Thursday, April 7, 2011

Roger Cohen’s Distortions of the Goldstone Op-Ed

The amount of rubbish circulating on the internet from the left and the right about the Goldstone Washington Post op-ed is staggering. The right's distortions, though more egregious, is understandable; after all, the rightwingers never read the Goldstone Report so why should they read the op-ed?

But even those who should know better, like Roger Cohen, seem to have flunked reading comprehension. In an op-ed in the Times, he twists Goldstone to fit his preconceived notions.

Nuance, apparently, is not Cohen's forte. Here are a few examples

For example, Goldstone writes:

The allegations of intentionality by Israel were based on the deaths of and injuries to civilians in situations where our fact-finding mission had no evidence on which to draw any other reasonable conclusion. While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee's report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy

Cohen paraphrases

The judge is now convinced that Gaza "civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy."

But Goldstone says nothing more than "Had this evidence been presented to the committee, it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes." In fact, it certainly would have, and, indeed, even the McGowan Davis report, which is not satisfied with the IDF investigation (neither is Judge Goldstone) has not dismissed the alternate explanation provided by the Israeli investigation. And why should it?

To understand how badly Cohen (and others) misreads the op-ed, consider the following story:

You walk next to a swimming pool and see a puddle. You believe that the puddle indicates that there was a rainstorm, and that's what you tell people. But then you are told by your son that he saw a neighbor swimming in the pool. Does that mean you are now convinced that the puddle is from the neighbor and not from rain? No, it means simply that the evidentiary picture is a bit more complex than had been thought, and your initial conclusion, warranted then, must be revised in light of new information. Had your son's testimony been available then, you would have altered your report.

Now, here's the point: It seems reasonable to revise your opinoin, even if your son has not always been the most accurate source of information, and even if it is in his interest to claim that he had not been swimming with his girlfriend. (Sorry, just saw Ferris Bueller again)

Had Judge Goldstone changed his mind on what happened, he could simply say, "I have now come to believe that there was no intentional policy of killing civilians." That's what Cohen understands him to be saying. But he does not say that; he only says that "IDF investigation indicates that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy" and that were the results of that investigation known then (quite impossible, of course), that the report would have looked different.

The report would have said something like, "Although there is incontrovertible evidence that the killing of the al-Samouni family was deliberate, the motivation behind the killing has yet to be clarified since investigations have yielded differing explanations."

For Israel advocates, no investigation is necessary because the IDF can do nothing wrong. For opponents of Israel, no Goldstone investigation is necessary because the IDF can do nothing right. But it would be outrageous for the Goldstone mission to have neglected examining alternative explanations. And, in fact, it did not – such alternatives are mentioned frequently. The mission did not reject Israel's explanations because they were Israel's explanation. They rejected them when they seemed implausible or unsubstantiated.

Here's another Cohen distortion. Goldstone writes:

I am confident that if the officer is found to have been negligent, Israel will respond accordingly.

Cohen paraphrases:

Goldstone expresses confidence that the Israeli officer responsible for the killing of 29 members of the al-Samouni family will be properly punished.

Perhaps Justice Goldstone should not be so confident, as many have pointed out; IDF justice is to justice as IDF music is to music. But the Goldstone report never questioned the ability of the IDF to punish its soldiers – when the IDF found them to be negligent . Nor was its call for a public, independent, judicial inquiry intended to rule out a military investigation.

And here is where many of the op-ed misreaders really stumble. Judge Goldstone today has not ceased to call for such a commission, which would investigate, inter alia, things that a military investigation cannot investigate.

The op-ed was misleading and it may be that it has not helped the cause of the Goldstone Report or Judge Goldstone. But Judge Goldstone should be judged for what he says, and not for what others have misread him to say.

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12 comments:

David Ender said...

I agree with your point.
Just one thing, which I might have misunderstood from your writings, is that you say that Cohen says :
'The judge is now convinced that Gaza "civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy."'

