (without saying that all the “facts” you did have came from one side): “From the facts available to it, and in the absence of any information refuting the allegations that the incidents described above took place, the Mission finds that there have been a number of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.”(1165)
Your criticisms of the “Palestinian armed groups” are not only far fewer and more limited but are also much more tentative and measured, and of course Hamas itself is almost untouched. As described above, for the most part you simply avoid looking at Palestinian offences, either just saying you are “not in a position to make any finding” or expressly exonerating them “on the basis of your investigations” or on occasion saying you “cannot exclude the possibility” of bad actions. Of course, you cannot avoid acknowledging that “Palestinian armed groups have launched about 8,000 rockets and mortars into southern Israel since 2001.” These rocket attacks, you determined (in your boldest accusation against the Palestinians), “constitute indiscriminate attacks upon the civilian population of southern Israel and that where there is no intended military target and the rockets and mortars are launched into a civilian population, they constitute a deliberate attack against a civilian population. These acts would constitute war crimes and may amount to crimes against humanity. Given the seeming inability of the Palestinian armed groups to direct the rockets and mortars toward specific targets and given the fact that the attacks have caused very little damage to Israeli military assets, the Mission finds that there is significant evidence to suggest that one of the primary purposes of the rocket and mortar attacks is to spread terror amongst the Israeli civilian population, a violation of international law.” (109) The tone and equivocation with which you make this one finding against “Palestinian armed groups” is quite different to that used in your multiple accusations of war crimes against Israel. And, of course, the charge is virtually meaningless anyway, because no party that can be held accountable is named.
Israel Can Do Nothing Right in Your Eyes. Another striking feature of your Report is how every positive action Israel takes is twisted into a negative and an accusation, generally of war crimes. We have already noted how the very substantial amount of humanitarian aid facilitated and delivered by Israel even in the midst of an ongoing war was regarded by you as inadequate to fulfill its obligation as “Occupying Power” and was thus a violation of the Geneva Convention. The same pattern is evident in your consideration of the multilevel warning system Israel instituted to try to minimize civilian casualties, which has been described as “unprecedented in the history of warfare.”
You do devote two lines to acknowledging Israel’s efforts is this regard: “The Mission acknowledges the significant efforts made by Israel to issue warnings through telephone calls, leaflets and radio broadcasts and accepts that in some cases, particularly when the warnings were sufficiently specific, they encouraged residents to leave an area and get out of harm’s way.” (37) But you then proceed to spend about 10 pages detailing why these efforts were imperfect and inadequate, so that Israel’s conduct still amounted to war crimes.
One particular case is quite instructive. Israel was aware that a favorite Hamas tactic when they receive a warning that a particular house is about to be targeted (because it is used for storing weapons or for some other reason) is to send people (civilians?) up onto the roof to wave off the Israeli planes. It is not clear whether these “human shields” perform this task willingly, as suggested by Hamas leader Fathi Hammad, or are coerced, but in either case, the fact that they do it suggests they have a greater appreciation for the IDF’s restraint than you seem to have. Knowing this, Israel invested in the technology and training to effect a “warning shot” by missile, the practice referred to as “roof knocking.” There is video evidence of its efficacy. This tactic could be viewed as an innovative effort to add a layer of warning to lower the risk of civilian casualties when striking at legitimate military targets. You, however, chose to describe it as “reckless in the extreme,” saying: “the idea that an attack, however limited in itself, can be understood as an effective warning in the meaning of article 57 (2) (c) [of Chapter IV of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions] is rejected by the Mission.” (530 to 533) One wonders if you would apply the same standard to any warning shot, which I expect would be a novel interpretation of the laws of war.
I will cite one final example of how in your Report almost everything Israel does is twisted to portray it in the worst possible light. Your Report notes that, because of the thousands of rockets that have been launched at Sderot and other Israeli cities and towns nears the Gaza border, Israel installed at great cost a warning system that would give residents 15 seconds’ warning of incoming rockets. Your principle reason for mentioning this appears be so that you can condemn “the disparity in treatment of Jewish and Palestinian citizens by the Government of Israel in the installation of early warning systems and provision of public shelters and fortified schools between its Jewish and Palestinian citizens,” even though the Palestinian towns and informal villages are not the target of the rocket attacks from Gaza. (110, 1714)
Gilad Shalit. Your treatment of the Shalit matter is troubling. Contrary to press reports, even after hearing from his father, you could not even bring yourself to demand his immediate release by Hamas. The most you can bring yourself to do is issue a “recommendation” to unidentified “Palestinian armed groups” that he be released “on humanitarian grounds” and until then be treated as a “prisoner of war.” (1770) For the most part, your discussion of Shalit consists of criticizing Israel’s heavy-handed response after he was “captured during an enemy incursion into Israel,” and your indication of concern that Israel not impose “collective punishment of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip” by “maintaining the blockade of the Gaza Strip until the release of Gilad Shalit,” as some Israeli politicians have suggested (78). Your approach to the Shalit matter appears to be, consistent with the rest of your Report, that his capture was a legitimate act of resistance on the part of “armed Palestinian groups” against the ongoing “Israeli occupation.” Gilad Shalit was captured in an illegal cross-border raid by Hamas (and others), which constituted an act of war and a grave escalation in hostilities. You (and Hamas) cannot have it both ways: you cannot consider Shalit a “legitimate” prisoner of war unless you are willing to admit that Hamas-ruled Gaza is actively at war with Israel, with all that entails.
