With so much attention rightly paid to the Goldstone report, we ought to dwell on the justice question. The perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine evaded justice; the Ben-Gurions, Rabins, Shamirs, Meirs, Begins, and Trumans died – leaving behind progeny who cannot be made to answer for their crimes. Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres are alive, but who can reasonably expect them to be held accountable. Far likelier, they will die and real justice, the kind that carries life sentences in enclosed spaces, will be thwarted.
To be sure, posterity will mete out small measures of justice; some Zionist names and deeds will live in infamy, viscerally repugnant. But teaching future generations that Shimon Peres was a terrorist of the ugliest stripe – one who terrorized in the name of racial supremacy – is more palliative than curative. So we are forced to come to come to terms with the facts of historic Palestine. That the men who perpetrated ethnic cleansing were heroic in their time, that they lived in grandeur, died comfortably, and will never face justice.
The Gaza Massacre happened only one year ago. Here we have an opportunity to hold alleged war criminals to account individually. This reckoning may take decades – we’re very fortunate that some of the alleged criminals were only 18, 19 or 20 years old a year ago – and this reckoning may delay the one-state solution by decades, too. I believe in pragmatic decision-making, but the justice question is necessarily resistant to all other considerations; justice is principles-based. The desire for an equitable outcome in Palestine/Israel cannot trump the rights of victims, or their survivors. But in truth this formula is backwards; only justice can yield an equitable outcome in Palestine/Israel. Peace is only the absence of a legitimate grievance, just like cold is the absence of heat.
We the Palestinians have also allegedly committed war crimes. Here too we are fortunate; Israel has extrajudicially exterminated many of our alleged war criminals, and their children too. But I want justice for everyone. So our side must also be held to account – for the sake of future generations, and for the sake of truth.
I sincerely believe that if South Africa had employed a justice-based program for navigating that conflict, the country would be more equitable today. South African Apartheid may still exist – I do not believe F.W. de Klerk would have relinquished white power so easily if he thought it meant jail time – but true justice would have reset society’s baseline condition.
On this topic, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn imparts some wisdom. The context and crimes are different, but the essence is the same. His words apply equally to Barack Obama’s ‘We don’t torture but we’re looking forward in case we did (we’ve shattered the rearview mirror, in fact)’ Justice Department.
From The Gulag Archipelago (emphasis in original):
“From the most ancient times justice has been a two-part concept: virtue triumphs, and vice is punished.
We have been fortunate enough to live to a time when virtue, though it does not triumph, is nonetheless not always tormented by attack dogs. Beaten down, sickly, virtue has now been allowed to enter in all its tatters and sit in the corner, as long as it doesn’t raise its voice.
However, no one dares say a word about vice. Yes, they did mock virtue, but there was no vice in that. Yes, so-and-so many millions did get mowed down – but no one was to blame for it. And if someone pipes up: “What about those who…” the answer comes from all sides, reproachfully and amicably at first: “What are you talking about, comrade! Why open old wounds?” Then they go after you with an oaken club: “Shut up! Haven’t you had enough yet? You think you’ve been rehabilitated!”
In that same period, by 1966, eighty-six thousand Nazi criminals have been convicted in West Germany… But in a quarter-century we have not tracked down anyone. We have not brought anyone to trial. It is their wounds we are afraid to reopen…
In the German trials an astonishing phenomenon takes place from time to time. The defendant clasps his head in his hands, refuses to make any defense, and from then on asks no concessions from the court. He says that the presentation of his crimes, revived and once again confronting him, has filled him with revulsion and he no longer wants to live.
That is the ultimate height a trial can attain: when evil is so utterly condemned that even the criminal is revolted by it.
A country which has condemned evil 86,000 times from the rostrum of a court and irrevocably condemned it in literature and among its young people, year by year, step by step, is purged of it.
What are we to do? Someday our descendants will describe our several generations as generations of driveling do-nothings. First we submissively allowed them to massacre us by the millions, and then with devoted concern we tended the murderers in their prosperous old age.
What are we to do if the great Russian tradition of penitence is incomprehensible and absurd to them? What are we to do if the animal terror of hearing even one-hundredth part of all they subjected others to outweighs in their hearts any inclination to justice? If they cling greedily to the harvest of benefits they have watered with the blood of those who perished?
It is clear enough that those men who turned the handle of the meat grinder even as late as 1937 are no longer young. They are fifty to eighty years old. They have lived the best years of their lives prosperously, well nourished and comfortable, so that it is too late for any kind of equal retribution as far as they are concerned.
But let us be generous. We will not shoot them. We will not pour salt water into them, nor bury them in bedbugs, nor bridle them into a “swan-dive,” nor keep them on sleepless “stand-up” for a week, nor kick them with jackboots, nor beat them with rubber truncheons, nor squeeze their skulls in iron rings, nor push them into a cell so that they lie atop one another like pieces of baggage – we will not do any of the things they did! But for the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them all to trial! Not to put them on trial so much as their crimes. And to compel each one of them to announce loudly: “Yes, I was an executioner and a murderer.” …
It is unthinkable in the twentieth century to fail to distinguish between what constitutes an abominable atrocity that must be prosecuted and what constitutes that “past” which “ought not to be stirred up.”
We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations. It is for this reason, and not because of the “weakness of indoctrinational work,” that they are growing up “indifferent.” Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity.
It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible, to live in such a country!”