And you say that Goldstone never said anything like that :
'But Goldstone says nothing more than "Had this evidence been presented to the committee, it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes."'

However he does say exactly that :
"While the investigations published by the Israeli military and recognized in the U.N. committee's report have established the validity of some incidents that we investigated in cases involving individual soldiers, they also indicate that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy"

See the last sentence.
For the rest you seem to be spot-on.

pabelmont said...

The USA once seemed (to me, that is) a country eagerly adopting the rule of law. No more. President Obama refuses to investigate the Bush administration (w.r.t. torture, kidnapping, rendition, illegal detention, etc.) and, indeed, continues with these (un-investigated) crimes.

By contrast, Israel has never seemed (to me, that is) a country adopting the rule of law at all. I therefore do not expect its government to investigate its military -- indeed I see no very clear distinction between these entities. So far, Israel has not even made dumb show of a proper investigation of the top-level government and military reasons and policies for starting and for carrying out the Gaza incident called "Cast lead".

Jerry Haber said...

David,


You walk next to a swimming pool and see a puddle. You believe that the puddle indicates that there was a rainstorm, and that's what you tell people. But then you are told by your son that he went swimming in the pool. Does that mean you am now convinced that the puddle is from him and not from rain? No, it means simply that the evidentiary picture is a bit more complex than had been thought, and your initial conclusion, warranted then, must be revised in light of new information.

It seems reasonable to revise, even if your son has not always been the most accurate source of information, and even if it is in his interest to claim that he had been swimming.

Had Judge Goldstone changed his mind on what happened, he could simply say, "I have now come to believe that there was no intentional policy of killing civilians." But he does not say that; he only says that "IDF investigation indicates that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy" and that were the results of that investigation known then (quite impossible, of course), that the report would have looked different.

It would have said, "Although there is strong evidence that the killing of the al-Samouni family was deliberate, the motivation behind the killing has yet to be clarified since investigations have yielded differing explanations."

Sydney Nestel said...

Jerry

It seems to me that your reading of Goldstone's op-ed relies on a non-intuitive (at least to me) reading of the word "indicate." You seem to be saying that "indicate" means "claim," whereas I understand that it means somthing close to "prove."

So is Goldstone now claiming that the IDF investigatiion claim that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy, or is he saying they prove (to Goldsteins satisfaction) that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy?

I think most people understand him to be saying the latter.

BTW the issue of "intentionally ... as a matter of policy" has significant legal ramifications. It is one of the prime criterea that elevate a mere war crime to a crime against humanity. If you kill 100s of cilivians in war as mater of severe negligance or because of officers' ad hoc decisions, thats a war crime. If you kill them as a mater of policy, that's a crime against humanity.

Jerry Haber said...

Sydney, "indicate" is stronger than "claim" and weaker than "prove". Please read my comment on the post to David Ender.

What the judge is saying now is that the IDF investigation is sufficient to provide another plausible interpretation besides a willful policy of targeting civilians in the al-Samouni (and some other) cases. In so far as the initial finding was based solely on the original interpretation, there is room, in light of the investigation, to revise the initial finding -- which remains initial and preliminary

Why is this so difficult to understand?

Donald said...

What's hard to understand is why Goldstone wrote this op ed in a way that was guaranteed to be misunderstood. When almost everyone on both sides of the issue read the op ed as a major retraction, it suggests that maybe Goldstone isn't the greaters writer in the world if that wasn't his intent. Another thing that is hard to understand is the evidence that is supposed to show there was no intent. I assume that the Israeli government is composed of people with IQ's that are at least average--if they authorized the use of heavy weaponry in urban settings for weeks and if they authorized that opening strike against the police cadets and if they struck at civilian infrastructure, then they surely intended to cause civilian suffering--how could civilian death possibly not be understood as part of the package?