Post-Publication Comments. I have seen reference to a number of public statements you have made publicly following the release of your Report that have added to my consternation. One of these arose in an interview with Christiane Amanpour when she asked you about whether the standards you were applying to Israel and possible International Criminal Court proceedings might not implicate “what NATO or the U.S. is doing, let’s say, in Afghanistan or in Iraq.”
You responded by saying: “Well, that’s correct. But the United States, I think to its credit, has always taken care to protect innocent civilians. When innocent civilians have been killed and injured, it hasn’t been because it was intentional. It may have been negligent, it may even have been, and I don’t know I haven’t looked in to it, it may have been more than negligent but I have no doubt that it hasn’t been deliberate.”
I firmly share your conviction that the United States does not intentionally target civilians. I also firmly believe that is true of Israel. What troubles me is how you, as a judge, can make such a statement without having done any investigation whatsoever. Coupled with your unsubstantiated “findings” that Israel intentionally attacked and murdered hundreds of civilians, this statement speaks volumes.
I also wish to comment on a statement you made in your address to the HRC delivering your final Report. You stated that “the teaching of hate and dehumanization by each side against the other contributes to the destabilization of the whole region.” The teaching of hate and dehumanization by Hamas and even the Palestinian Authority is well known and well documented. I am curious about what research you did to conclude that Israel teaches “hate and dehumanization” of Palestinians. I think it very likely that your statement was not researched at all but was just another superficial attempt to sound evenhanded but one that leads to injustice.
The Implications of Your Report
I had hoped that, even though your Mission was the product of a manifestly biased institution and process (as you have acknowledged), you would make something good come out of it, including by sending an unequivocal message that humanity’s vitally important global institutions and the force of international law cannot be cynically manipulated for political purposes. Sadly, your Report does just the opposite: it compounds the original sin of your Mission’s establishment; it manipulates law and fact for political purposes; and it is likely to encourage the worst of human behavior and set back the quest for peace in the Middle East.
Already your Report has had enormous global repercussions, including some that you probably did not intend. Aside from the general anguish that your accusations of “war crimes” have caused in Israel and among the Jewish people, and the anger and hatred that it is has fueled among their enemies, specific identifiable consequences of your Report already include: the last-minute cancellation of NATO joint military exercises among Israel, Turkey, the United States, and Italy (and the consequent waste of millions of dollars and the downgrading of Israeli-Turkish relations); the degradation of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; the weakening of the Palestinian Authority and strengthening of Hamas; travel restrictions on Israeli leaders; and further polarization of the HRC and frustration of the Obama administration’s stated policy of constructive engagement to try to develop the HRC into a useful and meaningful human-rights organization.
While your Reports works its way through the United Nations Security Council and International Criminal Court processes, I am sure many others will examine it closely and point out all its factual errors and legal flaws. I hope that this takes place in the context of a thorough investigation by Israel of the serious allegations that you have made. I expect that by the time the truth emerges regarding the cases you investigated (not to mention situations you chose to ignore), the credibility of your Report will be thoroughly undermined. Of course, that will be cold comfort for Israel and the Jewish people, as the libel you have perpetrated — unparalleled in both its heinous accusations and widespread publication — has already taken hold and the truth, when it emerges, will have no power against the venom and hate that has already been spread.
My Suggestions for You
It appears from your recent public remarks (at least in the Jewish press) that you may now realize that your Report overstates (to use a euphemistic term) the case against Israel. Your statements like “If this was a court of law, there would have been nothing proven” and “I wouldn’t consider it in any way embarrassing if many of the allegations turn out to be disproved”; are welcome — because they are true — although they are somewhat perplexing because they are so inconsistent with the unqualified charges you made in your Report itself.
It is also clear that you are frustrated and “saddened” that the HRC is continuing in its usual one-sided anti-Israel mode and not even condemning the “Palestinian armed groups” for the violations your Report did establish. (You should not be surprised that Hamas is not named in the HRC resolution, for, as I have pointed out, your Report does not condemn them either, only their military wing.) It seems possible that you may even now be seeing the damage and injustice that is being caused, and will continue to be caused, by this document that bears your name and will, for better or worse, be your enduring legacy (even as I am sure you continue to believe that Israel’s leaders and soldiers should be held accountable if they overstepped legal bounds). And you may even be wondering whether there is anything you can do to mitigate the damage, injustice, and pain that your Report is causing.
My suggestion to you is that, in the interests of truth and justice, you should publish an article in which you do the following (much of this should not be difficult or controversial, as you have already done it in a more limited forum):
- Acknowledge that the type of scrutiny and standards you are applying against Israel have never been applied against any country in a comparable situation.
- Acknowledge that, based on the standards by which you are judging Israel, many other countries would also have been found guilty of war crimes (including in recent and ongoing conflicts, and most certainly the Allied powers that defeated Germany and Japan in World War II).
