If Israel Wants to Talk About South African Apartheid…

You just have to shake your head over the Israeli government’s newly launched world-wide public relations campaign to discredit Richard Goldstone, the South African judge whose UN-commissioned investigation concluded that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during Israel’s 2008 invasion of the Gaza Strip. The daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported somewhat breathlessly on May 6th that the Israeli foreign ministry regards information unearthed by its journalists as “explosive” in its potential to discredit Goldstone: under apartheid, according to the paper, Goldstone sentenced black South Africans to death.

I was dismayed and appalled to learn that Goldstone, whom President Nelson Mandela appointed to the International Criminal Tribunal, had sent powerless people of color to be murdered by the apartheid state. Still, we opponents of the death penalty are accustomed to being disappointed by political leaders who fear to voice anything but support for the death penalty.

But this is the Israeli government voicing (according to Yedioth Aronoth, instructing its diplomats around the world to voice) what seems more like glee than disappointment over Goldstone’s past as a hanging judge. This is the same Israeli government that, while Goldstone was signing death warrants in the 1980s and 1990s, was selling the white minority government of South Africa hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military technology and weaponry with uses ranging from the battlefield to the rebellious black townships.

The military relationship was formally launched in 1976 with agreements signed during a high visibility state visit to Israel by South African Prime Minister John Vorster, who had been jailed for 20 months during World War II by the British for collaborating with the Axis. Three years later, in the wake of a blast in the Indian Ocean widely believed to have been an Israeli-South African nuclear test blast, the CIA noted (in a report declassified in 1990) that “Israelis have not only participated in certain South African nuclear research activities over the last few years, but they have also offered and transferred various sorts of advanced nonnuclear weapons technology to South Africa.” In the early 1990s I obtained and reported on documents indicating that Israel had provided South Africa with tritium that could be used in the development of an advanced nuclear weapon, while itself obtaining from South Africa yellowcake uranium for use in its nuclear program. During the Reagan Administration a State Department advisory committee on South Africa issued a report suggesting that Israel was passing US military technology to South Africa.

In 1977 the United Nations established a total embargo on military dealings with South Africa. Israel violated that embargo until the fall of the apartheid regime in the early 1990s. Israel’s supporters in the United States variously attacked those who mentioned arms sales and denied or justified the arms dealing. In a 1988 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, the Congressional Black Caucus handed Shamir a letter stating: “We are deeply disappointed that Israel has not joined in the concerted international effort to impose sanctions against the apartheid system.” That same year then Representative Robert Toricelli (D-NJ) said that Israel was now more secure than it had been and therefore should no longer be selling weapons to states like Iran, Chile and South Africa. Add to that list the dictatorships of Argentina and El Salvador, the Noriega government in Panama and the murderous Guatemalan governments which used Israeli weapons and technical expertise in their genocidal wars that are believed to have killed over 400 ,000 indigenous people.

Judge Goldstone meanwhile, was making the reputation that brought him to Nelson Mandela’s attention as leader of a commission whose findings resulted in the prosecution of regime officials and as a judge who, singularly, visited some of the black political prisoners who appeared in his court.

The relative moral valuation of the death penalty, apartheid¬† and the Israeli occupation (not to mention the extrajudicial executions characterizing the latter two) could, I suppose, be intellectually engaging — until one reduces them to the dynamic of powerful minorities wielding the power of life and death over their powerless disenfranchised subjects. But what baffles me is how the international industry of Goldstone disparagement, now about to receive fresh inputs, is supposed to morally purify Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip.

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  1. Quite so. Nations, like people, should be judged at least in part by the company they keep.

    To veer off the main topic for a moment, Ms. Hunter: should Timothy McVeigh have been given life in prison after murdering 168 men, women, and children?

  2. Yes, McVeigh should have been given life in prison w/o parole because I and many others never want to be a party to the barbarity of murder-by-government. It is a sentiment that has resulted in most civilized countries (including post-apartheid South Africa) abolishing the death penalty. I wish the US was more civilized.

  3. In theory I don’t see why the community, acting through a government based on laws enacted democratically, shouldn’t execute people convicted of certain crimes — specifically premeditated murder and treason in wartime. However, I oppose capital punishment because innocent people get executed, and more often than one might think, even outside Texas.

    I can’t prove it, but I’m convinced that McVeigh’s execution gave pause to others of his mindset. I believe, in other words, that it had a deterrent effect. If other tragedies like Oklahoma City have indeed been averted because McVeigh was done to death, then I would say his execution was a blow for civilization, rather than an uncivilized act.

  4. Jon,

    The fact that capital punishment does NOT deter heinous crimes has been proven.

    There is simply no benefit in executing McVeigh unless your aim is to protect the guilty from prosecution. In fact we saw the most important witness of the crime permanently silenced, even the Terry Nichols case was compromised.

  5. Atheo, two points:

    First, I agree with you that the death penalty is not, generally speaking, a deterrent (“proved” is a strong word, though — may we have your evidence?). However (and as I’ve already admitted I can’t prove this), I have reason to believe would-be McVeighs have been deterred by the execution of the latter. I don’t believe it’s as cut and dried as you say. It remains an open question in my mind.

    Second, I don’t buy the Oklahoma conspiracy theories you hint at. I haven’t closed my mind to the possibilities, but I’ve seen no persuasive evidence. Keeping Oswald (who probably never fired a shot, anyway) on death row (had he been convicted) would have been wise, but if McVeigh wanted to spill any (probably nonexistent) beans, he certainly had plenty of time to do so.

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