Cohen's piece seemed fine to me. Compare Goldstone's piece to, say, Kenneth Roth. Roth says that there is no proof of an intent to kill civilians ) while there is strong evidence that Israel used indiscriminate firepower in an urban setting as a matter of policy. I find the moral distinction between "intent to kill civilians" and "dropping high explosives and white phosphorus on towns" a microscopic one, but nevermind. It's clear Roth isn't absolving Israel because of how he wrote his piece. It was entirely reasonable to read Goldstone's piece as a defense of Israel and an attack on Hamas (whose "intent" to kill civilians is evidently demonstrated because, uh, they fired rockets in an indiscriminate fashion into Israel.)

Jerry Haber said...

Donald, see my fist post where I called the op-ed "misleading". I would also call it lacking in balance. There are many criticisms that can be made of it -- without making the wrong ones, such as Dugard and Cohen did.

There is a difference between a policy of targeting civilians for no other reason than to punish or to deter, and insufficient attention to the principle of discrimination. The former is a crime against humanity; the latter is a war crime, or so I am told.

Donald said...

"There is a difference between a policy of targeting civilians for no other reason than to punish or to deter, and insufficient attention to the principle of discrimination. "

In many cases I think the main distinction is simply that a smart Western government denies that it intentionally aims at civilians. Take the US and the sanctions on Iraq--read enough about it and you'll find that occasionally both government officials and mainstream US pundits let slip that it was intended to hurt the civilian population, just as the Gaza blockade and the Gaza War were meant in part as punishment. But usually officials have enough sense to disclaim any such intent. They then take the action and say they only intend to hurt the evil terrorists.

I think this distinction is made to order for dishonest Western governments--there is such a thing as collateral damage and civilian deaths can be accidental and even negligent and then the distinction applies, but to take Roth's formulation, if Israel intended to destroy civilian infrastructure and used indiscriminate firepower in urban areas, shows intent to hurt civilians in a way that has to include some killing.

And of course almost nobody uses this distinction for Hamas or Hezbollah. I think Hamas is guilty of targeting civilians, but often (as in the case of the rocket fire, excluding this latest episode where they supposedly used an accurate missile for the bus) the evidence that they target civilians is exactly the same as it is for Israel--they use indiscriminate firepower.

Evildoer said...

IDF justice is to justice as IDF music is to music.

This remark gets a different meaning if you remember that the IDF indeed shaped what is known as Israeli popular music through the "military bands". That might have probably cemented some of the racist social aspects of high brow (i.e. ashkenazi) Israeli music but it is certainly nothing compared to the abysmal record of IDF military "justice".

evildoertrail said...

The problem with the op-ed is a performative contradiction.

The content of the op-ed is at best trivial: New information would have made some difference. Duh!

Yet the article was published in WaPo, which usually doesn't publish articles of the sort, "I realized that if I had eggs this morning I could make them sunny side up."

This calls for interpretation, on the principle that if the same thing is repeated, the second time it must mean something else.

The most natural way to mis-interpret the text is to amplify it, that is, to deduce from the fact that Goldstone bothered to write it and WaPo bothered to publish it that the strongest possible meaning of the text is the right one.

A symptomatic interpretation would read the text as a cypher for some extra-textual events, pressure on his family, etc., that impacted Goldstone and made him write it, and an anti-Palestinian bias on behalf of WaPo that made them publish it.

Pick your choice.

evildoertrail said...

And to add to my last comment, the next level is to merge these two moves. Goldstone could have avoided the contradiction by either making a strong claim or by remaining silent.

He wrote a weak article in a context that would invite a mis-interpretation that would make it appear stronger that it is, yet allow him to deny that he had made any strong claim. That is the kind of double-entente that itself needs to be interpreted. One way of course is to deduce layers.

Namely, Goldstone had too audiences in mind, perhaps, his conscience and his hounders?

Theodore said...

Unfortunately, so long as this type of information is what proliferates, the truth will not matter. As the Republican party has shown, it is just a matter of yelling loud enough and getting the most popular type of media to cover you and then you can just retract the comment in secret on some email. The damage is done since the choir will be singing your tune and the rest (who do not have access to the official report) cannot get a proper picture.

The pro-Israeli groups know what they are doing.