- Admit and explain that your determinations were made on the basis of one-sided evidence that, as you have already acknowledged, was tainted by duress.
- Acknowledge that there are many credible allegations of actions taken by Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups that, if true, would constitute war crimes but which you did not investigate.
- Acknowledge that your Report was unbalanced in terms of the allocation of focus on Israel, the incidents it chose to investigate, the selective historical context it included, and the language it used.
- Acknowledge that in a judicial proceeding a person who had demonstrated prejudgment of the issue at hand, as Christine Chinkin had, would not have been eligible to participate as a judge.
- Acknowledge that your taking into consideration of hearsay and anonymous reports is not consistent with standards that would apply in any judicial inquiry.
- Explain, as you have already said orally, that much of the evidence you considered (including hearsay and anonymous reports) would not be admissible in a court and that your conclusions do not reflect anything that has been proved.
- Acknowledge that a central pillar of your argument was that Hamas should be considered separately from its military wing, and if that distinction does not hold up in fact, many of your allegations of war crimes and other violations would cease to apply.
- Acknowledge that a central pillar of your argument is that Israel continues to “occupy” Gaza, and if that characterization does not hold up as a matter of law, many of your allegations would cease to apply.
- Given the aspersions your Report has cast on the Israeli judicial system, repeat and emphasize (and not only in Israeli and Jewish media) your statement that “Israel has a strong history of investigating allegations made against its own officials reaching to the highest levels of government . . . Israel has an internationally renowned and respected judiciary that should be the envy of many other countries in the region.”
- Acknowledge that Israel is not alone responsible for the casualties and damage resulting from Operation Cast Lead but that some substantial portion of the responsibility (parties may differ on the allocation) must go to Hamas and the other Palestinian armed groups that attacked Israel with missiles.
- Acknowledge that Israel has a right to act in self-defense and an obligation to defend its citizens and is not required or expected to suffer missiles being launched at it from Gaza or across any other border.
- Acknowledge that the refusal by Hamas and other entities and states to recognize and accept the State of Israel is inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations and a major impediment to peace in the region.
- Demand (not just “recommend as a humanitarian gesture”) the release of Gilad Shalit, who is not just being held captive illegally but who was taken captive illegally.
In writing this letter to you, I am by no means suggesting that Israel is perfect or should be immune from criticism or even condemnation, when appropriate. It is entirely possible that individual Israeli soldiers or the IDF as a whole may have overstepped the bounds during Operation Cast Lead, including perhaps in some of the incidents that you have looked at. As noted in your Report, there are still many investigations, including some criminal cases, open in Israel regarding Operation Cast Lead, and if any credible allegations you have raised are not already being investigated, I sincerely hope they will be added. In any such cases, I hope and trust that the Israeli authorities will take all appropriate action so that the “purity of arms” on which the IDF has always rightfully prided itself will not be compromised.
But for all the reasons I have described above, your Report as written is an abominable travesty of justice. The damage that you and your Report have already done — to Israel, to the Jewish people, and to truth itself — can never be undone. But it can be mitigated if you are willing to admit the flaws in your Report loudly and clearly.
New York, New York
 For the most part, I reviewed the Advance Edited Version released on September 15, 2009. I understand from your speech to the HRC that the final version submitted on September 29, 2009, redressed certain inaccuracies. Although I doubt that any corrections made will significantly affect the substance of my letter, I will be happy to review the changes if a version marked to highlight them is made available. I believe the paragraph references I use apply to both the Advance Edited Version and the final version.
I am reminded of that famous statement by Prime Minister Golda Meir from 40 years ago: “When peace comes we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.” It is nothing less than tragic that forty years later this is still true, except that the word “sons” should be replaced in both places with the word “children”.
 My disappointment is especially acute because I have for months been assuring doubters that the investigation would likely be fair and balanced because of your involvement.
 Your interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN on September 30. It is troubling that you decline to speak and write plainly and openly before all audiences about the lopsidedness of the authorizing resolution. You obviously recognize it and have acknowledged it (before an American audience on CNN and in the Israeli press), and yet you continue to hide the biased origin of your Mission, for example in the Introduction to the Report (1) and in your introductory remarks to the HRC rendering your final report.
 I will generally refer to this body as the HRC. I cannot bring myself to use the full name because the irony is too bitter and tragic given the critical importance of human rights in today’s world.
 See for example: Blocking the Truth of the Gaza War: How the Goldstone Commission Understated the Hamas Threat to Palestinian Civilians by Jonathan D. Halevi, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 10, 18 September 2009, available at www.jcpa.org.
 Of course you phrased it a little more delicately: “The Mission was faces with a certain reluctance by the persons it interviewed in Gaza to discuss the activities of the armed groups.” (35.) “Whatever the reasons for their reluctance, the Mission does not discount that the interviewees’ reluctance may have stemmed from a fear of reprisals.” (Report at 438.) Really? You think? See also paragraphs 453 and 1585.
 The emphasis of this frequently used phraseology and other italicized terms within quotes is added throughout.
 This is one example of the objection that your report evidences a political motivation behind what was supposed to be a “fact-finding” mission.
