American Jews Gaza Strip Goldstone report Israel Palestinians Peace Now Sabra and Shatilla

Sabra, Shatilla and Gaza: A tale of two wars

On Sept 25th, 1982, at a Peace Now rally in Tel Aviv, more than 400,000 Israelis rose up and demanded an investigation of Israel’s responsibility for the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Lebanon. Israeli troops had been responsible for guarding those two Palestinian refugee camps. But on Sept. 15th, they had allowed Christian Phalangists to enter the camps and slaughter hundreds of men, women and children. So 10% of the population of Israel came to a rally to express their anger and anguish.

American Jewish organizations, for their part, initially reacted to the massacres with “predictable vapid statements, deploring the massacre while supporting Israel,” according to Steven Rosenthal in Irreconcilable Differences, a book about squabbles between Israel and the American Jewish community. But soon, “responding to popular pressure, many Jewish organizations called for [Menachem] Begin to empanel an impartial commission to establish whether Israel was implicated in any way.” Popular pressure! In other words, at least some mainstream American Jews in the organizational world refused to passively accept the Israeli government’s denial of wrongdoing.

The Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Alexander Schindler, flew to Israel to impress upon Begin the importance of getting to the truth of what had happened in Sabra and Shatilla. American Jews further to the left, like Irving Howe, Edgar Bronfman and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg spoke out publicly and forcefully against the Begin government.

The contrast with today’s mood in Israel and the American Jewish community could not be more stark. There is no “popular pressure” to find out what actually happened in the Gaza Strip, in the wake of allegations of Israeli war crimes by a UN Commission headed by Richard Goldstone.

Oh, there is outrage, of course. There is a fervent campaign against the messenger, a lot of verbiage devoted to proving that the UN Human Rights Commission, which sponsored the investigation, had no interest in an objective examination. But there is no clamor for the truth in Israel or the American Jewish community, except among human rights groups like B’Tselem and some lonely columnists (and bloggers).

In Yediot Aharonot, Yigal Sarna finds this alarming:

The panic and anger and denial in the face of Judge Goldstone’s Gaza report illustrates how far we went in escaping reality. Up until recently we would look into our sins and failures and appoint commissions of inquiry. Our leading national poets described needless killing. Of course, we always had people who fought the need for investigation, but the desire to cleanse and ameliorate, and the understanding that without this we cannot survive, overcame the denial.

We had Goldstones rise from among our own ranks. Truth-seekers, who dug through the ruins of history and didn’t sleep at night because of what they saw and heard from witnesses, the officers and soldiers…

This ability to give rise from within us judges and investigators, courageous witnesses and those who refuse to be silent was the source of our strength. Israeli democracy was powerful and rehabilitative, and flourished beyond the regimes of all its neighbors – because of the ability to talk. Because of the witnesses
who did not shy away, because of the soldiers who did not remain silent, because of the witnesses who screamed in their sleep as a result of the things they were reminded of…

Yet slowly the courage ran out. The greater the injustice, both inside and outside, the greater the silencing and the noise aimed at swallowing up the truth. Yet without it, in the next crisis, not only we will be crueler – we will also make the same mistakes we didn’t correct. We will be weaker. Because even to save us from ourselves we had to have Goldstone, a foreign Jewish judge who speaks English, in place of the local judges who disappeared.

Among American Jews, no consequential community leader is calling upon Israelis to take Goldstone’s advice and at least appoint an independent, non-military body to investigate the charges, as was eventually done in Israel after the Sabra and Shatilla massacres.

Instead of calling for soul-searching because of the Goldstone report, the umbrella group of Conservative rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, called upon its rabbis to add the singing of Hatikva to Rosh Hashana services.

As noted in my previous post, I have read the Goldstone report and still don’t know exactly what happened in the Gaza Strip. I hope beyond hope that Goldstone and his people will be proven wrong with an objective, impartial examination by the Israelis. But I don’t seem to have much company in my community.

Yes, the analogy with Sabra and Shatilla can only take us so far. The circumstances were different. The nature of the conflict was different. But the moral challenge is similar. The American Jewish establishment won’t accept that challenge, or even accept the fact that a challenge exists. And this time, there are precious few Israelis who will encourage them to do either one.

5 thoughts on “Sabra, Shatilla and Gaza: A tale of two wars

  1. One way to look at it, is that the integrity of this investigation has been severely compromised because of the UN’s sordid history on the I/P issue. The chicken has come home to roost.

    Sorry, Dan…this is not simply about Israel’s refusal to face the truth about what happened in Gaza. It is obvious to me the Palestinians in Gaza are pawns in a cynical political game.

    If people really care about their plight–then for starters–how about bringing in a commission that is not doomed from the start? Did anybody HONESTLY think Israel’s reaction was going to be different?

    Let’s face it, Dan. Israel is digging it’s heels in. Whatever transgressions took place in Gaza have now been sidelined by this idiot distraction. It was poor judgment and it backfired.

    Sooner or later…the pro-Palestinian camp is going to have to re-think how they deal with Israel…the status quo is clearly not working.

  2. Idiot distraction? I’m reading the report now–it looks like the standard, extremely earnest investigation of professional human rights workers, one of them a Zionist who quite rightly insisted on a mandate to look into the crimes of all sides and was actually hampered in this by the Israelis, probably because as Uri Avnery said, they knew what an honest investigation would reveal about their own actions.

    The distraction is coming from idiots, though that insult doesn’t really apply, because the idiots know what they’re doing and in the US, they’re likely to win, at least in the short run. So from an amoral perspective, they’re not idiots at all–they’re ideologues who know how to deal with someone as naive as Judge Goldstone, who apparently thought that hard work and good intentions would make a difference.

    As for a commission that wasn’t doomed from the start–in the US that would be a commission that put all the blame on Hamas while shedding a few crocodile tears for the Palestinian civilians. That sort of commission would have received a joyous welcome.
    Whether someone like Obama could then spin this into support for a just peace I don’t know, but I doubt it for all sorts of reasons, one of them being that Obama hasn’t shown that he’s adept at anything other than winning elections so far.

  3. Dan,
    Much of the background for the First Lebanon War was that that war was considered to be the Likud’s war, or Sharon’s war or Begin’s war by the Left. Also it was clear that Israelis had not done the actual killing. The Kahan (?) Commission was established to investigate Israeli ties with the Phalange and Sharon’s and Eitan’s conduct. Only the top brass would likely be implicated. In this investigation all levels of the IDF could be implicated without any assurance–in fact, with almost certain assurance that the Palestinians would not conduct a similar investigation. In a conflict in which image plays a big role this is equivalent to unilateral disarmament. It is not to be expected of either side.

  4. For the record, it is a myth that “400,000 Israelis” attended the Sabra and Shatilla demonstration in Tel Aviv. Some overenthusiastic organizer told a newspaper reporter that 400,000 people attended, which is a number he made up. This shows how myths can get converted into facts, because I have seen it repeated in history books (“over 10% of the population of Israel!”).
    Some years later someone actually measured the size of Kikar Malchei Israel where it took place and then looked at aerial photos to show how far down the side streets the crowd went. He came to the conclusion that there were 50,000 people there, which is certainly a good sized crowd, but no “10% of the population of Israel”. There have been demostrations there since then that have been bigger.

  5. The responses to the Goldstone report sadly almost to a “T” represent prejudices on the issue.

    The far left considers it descriptive of the evilness of Israel. The Zionist right considers it dismissable as a prejudicial snow job.

    The rational left considers it informative, and useful for reform, if not authoritative, and if not a description of blame.

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