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The ‘Herem’ Of Judge Goldstone – OpEd


Last year, Judge Richard Goldstone revealed that he would not attend his grandson’s South African bar mitzvah because pro-Israel community leaders had let it be known that they would picket the synagogue during the celebration and generally make his life miserable.  There was a general uproar over this threatening behavior with a number of South African Jews (though not the community’s top leaders) criticizing it in the media including the New York Times.  A short time later, Goldstone announced that he would attend the festivities after all and it appeared that the community had backed down and that the judge’s honor had been vindicated.

What we didn’t realize, and which The Forward recently reported, is that there seems to have been a secret quid pro quo by which the community demanded that it meet with Goldstone privately as the price for quiet during the bar mitzvah celebration.  Judge Goldstone attended a community pow-wow with rabbis and the communal political leadership.  Until now, no one knew what was discussed and what was said to Goldstone.  Now, I can report on at least one of the speeches he was forced to endure.  It is a masterpiece of Jewish guilt.  Baruch Spinoza was subjected to no less during the proceedings of the Amsterdam Jewish community which led to his excommunication (herem).  In fact, the source who provided it to me called it a piece psychological manipulation, in other words part of a communal propaganda offensive designed to intimidate Goldstone into the position he recently adopted in his Washington Post op-ed, in which he uncharacteristically withdrew several key claims of the UN report which he helped author.  The performance in that piece was dreary beyond belief and has to be a low in an otherwise distinguished legal career.

Richard Goldstone
Richard Goldstone

Perhaps the most radical philosophical turnaround in the op-ed is that before, he emphatically rejected the notion that the IDF and State could adequately and fairly investigate their own possible misdeeds.  Now, he claims that Israel has done precisely that.  And makes this claim in the face of evidence which shows that the investigations have been half-hearted and resulted in no significant meting out of punishment or even discipline.

No one can say whether there was an explicit quid pro quo involved in his penning this column.  But it can be no accident that Israel’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, has invited Goldstone for a triumphal return to Israel and that the latter has accepted.  It may also not be an accident that he published his apologia in one of Israel’s favorite American newspapers, one which consistently, forcefully advocates Israel’s interests in its editorial pages.

Here is the address of a South African Sephardic rabbi, Laurence (Doron) Perez, to Goldstone during the May, 2010 meeting:

Justice Goldstone –

I am sure that you have had the opportunity many times both as a father and grandfather to be present with your family at the Pesach Seder. I am also sure that you are familiar with the basic narrative of the Haggadah which, as we know, describes the story of Jewish slavery, freedom and redemption. I would like to draw your attention to the famous paragraph about the four sons – the wise one, the wayward [ed. a deliberate distortion of the Hebrew, in which he is called “the wicked son”] one, the simple one and the one who does not know how to ask.  I would like to reflect for a moment on the narrative regarding the wayward son which I believe to be relevant to our discussion today.

The Haggadah states as follows

“The wayward son asks – What is this service to you? (Exodus 12;26). By saying “you” he excludes himself. And since he excludes himself from the peoplehood of Israel (KIal Yisrael), he has denied a fundamental principle of our faith (Kofer be-Ikar). You in turn should blunt his teeth (give a sharp and blunt answer) and say to him – because of what Hashem did for me when I left Egypt, I do this  (Exodus 13;8) – implying for me but not for him.  If he (the wayward son) had been there (in Egypt), he would not have been redeemed?”

This paragraph is most telling as to who the wayward Jewish son is and, further, what our response to him should be. The Haggadah describes the wayward son as the one who sets himself apart from Jewish peoplehood and places himself outside the mainstream Jewish community. His question “what is this service to you” implies that the service does not obligate him in any way. Issues of Jewish identity: – our collective fate, destiny and responsibilities are seen as something which have no bearing on his world view. So much so, that the Haggadah uses the sharp terminology since he has excluded himself from the Jewish people, he has denied a fundamental tenet of Jewish faith.

Again, as I wrote above, the rabbi is essentially warning Goldstone that his participation in the Gaza war investigation and the findings he endorsed in it, have caused him to be driven him from the Tabernacle, leaving him to wander in the desert bereft of his fellow Jews.  They in turn told him that due to his abandonment of them, they have ostracized him.

The rabbi continues in a vein that accuses Goldstone of concern only for the suffering of the Palestinian people and of his disregard for the suffering of Israelis that led up to Operation Cast Lead.  Perez tells Goldstone that when Jewish suffering conflicts with Palestinian suffering there is only ONE legitimate choice:

Remarkably, what emanates so succinctly from the Haggadah is the supreme importance of Jewish peoplehood. The community ethic is a core component of Jewish identity. One cannot call oneself a good Jew if one distances oneself from the lot of one’s People and community.