 It is not too late for that group of eminent jurists to call for an investigation into events in eastern Congo where there have been recent reports of over a thousand civilians murdered and nearly 900,000 displaced by Rwandan Hutu militiamen and Congolese forces, with allegations of widespread rape, looting and forced labor.
 One wonders what reason you might ascribe to the decision of Palestinian combatants to fight out of uniform. Perhaps they thought their uniform so unfashionable, they would not want to be caught dead in it.
 So for example you state (at 61): “The Israeli armed forces . . . have a very significant capacity for precision strikes by a variety of methods, including aerial and ground launches. Taking into account the ability to plan, the means to execute plans with the most developed technology available, and statements by the Israeli military that almost no errors occurred, the Mission finds that the incidents and patterns of events considered in the report are the result of deliberate planning and policy decisions.”
 Two examples of Israeli comments taken out of context: (1) when the Israeli leaders in question threatened a “disproportionate” response to rocket attacks it is likely they were not using that word in the legal sense (in relation to the military object to be achieved) but in the more colloquial sense of making Hamas pay a disproportionately high price for attacking Israel, which is entirely appropriate and does not translate into your “disproportionate destruction and violence against civilians were part of a deliberate policy”; and (2) several times you cite a comment from after the Gaza operation by Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai that, if attacked, Israel would “destroy 100 homes for every rocket fired” (64. 1201 and 1212) as evidence that Israeli leaders intended the “destruction of civilian objects . . . as a response to rocket attacks” but you fail to consider that in his earlier comments it was clear he was talking about homes of terrorists (see 1200). See also 389.
 For example, Hamas leader Fathi Hammad stated: “The Palestinian people has developed its [methods] of death seeking. For the Palestinian people, death became an industry, at which women excel and so do all people on this land: the elderly excel, the mujahideen excel and the children excel. Accordingly, [Hamas] created a human shield of women, children, the elderly and the mujahideen, against the Zionist bombing machine.” You responded: “Although the Mission finds this statement morally repugnant, it does not consider it to constitute evidence that Hamas forced Palestinian civilians to shield military objectives against attack. The Government of Israel has not identified any such cases.” (476)
See also 421: “Often, when persons . . . are killed by actions of the Israeli armed forces , political and/or armed groups ‘adopt’ them as ‘martyrs’ placing their photographs on their websites and commending their contribution to resisting occupation. This does not mean that those persons killed were involved in resistance activities in any way.”
 See 47 in which, reacting to Israel’s acknowledgment of a tragic “operational error,” you expressed “significant doubt about the Israeli authorities’ account of the incident.”
 See, for example, 456.
 Much of the data and evidence you received and cited in your report came from a division of the Gaza authorities (that is, Hamas) called the “Central Commission for Documentation and Pursuit of Israeli War Criminals.” Maybe the name of this group suggests it may not be entirely objective.
 See the Halevi piece referred to above.
 The legal implications of the president’s consent are unclear, since the “very lopsided unfair resolution” was never actually amended or expanded.
 I suppose the Jewish people should be grateful that, for the most part, your Report leaves implicit its equation of Israel and the Nazis. The only time you draw an express parallel between Israel and Hitler’s Germany is when you compare Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza to allow the Palestinians to govern themselves with the German invasion of Denmark. (279)
 As an example, see again the Halevi piece referred to above.
 It is curious that you do not accuse Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza and which, if there is indeed a “blockade,” must by definition be a participant in it. It is also notable that you again do not allow yourself to be distracted by the underlying reasons for the “blockade” you decry. Although you frequently mention the closing of the border crossings as part of the “blockade,” you chose not to investigate the reasons for these closings, the fact that there were routinely attacked by Hamas and other terrorist groups, and the weapons smuggling that the border controls were designed to prevent (although you do note without any further commentary that weapons, including Iranian and Chinese rockets, are “thought to be smuggled into Gaza”).
 However, you dismiss these reports as unreliable because, you say, of the tendency of Palestinian groups to “adopt” dead Palestinians as “martyrs” after their death and “this does not mean that those persons killed were involved in resistance activities in any way.” (421) Indeed this reflects another troubling tendency in your Report, namely that you are quick to dismiss Palestinian statements against interest as unreliable “puffery,” but you frequently cite Israeli “puffery” as evidence of bad intent.
 See 206 to 208. For example you say: “The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights also has recognized that Israel’s application of a “Jewish nationality” distinct from Israeli citizenship institutionalizes discrimination that disadvantages all Palestinians. . . .”An interesting debate perhaps, but it is most interesting that you feel the need to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state in the context of your fact-finding mission.
 Quoting with approval (at 279) the nonbinding (and extremely one-sided and dubious) decision of the International Court of Justice, in its Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.
 A peculiar implication of this conclusion is that, if Israel is bound by the same obligations it was when it actually occupied Gaza, its proper course of action in light of its obligation to protect its own citizens from rocket attacks is presumably to recapture Gaza, impose order, and govern the Gazans in accordance with humanitarian law. I doubt very much that this is what you are proposing, but it does show how divorced your Report is from the political realities of the Gaza situation
 I am reminded of that insightful quote attributed to Mark Twain: “If a man invites you to take a walk with him, you can say that you are too tired. Should a man invite you to dinner, you can say that you have just eaten. If a man asks you to have a drink with him, you can say it is against your religion. However, if a man asks you to fight him, then you must oblige him.”
