Jonathan Chait

Bad Faith

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One of the frustrating things about debating the Middle East is that most of the people to my left find it difficult to fathom, or sometimes inconvenient to acknowledge, the existence of actual liberals who have somewhat hawkish views on Israel. So anybody whose view on the Middle East is to the right of Naomi Klein must be a reflexive supporter of Israel and probably a "Likudnik," and could not possibly have any other foreign policy principles that dovetail with their views on Israel.

Last week I wrote about a report bringing to light Richard Goldstone's Apartheid-era history. Matthew Yglesias waxed sarcastic that Nelson Mandela was okay with Goldstone, so it was funny that "defenders of the rights of black South Africans as Jonathan Chait and Jeffrey Goldberg are inclined to take a darker view of things than am I or Nelson Mandela." Today he follows up:

I find it a bit curious that strident defenders of Israeli foreign policy take a harder line on Richard Goldstone’s apartheid-era conduct than does Nelson Mandela and the leadership of the African National Congress. It’s almost enough to make you think that some of these attacks on Goldstone are offered in bad faith, and are more motivated by dislike for his conclusions about Israeli conduct during the Gaza war than genuine concern about his past conduct.

This is a good example of the general phenomenon I'm talking about. Begin with the characterization "strident defenders of Israeli foreign policy." I'm certainly more strident than Yglesias. But I (hesitantly) opposed the Gaza incursion. I blame Netanyahu, not the Obama administration, for the recent Israel-U.S. blow-up. Goldberg made his name authoring a book critical of Israel's occupation, wrote a long op-ed blasting Aipac, and so on. Goldberg and I do find Israel distinctly more sympathetic than Hamas. Yglesias would probably object to somebody who painted the United States as no better than al Qaeda. That wouldn't make him a "strident defender of American foreign policy." At best Yglesias has picked an imprecise description, and at worst he's outright misleading his readers.

Next, there's the charge that I'm taking "a harder line" than Mandela and the ANC on Goldstone's enforcement of Apartheid. It's not really that hard a line -- I called it "morally murky," and explicitly said that it doesn't suggest Goldstone is or was a racist or an Apartheid supporter. Yglesias proceeds to cite Goldstone's subsequent, post-Apartheid work with the Commission on Public Violence and Intimidation, which helped lead Mandela to appoint him to the Constitutional Court. But of course the charge isn't that Goldstone was a conscious supporter of Apartheid -- it's that he was a get-along, go-along functionary. Working to investigate the Apartheid system after it fell hardly refutes that picture. Moreover, it explains pretty well why Mandela would have reason to embrace Goldstone. Mandela was a politician who had to reconcile a bitterly-divided country, not some sage who was free to make philosophical judgments untainted by politics that the rest of us must abide.

Of course, Yglesias isn't saying we must abide Mandela's judgments. He's saying, or implying, that Goldberg and I lack credibility as critics of Apartheid, that our sole interest in the matter is as allegedly reflexive defenders of Israel. Goldberg was an anti-South Africa activist in the 1980s and was arrested while protesting on behalf of divestiture. I wasn't an activist for any cause, and I can't really prove that I "really" opposed Apartheid, but, well, I did.

Yglesias leaps directly from the fact that Mandela appointed Goldstone to a court to his conclusion that only "bad faith" could explain anybody mentioning Goldstone's history with Apartheid. Accusations of bad faith are both impossible to disprove and an effective tactic for avoiding the substance of the issue. As I've said before, the important question is the truth of Goldstone's findings. He did report evidence of Israeli war crimes in Gaza. He also made a lot of shaky or hard-to-justify claims. Part of the controversy around Goldstone has dipped into questions of his character -- supporters paint him as a fearless truth-teller, critics as a man who molds himself to the ideology of whatever institution he's attached to. I think his Apartheid history has some relevance to this small but non-trivial question.

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