Editorial: Reflecting Poorly

How you perceive South African Judge Richard Goldstone’s recent opinion piece in the Washington Post probably depends on who you see when you look in the mirror.

If you’re a closed-minded, “defend Israel and the Israeli government no matter what” sort, then you’re not going to see anything new in your reflection. If, on the other hand, you throw around inane, hyperbolic labels such as “genocidal” to describe Israel’s conduct, your virtual doppelganger is unlikely to change either.

But if you’re one who tends to listen and learn, keeps an open mind, and is willing to revise one’s viewpoint by analysis of the accretive unfolding of facts, you might have awakened the morning after Goldstone’s piece appeared with a rather quizzical expression on your reflected face. That’s the face of honest self-questioning, not, as some would suggest, self-loathing.

Those on the right have castigated Goldstone for intentionally or recklessly abetting efforts to delegitimize Israel with the U.N. report issued under his leadership about Operation Cast Lead. On the other side, a variety of leftists honored Goldstone for pointing out that Israel is fallible and can make tragic mistakes..

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Then Goldstone wrote his half-hearted mea culpa in the Post and the reactions mostly mirrored where pundits began, and each side showed no hesitancy to throw Goldstone under (or, in the case of the right, further under) the bus. Those who think Israel can do no wrong (or if it does wrong, we should conspire to hide it for fear of how enemies will use it) chastised Goldstone for “too little, too late” in his comments that essentially said, If I knew then what I know now about Israel not targeting civilians, the report might have been way different.  

Some on the left, who had honored Goldstone’s “bravery,” claimed he had now sold out to the powers that be.  Oh, c’mon, a Jew who took on South African apartheid, who was willing to take Israel as both a nation and a government to task for its treatment of Palestinians, gave it all up to curry favor with the world Jewish community. Are you kidding? Really?

Those who read the op-ed as Goldstone being reflective on his and their own previous conduct and see him and by analog, themselves as flawed individuals who make some good judgments but some really, really bad ones might have nailed it in this instance.

For as utterly anathema as we found the Goldstone Report, the judge self-identifies as a Jew – so much that he wanted his child to become bar mitzvah in Jerusalem and was rebuffed with threats and warnings about personal safety) – and holds Israel to the highest aspirations. Moreover, as a South African, and an international prosecutor who went after regimes in both Yugoslavia and Rwanda, he has seen hardcore persecution up close and personal. But his report clearly repeated the egregious error made by former United States President Jimmy Carter regarding Israel, namely, to see the shadows of institutionalized killings around every bend.  It’s a flaw, to be sure, and a major one.

Goldstone deserves harsh criticism for painting Israel as a Goliath-like oppressor.  It’s intellectually insulting to call Israel’s collective assaults on Palestinians “genocide” when in fact the losses of Palestinian life in battles with Israel represent at the most aggressive estimates no more than 2 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel combined. Especially when you’ve had terrorist bombings in your most sacred city and repeated rocket assaults from across the border.

So the extreme, intransigent positions are, well, just that. But there is a great and meaningful debate raging in Israel, about whether and how Israel might have cooperated with the United Nations investigation to its own benefit. That is one of the most important questions raised by the Goldstone op-ed and hidden from many in their desire to preen before their own reflections.

Israel is vilified internationally, particularly in the Middle East and among Islamist-influenced nations. The U.N. and the Goldstone Report were woefully biased.  But a Logic 101 student would fail for uttering the phrase, “If Israel’s opponents are bad, then Israel must be good.” Yes, there’s tons to love, like and praise in the Jewish State.  Its just not perfect, and it does Israel no good to pretend that it is.

Israel’s powers that be have to utilize this episode in its history to determine how better to position itself in the court of world opinion. Many of its leaders admit the nation isn’t very good at it. While detractors will say that PR doesn’t matter when there’s a vendetta against you, those of us in the journalism industry would argue that’s exactly the most important time to tell the story constructively and positively.

It will take a herculean public opinion shift to allow the world to see Israel as it is, brilliant as it is, warts and all.  But the power of the media to undo preconceived notions and substitute newly conceived ones should not be denied. Just look at al Jazeera and its ability to create a lasting impact on the Middle East region over the last decade.

So, if Israel wants to crack the mirror, it better look past those who look only at themselves. Because windex and a cloth aren’t going to crack the mirror. But a blunt object, in the form of a new and improved approach to telling its story, particularly to newly developing democracies in the surrounding nations, could do the trick.