 There are, of course, many books you could read that would provide the more traditional history of the region. For a balanced (if not entirely up-to-date) summary of the recent developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I refer you to Part II, The Historical Setting, of the paper When You Have Not Decided Where to Go, No Wind Can Take You There: A Strategy to Achieve a Comprehensive Israeli-Arab Peace by Yair Hirschfeld Ph.D., an Israeli academic and one of the architects of the Oslo accords, published by The James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in 2007 and available online at http://www.bakerinstitute.org/personnel/fellows-scholars/yhirschfeld .
 To mention just one example, you describe the second intifada unleashed by Yasir Arafat when he did not get everything he wanted at Camp David as a “second popular uprising [that] erupted after. . . . Ariel Sharon conducted a controversial visit to the Temple Mount/al-Haram-al-Sharif.” (180) I find it telling that you cannot even bring yourself to say that Jerusalem is the site of the Jewish Temple. In footnote 10, you state: “The Temple Mount/al-Haram-al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) is the location of al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock mosques, the third most sacred place in Islam. It is also believed to be the location of the two ancient Jewish temples.”
 For example, see the following quotes from the Charter of Hamas: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” (The Martyr, Imam Hassan al-Banna, of blessed memory). . . . “The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him. Only the Gharkad tree, would not do that because it is one of the trees of the Jews.’ (related by al-Bukhari and Muslim).”
 See 206 to 208 and the discussion above at footnote 24.
 “The Mission concludes that what occurred in just over three weeks at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009 was a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population. . . .” (1690; see also 5117, 1162 and 1256)
 “The Mission finds that the rocket and mortars attacks, launched by Palestinian armed groups in Gaza, have caused terror in the affected communities of southern Israel and in Israel as a whole.” (1724)
 I understand, including from footnotes in your Report, that Israel believes the number is much higher — close to 12,000. You do not explain how you made your finding that the lower 8,000 number is more credible.
 “I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the history of warfare when any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of innocent people than the IDF is doing today in Gaza.” British Colonel (retired) Richard Kemp. I have previously referred you to Col. Kemp’s work on the challenges faced by countries trying to fight within the provisions of international law against an enemy that deliberately and consistently flouts international law, and urged you to reach out to him but I gather you chose not to do so.
 See quote at 475.
 In your Jerusalem Post article of October 19, you state that the Mission “called for his release.” Not to be too pedantic, but this provides a good example of how things get distorted in the press: the Report says “recommend”; you say “called”; the Press says “demanded.”
 See for example John Bolton, “Israel, the U.S. and the Goldstone Report,” Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2009.
 See the Jewish Daily Forward, issue of October 23, 2009, available at http://www.forward.com/articles/116771.
 See for example “U.N. Council Backs Gaza War-crimes Report,” the Washington Post, October 17, 2009, available at http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/oct/17/un-council-backs-gaza-war-crimes-report.
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An Open Letter to Richard Goldstone
Must-Reads from Magazine
The bloom is off the rose.
It’s no secret that Arab countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates loathe Iran. What’s far more surprising is that Iran seems to be wearing out its welcome even in the Arab countries with which it is most closely allied. That, at least, is the message of both a recent study of Syrian textbooks and a recent wave of violent protests in Iraq.
In Syria, Shiite Iran has been the mainstay of the Assad regime (which belongs to the Alawite sect of Shiism) ever since civil war erupted in 2011, pitting the regime against Sunni rebels. It has brought more than 80,000 troops to Syria to fight for the regime, mostly either from Shiite militias it already sponsored in Lebanon and Iraq or from new Shiite militias created especially for this purpose out of Afghan and Pakistani refugees in Iran. It has also given the Assad regime astronomical sums of money to keep it afloat.
Scholars estimate its combined military and economic aid to Syria over the course of the war at anywhere from $30 billion to $105 billion. Without this Iranian help, the regime likely wouldn’t have survived until Russia finally intervened in 2015, providing the crucial air power that enabled Assad to regain most of the territory he had lost.
Given all this, one would expect the regime to be grateful to its Iranian benefactors. Instead, as the textbook study shows, Assad is teaching Syrian schoolchildren a healthy dose of suspicion toward Iran.
The study, by researchers from the IMPACT-se research institute, examined official Syrian textbooks for first through twelfth graders used in areas controlled by Assad in 2017-18. Unsurprisingly, these books present Russia as a close ally. Students are even required to study the Russian language.
The portrayal of Iran, in contrast, is “lukewarm at best,” the report said. In part, this is because the “curriculum as a whole revolves around secular pan-Arabism” and Syria’s position as an integral part of the “Arab homeland,” to which non-Arab Iran emphatically doesn’t belong. And in part, it’s because Iran has historically been the Arab world’s rival.
Even though the textbooks praise the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the Islamic Republic’s subsequent antagonism to Israel and the West, which Syria shares, they have little good to say about the country formerly known as Persia in all the millennia until then.
