Could there be any more polarizing figure in the Jewish community than Richard Goldstone? When the esteemed South African judge issued his 2009 report alleging that Israel had committed human rights abuses during the 2008-2009 Gaza War (known as Operation Cast Lead), many in the Jewish community condemned him as a traitor. A synagogue sought to ban him from attending his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah. On the other side, some skipped over the report’s criticisms of Hamas and the call for Hamas also to do an internal reckoning.
Now that Goldstone (though not the other members of his commission) has rescinded the most inflammatory conclusion of the report—that Israel intentionally targeted civilians, the tables have turned. The groups that once called Goldstone a traitor now embrace him as a penitent. Those who believe only the worst about Israel dismiss his new position outright.
I am struck that these debates are taking place as the Jewish community prepares for Passover, the celebration of freedom. In the biblical liberation narrative, the Israelites have barely left Egypt when God warns them against mistreating sojourners and other vulnerable populations. “If you afflict them in any way,” God says, “if they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry.” (Exodus 22:23)
In explaining this verse, the medieval commentator Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban) imagines God saying,
“I save every person ‘from the hands of those who are stronger than they.’ (Psalms 35:10)… God will have mercy upon the sojourner as God showed mercy to you… God had mercy on the Israelites not because of their merits, but only on account of the bondage.”
That is to say: God plays no favorites. God hears the pain of the Israelites, and God hears the pain of the foreigner. The past experience of slavery and oppression does not excuse bad behavior in the present. By extension, we can infer from Ramban that the sojourner also may not use his or her own compromised position as an excuse for harming others. No matter the situation, and no matter who the parties are, God will respond to the one who suffers.
With this instruction, God models an approach that simultaneously holds every individual fully responsible for protecting others from harm, and that promises infinite divine compassion to every individual. One person’s suffering does not permit inflicting suffering on another, and the experience of suffering does not diminish one’s duty to avoid causing such harm.
All of us—on every side of the Israeli-Palestinian debate—would do well to adopt this model, which allows for multiple truths. I hope that Goldstone is correct that the Israeli army did not purposely target civilians. And I am grateful that, this week, the army has issued new guidelines calling for an investigation in every civilian death. At the same time, we must ask whether the army did everything necessary to avoid civilian casualties. The high casualty rate, as well as many soldiers’ testimonies, suggests otherwise. We can commend Israel for responding to the initial report by conducting an internal investigation of its wartime activities, and criticize Hamas for failing to investigate its own activities. And, at the same time, we can question Israel’s refusal to allow a third-party investigation.
Far from being a traitor to one side or the other, Richard Goldstone teaches us how to approach the painful and divisive conflict. This approach forces us to hear the cries of both sides, and to hold both sides accountable for their behavior. At the same time, Goldstone—like the biblical text—places the greater onus on the ones with more power. The world must hold Hamas responsible for the unconscionable murder of Israeli civilians. Nothing justifies sending rockets into residential areas. But Israel, as the occupying power, and the one with the strong standing army, must bear responsibility for protecting the civilians who live under its rule.
For those deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, every development becomes an opportunity for propaganda. Some who define themselves as “pro-Israel” point to each terrorist attack as proof that the Palestinians don’t deserve their own state. Some who define themselves as “pro-Palestinian” view every instance of settler violence as evidence of a Zionist plot. Of course, the truth is more complicated than any of the propaganda. It has therefore been almost impossible for those from either side to accept the new version of the Goldstone report. One camp wants to pretend that he took back every damaging finding about the Israeli army’s behavior. One camp wants to ignore any findings that cast a positive light on the Israeli army. There is much eagerness to blame the other side, and little interest in introspection.
These pole positions only push us further and further from a resolution to the entrenched conflict. Instead, we can draw a lesson from the Passover holiday. God’s caution to the newly-liberated Israelites reminds us to hear the pain of sufferers on all sides, and to hold ourselves to the highest standard of behavior regardless of the actions of the other.