July 17, 2014
On July 2, 16-year old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted, beaten and burned alive, apparently by a group of Jewish Israelis. News of this “torture and murder by fire,” prominent American commentator Jeffrey Goldberg confesses, “initially prompted in me a desire to say, ‘But.’” Alas, his considered response was scarcely more enlightened.
Goldberg distinguishes Mohammed’s murder from the subsequent beating of his 15-year old cousin Tariq by Israel’s Border Police, and claims that the latter is “more consequential” because it was perpetrated by state security forces and not independent individuals. Says Goldberg,
We judge countries not on the behavior of their criminal elements, but on 1) how they police their criminal elements; and 2) how they police their police.
The omission of a third possible criterion, deliberate state actions, whitewashes the role of Israel’s government in fostering the conditions in which Mohammed’s killing took place, and permits Goldberg to frame Israeli crimes against Palestinians in terms of lamentable “state failure” rather than abhorrent state policy.
Still, let us proceed as Goldberg suggests and focus on the policing of 1) criminal elements and 2) security forces. By these metrics, how does Israel fare?
Goldberg cites none of these reports, preferring, in typical fashion, to insert himself between readers and important events. (A standard Jeffrey Goldberg column consists of a sequence of more or less related declarations about himself: “I will dissent…. I believe that…. I myself have used…. I described…. I suppose this passage makes me…. I described… but I have decided…. George Mitchell taught me this…. I owe a number of friends…. I now prefer…. I’m not going to condemn.”)
Observing with considerable understatement that the security forces’ assault of Tariq Abu Khdeir was “not a one-off failure,” Goldberg reveals that, in his experience as a pundit and more pertinently as an Israeli army prison guard during the first Palestinian intifada, “I’ve witnessed some of these incidents myself.”
Excerpting his 2006 book Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide, Goldberg relates the time “I witnessed — and broke up — one of the more vicious beatings I have ever seen,” of an unarmed prisoner by one of Goldberg’s friends and fellow jailers. This intervention earned Goldberg “a reputation as a yafei nefesh, literally a ‘beautiful soul.’”
But Goldberg undersells himself. As his own account of the beating shows, he did not merely “witness” and break up the assault — he lied to cover it up:
Abu Firas was on his knees…. His hair shone with blood. He was barely coherent…. I went in search of someone to take Abu Firas to the infirmary. I found another military policeman, and handed off the wobbling prisoner, who was by now bleeding on me. “He fell,” I lied.
Was this a one-off “Goldberg failure”? “I saw a handful of other beatings,” Goldberg recalls, “and broke them up as well.” Did he report the perpetrators to the authorities? His article doesn’t say.
Elsewhere in Prisoners he is more forthcoming. He describes a routine punishment for detainees at Ketziot, the prison camp where he served, called zinzana, a form of “solitary confinement” in “isolation tanks”:
The zinzana was the size of a refrigerator box, into which three, four, five or six prisoners were shoveled. The prisoners slept seated on a cold and hard plastic floor, limbs draped over limbs, and they shat in a bucket that was emptied once a day. After a few days in the box, prisoners could no longer stand unaided. (109)
At one point he describes four prisoners locked “in a space fit, at most, for two small dogs.” (114) Goldberg admits to having personally sent people to the zinzana. (118) (Zinzana is a colloquial Arabic term for “jail cell,” but jailers in the region have given the word this “special” meaning.)
This isn’t the first time Goldberg’s accounts of his military service have been in tension. Referred to by a critic as a former Israeli prison guard, Goldberg objected:
I wasn’t a guard, I was a military policeman (the actual title of my position was “prisoner counselor,” believe it or not, which meant that I saw after the culinary, hygiene and medical needs of the prisoners…).
But in his book, Goldberg had already explained that this formal description was misleading:
I was a “prisoner counselor,” a job title that did not reflect accurately my duties in the related fields of discipline and punishment. (28)
He himself has described his experience “guarding” Palestinians. Accused of complicity in torture while at Ketziot, Goldberg responded, “That is just ridiculous. I never laid a hand on anybody.” But in his latest article Goldberg recalls an altercation in which he and a prisoner had “flailed at each other and…wrestled on the ground.”
Goldberg’s post concludes with a rousing sermon urging Israeli soldiers to refrain from abusing prisoners even as it apologizes for their failure to do so. “The truth,” he writes,
is that I judge Israel by a higher standard than I judge other [e.g., “developing-world”] countries, precisely because it is a Jewish country…[and] Jews gave the world the gift of ethical monotheism…. Is this a tough standard? Yes. Is it impossible to reach during times of strife, when Israel’s enemies are trying to murder as many Jews as possible? Maybe. But moments like these are tests. And they represent tests worth passing.
Fortunately for Israeli soldiers surrounded by “developing-world” brutality and genocidal anti-semitism, they have, in Goldberg, an extremely generous grader.
Take, as one such “test,” Israel’s response to the first intifada, when Goldberg was guarding prisoners in Ketziot. That intifada, Goldberg observes sardonically, is now remembered “as the ‘good’ uprising, of stone-throwing and Molotov cocktails, rather than suicide bombers.” And what of the mass boycotts, strikes and tax resistance that were the heart of the revolt? In his book, Goldberg laments Palestinian blindness “to the ideas of Gandhi and King,” but his claim that he “had not seen” non-violent resistance by Palestinians suggests he suffered a severe visual impairment of his own. (140) The reality was captured by Gene Sharp, a leading academic specialist on non-violent resistance, who reported, a year in to the uprising, that it “has thus far been distinguished on the Palestinian side by predominantly non-violent forms of struggle.” Given “the severity of Israeli repression in the form of beatings, shootings, killings, house demolitions, uprooting of trees, deportations, extended imprisonments and detentions without trial,” he continued, “the Palestinians during the intifada have shown impressive restraint.” (Quoted in Norman Finkelstein, Knowing Too Much, 108-109.)
It is worth recalling the scale of this repression by Israel. During the intifada “Palestinians under interrogation were systematically tortured or ill-treated” (Amnesty International). Some “85 percent of persons interrogated” by Israel’s internal security service were subjected to “methods constituting torture” (B’Tselem), with victims numbering “in the tens of thousands” (Human Rights Watch). Goldberg, while not hesitating to use the word “torture” to describe Palestinian interrogation methods, recoils in his book from applying it to Israel, even when it used the very same techniques.
A memoirist with selective memory; a reporter with distorted vision; a moralizer without principle; a beautiful soul who colluded in torture — Goldberg suggests we judge Israel by its willingness to hold ethical violations to account. By that standard, Israel’s failures are matched only by Goldberg’s own.
Author’s Note: I am grateful to Norman Finkelstein for his input.