For instance, the books say, the Arab world suffered “cultural domination” by the Persian Empire during the Abbasid caliphate, and at times, Arab lands were even under “Persian occupation.” Nor is this occupation a thing of the past: Even today, the books list Iran’s Khuzestan province as one of “the usurped areas of the Arab homeland.” In fact, it’s dubbed one of “the most important usurped regions.
And what about Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese militia which played a key role in some of Assad’s most important victories, at the price of having over a third of its fighters killed or wounded? It doesn’t even merit a mention in the textbooks, the report said.
Now consider Shi’ite-majority Iraq, which also owes its very existence, in part, to Iranian support: After the Islamic State took over large swaths of the country a few years ago, Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militias proved crucial to regaining this territory. The air power provided by the U.S.-led coalition also obviously played a key role, but on the ground, the Iranian-backed militias were among Iraq’s most effective troops. And aside from this massive military aid, Iran is one of Iraq’s biggest trading partners and an important supplier of electricity.
Yet the protests that have recently swept southern Iraq—the country’s Shi’ite heartland—haven’t focused solely on the Iraqi government’s corruption and dysfunction; they have also repeatedly targeted Iranian-affiliated organizations. The Jerusalem Post reported last week that protesters torched a base belonging to the Iranian-backed militia Kata’ib Hezbollah. They also raided the Najaf airport, and “locals claimed they ransacked planes belonging to Iran.”
In addition, they targeted offices belonging to the Dawa party, the Badr party, and the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, “all of which are closely connected to Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” the report continued. “According to Iraq expert Haydar Al-Khoei, the protesters chanted ‘the Iranian Dawa party, the Safavids,’ a reference to the Persian Empire and an attempt to portray modern-day Iranian-backed parties in Iraq as a form of Iranian takeover of the country.”
Neither Syrian suspicion nor Iraqi hostility should actually be terribly surprising. Both countries understand that Iran didn’t provide such massive military aid out of the goodness of its heart. Rather, its goal is to turn both Syria and Iraq into Iranian satrapies, much as Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon already is. And neither Syrians nor Iraqis are enthusiastic over that prospect. (Russia obviously isn’t helping the Assad regime out of altruism either, but it seems to be seeking more limited quid pro quos, like oil concessions and naval bases, rather than total domination of the country.)
Needless to say, this doesn’t mean either Syria or Iraq will be showing Iran the door anytime soon; both are still too dependent on it. But it does mean Iran’s goal of Mideast domination may face more obstacles than were apparent a few years ago, making the goal of an Iranian rollback even more feasible.
Achieving rollback, however, will require continued efforts to make Iran’s military adventurism financially unsupportable. The Trump Administration’s planned new sanctions on Iran are an important step in the right direction. But the European Union is going in the opposite direction. It’s actually considering throwing Tehran a financial lifeline by letting Iran’s central bank open accounts with European central banks.
Washington must make it clear to Europe that any such effort will have severe ramifications for European access to America’s financial system. With Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians themselves now voicing growing discontent over Iran’s meddling in other countries, this is no time for the West to go wobbly.
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The essence of deterrence.
Newt Gingrich called Donald Trump’s servile performance alongside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki this week the “most serious mistake” of his presidency. Gingrich only had to wait a few hours for the president to top himself.
After he spent an hour emboldening Russia’s autocratic president by insisting that “both sides” are to blame for Moscow’s attack on private American interests in 2016, Trump sat down with Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson for an interview in which he questioned the value of America’s mutual defense commitments abroad. “Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack?” Carlson asked, citing specifically the Balkan nation that ascended to NATO membership last year. Rather than offer a coherent defense of the post-World War II consensus, articulate how the Atlantic alliance advances U.S. interests, or expand on the threat Russia poses to its member states on the periphery, Trump seemed to accept Carlson’s premise.
“I’ve asked the same question,” the president replied. He called Montenegro a “tiny country” populated by “aggressive people” who, like America apparently, might just deserve a punch in the nose from Moscow. “They may get aggressive, and congratulations you’re in World War III,” Trump said. This is a remarkably dangerous sentiment for any American official to express, much less the president of the United States.
Putin has spent the last decade communicating his willingness to use military force to change borders and to halt NATO’s eastward expansion. His invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, followed by the functional or formal annexation of territory in those countries, represent the greatest threat to the American-led postwar order in Europe in the last half-century. Putin regularly tests the Western alliance’s willingness to defend itself. He has executed crippling cyber attacks on American allies. He has engineered border incidents and kidnapped soldiers to use as propaganda tools. Even “aggressive” Montenegro has been the target of Putin’s belligerence. To prevent Podgorica’s ascension into NATO, Russian military officers executed a failed operation in 2016 designed to topple Montenegro’s democratically elected government, assassinate its prime minister, and install an anti-Western regime.
So why would Putin go to all that trouble over a “tiny country?” Not only is Montenegro of strategic value insofar as it had the last non-NATO deepwater port on the Western Mediterranean, but NATO membership takes a country off the board for Russia. Both Ukraine and Georgia were on track to ascend to NATO membership, but weak-kneed Western European leaders blocked those efforts in an attempt to curry favor with Russia. The stall was just long enough for Moscow to interfere in their politics and, eventually, destabilize them militarily. Neither nation will ascend to NATO now, lest the alliance take ownership of Russia’s aggression toward them. Moscow has effectively blocked those sovereign nation’s aspirations to orient themselves westward. It tried to do as much to Montenegro, but it failed.