This explains a bewildering question regarding the wayward son – why is he at the Pesach table in the first place? After all, if he is so wicked, why does he want to be part of the Jewish experience? The answer is clear – he does want to have a connection to his Judaism – but he wants this to be without any commitment to and embracing of a collective Jewish fate and destiny. But the Haggadah teaches us that he cannot claim to be a good Jew, whilst at the same time separating himself from the pain and suffering of his own People. Of course, every good Jew must be sensitive to the suffering of all human beings. All are created in the image of G-d. This is without question a core Jewish value. But how can this possibly override the suffering of his own family, community and People? Kindness and charity must never end in the home, but they must most certainly begin there! Indeed, this is a fundamental principle of Jewish faith – the inextricable link between Jewish faith and the People of Israel.

…The answer given to the wayward son in the Haggadah is also most telling. We blunt his sharp criticism by highlighting the following important point – “Had you been in Egypt you would not have been redeemed” i.e. the wayward son needs to decide what side of Jewish History he is on. If his worldview does not contain this deep sense of Jewish peoplehood, then he has missed the point of Jewish identity. Our Sages tell us that many Jews chose not to leave Egypt but rather lost themselves during the plague of darkness. These individual Jews could not come to terms with Moses’ vision of redemption from Egyptian society: to journey to the homeland of their forefathers and to exercise their divine, religious, historical and moral right to self-determination in their G-d given Land. Those who left Egypt committed to this vision of Jewish destiny. Those who chose to rather stay behind in Egypt did not accept this narrative of Jewish history.

In the following passage, Rabbi Perez goes even farther and accuses Goldstone of being almost a traitor to his race by siding with the Palestinians.  Goldstone has, in effect, turned his back on a millennium of Jewish suffering through his advocacy of the UN human rights report.  He sentences Goldstone to oblivion for his actions:

Remaining behind in Egypt and perhaps even prioritizing the suffering of the Egyptians over the tears and pain of over 100 years of slavery and death of their own People at the hand of the Egyptians sidelined them from future Jewish destiny. Instead of becoming influential protagonists of Jewish history, they became a peripheral footnote.

Below, Perez commits a major bit of intellectual mendacity by claiming that Jewish interests and universal justice are consonant when everything he has said above denies it.  Unless of course the rabbi is arguing that the rights of Palestinians, such as they are, are not covered by the terms universal justice or human rights.

In conclusion – there need not be any contradiction between striving for human rights and universal justice and at the same time being loyal to one’s Faith, People and Land. One can be a champion of human rights and at the same time believe in the unbreakable link between the Jewish faith, Land and People of Israel.

Our Rabbis taught us never to give up on any fellow Jew – even when misguided.  After all, it is his actions we assess and never the person himself. We hope and pray that you undo the unfortunate and enormous damage that your report has done to the Jewish people in general and to the State of Israel and her heroic and moral defenders in particular.

Justice Goldstone – the simple question that we all need to ask ourselves is; which side of Jewish history are we on?

What is truly tragic about Judge Goldstone’s turnaround is that he has now embraced his people, but turned his back on an entire career of advocacy on behalf of peoples afflicted by genocide and egregious violations of human and national rights.  Unlike Rabbi Perez and Judge Goldstone, I do believe that universal human rights and Jewish values are not antithetical.  And unlike them, I do not believe that Israel’s behavior in maintaining the Occupation meets standards of Jewish or universal human rights.  You can have it both ways, but only if you understand that Israeli values are not necessarily kosher Jewish values in this case.

Many of us Jews who have political, philosophical or ethical beliefs that diverge from the so-called consensus have experienced this sort of herem.  I call it the Spinoza Society to denote those honored Jews who break from the pack to stand for values that should the mainstream but often aren’t.  Unfortunately, Judge Goldstone craves the acceptance of the Jewish greybeards and mandarins.  Others of us have known what it is like to have to endure this sort of treatment in order to uphold our own Jewish values.  Thankfully, many of us haven’t felt the need to cave to the pressure.  Perhaps we have less at stake than he does.  But I’d like to think that a man as eminent as Judge Goldstone should’ve done a better job of upholding these values, even in the face of the relentless pressure he undoubtedly faced.

This article first appeared at Tikun Olam

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Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board. Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

One thought on “The ‘Herem’ Of Judge Goldstone – OpEd

  • April 12, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    It seems Judaism is more of a cult than a faith, when those among it’s faithful disagree with the collective are subject to ostracism and general abuse. This is a very telling truth about the children of Israel.


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