Moscow is a declining power, and that is precisely what makes it so dangerous. Russia is aware that time is not on its side. It cannot afford conventional conflict with the West, but it has proven willing to test its boundaries. Donald Trump’s willingness to send ambiguous signals about America’s firm defense commitments risks encouraging Moscow to take even more provocative actions. And that could bring about a terrible crisis.
Putin’s objective is to tear the alliance apart, but he cannot do so through direct confrontation; that is a conflict he would lose. The only way he can achieve his goal is to render the alliance moot, and the quickest way to do that would be to engineer a crisis on NATO’s periphery that forces one of its smaller members to call for help. If Estonia asked the West to go to war with Russia in its defense, would we? That’s an open question. If Tallinn invoked NATO’s mutual defense provisions as America did in 2001 and no one came to its aid, the Atlantic alliance would essentially cease to exist, and the postwar order in Europe would go with it.
Communication is the essence of deterrence. An adversary who doesn’t know what you are prepared to defend and what you’re willing to sacrifice will test you. If those boundaries are unclear, that adversary runs the risk of crossing a line that provokes a disproportionate response. Once that cycle of cascading and reciprocal reprisals begins, it becomes difficult to stop.
That is the essential value of NATO. It is a vehicle for deterrence. Its borders are clear, its interests are well defined, and the consequences for violating either are dire. Not only has the Atlantic alliance helped keep the peace among its formerly conflict-prone members, it has raised the cost of overt Russian interference in Western affairs to a prohibitive point. NATO remains a bulwark against Russian antagonism, and its mutual defense guarantees ensure that Americans who volunteer to defend U.S. interests at home and abroad will never be asked to sacrifice their lives in Europe again. An American president should be expected to know that.
In May of 1939, the French socialist newspaper L’Œuvre articulated the essential logic of appeasement when it asserted that the Nazi’s territorial demands on the Polish Republic’s port on the Baltic Sea were not worth contesting. Its arguments were cowardice cloaked in false bravado and cheap nationalism, but it nevertheless put those who were inclined to confront Hitler on the defensive. A slight variation on the title of that article soon became the anti-war slogan adopted by pacifist and isolationist movements on both sides of the Atlantic: “Why die for Danzig?” The Second World War began four months later all the same. Tens of millions would die because the spine required to confront and contain the Nazi menace was in short supply.
So why die for Montenegro? The goal of American strategy in Europe is that, through proactivity and deterrence, no one will. When we fail to communicate to aggressors that their actions will result in consequences that they cannot endure, we run the risk of inviting another terrible conflict. It is one of history’s great ironies that those who claim to be war’s greatest opponents have such a lamentably consistent track record of bringing it about.
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Podcast: The anti-Atlanticist president.
Trump in Helsinki brown-nosing Putin. Trump on with Tucker Carlson threatening the viability of NATO. The possibility of an American ambassador being somehow presented to Russia for questioning. These all happened after our last podcast. We try to make sense of it without crying. Give a listen.
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Corporate silly season.
At some point in recent decades—I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment—corporate America turned itself into an organ of liberal nannyism and virtue signaling. No longer a commercial bulwark against liberal statism, many firms now happily enforce the orthodoxies of cultural liberalism in the workplace. Which means that, for most of us, the “American experience” feels like one seamless garment of dreary, conformist liberalism wrapped around the public square and the private economy.
The transformation reached its apotheosis this month with the announcement that WeWork is turning itself into a “meat-free organization.” That means the shared-office-space purveyor won’t serve meat at cafeterias and office events. Nor will the firm pay for meat-based dishes on expense accounts.
“New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact,” co-founder and “chief culture officer” Miguel McKelvey said in a memo, “even more than switching to a hybrid car.” That whooshing sound you hear is McKelvey’s superhero cape fluttering in the wind.
How the company will enforce the new rules is a mystery. The meat-free rule will likely prove to be a nightmare for frontline human-resources workers as well as the executives who have to wine and dine clients at company expense. Less of a mystery is the motivation behind the change. Vegetarian dishes are on average cheaper than meat-based ones. Moreover, as Virginia Postrel points out, “the meat ban is an exercise in brand-building. In today’s ‘meaning economy,’ what we buy carries value-laden significance. It defines our identity and marks our tribe.”
Yes, apparently there are consumers and employees for whom the food served at the company cafeteria is an important source of spiritual meaning. Pray for them.
Then there is the brain-power problem the firm could be creating for itself by imposing a lifestyle preferred by just 3 percent of Americans on all 6,000 of its workers. To wit, science tells us that “high meat intake correlates with moderate fertility, high intelligence, good health, and longevity with consequent population stability, whereas low meat/high cereal intake . . . correlates with high fertility, disease, and population booms and busts.” The long-term evolutionary success of our species, per numerous biological studies, had something to do with eating meat.
In 1940, amid a national debate in Britain over balanced wartime diets, Winston Churchill wrote: “Almost all the food faddists I have ever known, nut-eaters and the like, have died young after a long period of senile decay . . . The way to lose the war is to try to force the British public into a diet of milk, oatmeal, potatoes, etc., washed down on gala occasions with a little lime juice.” In corporate America in 2018, the faddists and nut eaters and other ninnies are winning the war. For now.
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The president's blind spot.
You could sense a disturbance in the force on Tuesday, as center-left identitarian social-justice activists awoke to the news that former President Barack Obama had set fire to the exclusionary identity politics at the heart of what it means to be “woke.”
“This is hard,” Obama told the audience at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa. For participatory republican democracy to work, the president added, pluralism was a non-negotiable prerequisite. Toxic identity politics that segregate based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other demographic signifier is the enemy of that kind of pluralism. “You can’t do this if you just out-of-hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start,” he said. “You can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you because they’re white or because they’re male, that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”
Now, Obama was speaking about the context of political life in South Africa, where ethnic whites make up less than 10 percent of the population. South Africa’s complicated history, persistent racial disparities, and the associated violence render the problem Obama was addressing an urgent one, and it is not directly applicable to civic life in the United States. And yet, stripped of its regional context, you could be forgiven for thinking that Obama was taking a swipe at his compatriots.
Washington State’s Evergreen State College exploded last year when biology professor Bret Weinstein objected to a student-led initiative called the “day of absence,” in which white students were asked to voluntarily leave campus. Weinstein called it a form of racial segregation. In turn, he was called a racist by students, whose ensuing protests managed to close down the school for three days. Weinstein and his wife resigned and later cost the school a half-million dollars in a settlement over their treatment.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observed, people like Mark Lilla, a Democrat and opponent of identity politics, come under attack from progressive activists who take issue, not with their ideas, but with their race and gender. “White men: stop telling me about my experiences!” read the graffiti that Bruni recalled seeing deface an advertisement for a campus talk Lilla was prepared to deliver in 2017.
It only seems to become difficult for liberals to find evidence of the left’s efforts to silence those with perceived majoritarian traits when they are called to account for this separatism. It is not hard to substantiate the accusation that liberals have made a habit of demanding that straights, whites, males, or any combination thereof, stifle themselves in favor of women and minorities. The impulse to define individuals by their accidents of birth is by definition exclusionary, and it is one that any pluralist society cannot abide. Obama’s admonishment was as welcome as it was universally applicable. It’s a shame that his commitment to it is entirely cosmetic.
Hours had not passed before Obama was again paying homage to the diktats of liberal identity politics. “Women in particular, by the way, I want you to get more involved,” the former president told an audience in Johannesburg. “Because men have been getting on my nerves lately.” He added that men have been “violent,” “bullying,” and “just not handling our business.” Again, the context of these remarks was supposedly limited to affairs in sub-Saharan Africa, but they are hard to divorce from the abuses uncovered by a handful of men almost exclusively occupying positions of power and status in the United States uncovered as a result of the #MeToo movement.
This contradictory behavior is standard fare for America’s 44th president. He has at times eloquently attacked the “crude” identity politics that pits Americans against one another, but these flashes of brilliance were few and far between. Barack Obama was a politician catering to a constituency, and that constituency took to divisive identitarianism like fish in water.
It was Barack Obama who pledged to “punish” the “enemies” of America’s Latino population, and it was his vice president who insisted that Mitt Romney, of all people, wanted to reinstate black slavery. When the president only called on women at a 2014 press conference, his White House made sure to call around to reporters after the fact to make sure they noticed. It was the Obama administration who spent years promoting the pernicious idea that American employers systematically discriminated against women even though his own Bureau of Labor Statistics insisted that the 77 cents myth was almost entirely the product of individual choices. It was Barack Obama’s attorney general who implied that Republican opposition to Obama (and himself) was a product of their racial animus.
“The Obama family’s tenure in the White House has overlapped a revolution in the way Americans deal with identity,” read an NPR retrospective on the Obama years. “From race to religion, from gender to sexual orientation and beyond, marginalized groups that historically worked and waited for ‘a seat at the table’ increasingly demanded their share of cultural power.” What’s more, demographics that were once the locus of American cultural power “were called on to defend their ideas and ‘check their privilege.’”
Latent hostility toward African Americans even among outwardly non-discriminatory Americans deserves as much blame for this phenomenon as any acts of agitation by Obama and his fellow Democrats. The racial provocateurs and hucksters on the right who leveraged white anxiety to their financial benefits played as much of a role in establishing the sorry state of affairs that typifies our present. But a fair reading of Obama’s time in office must concede that the president liked to condemn the theory of identity politics more than he eschewed it in practice. The aspirations that led a whopping 70 percent to say in 2009 that Obama’s presidency would improve race relations had all but evaporated by 2014, well before Donald Trump descended down the escalator.
Divisive identity politics is now how both political parties approach the electorate. As a tool, it has proven too effective for any competent political operation to abjure. Barack Obama appears to recognize that this is a tragedy, but he is not yet willing to take responsibility for the role he played in our lamentable condition.