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Brandeis to host Gaza violence forum

UN report author to discuss it with ex-Israeli envoy

By James F. Smith
Globe Staff / October 22, 2009

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Brandeis University said yesterday that it will host a forum next month with South African Judge Richard Goldstone, the author of a fiercely controversial United Nations fact-finding report that accused Israeli forces as well as Palestinian fighters of committing war crimes in Gaza.

In what is sure to be a heated debate, Goldstone will discuss his report for the first time with a senior Israeli political figure. Dore Gold, former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, will respond to Goldstone in the forum and then both will take questions from the audience.

Goldstone’s appearance is certain to generate discussion within Boston’s Jewish community, given the role of Brandeis as the premier Jewish university in the country and Israel’s angry rejection of the report as deeply biased against Israel and flawed in its mandate and execution. The United States has joined Israel in dismissing the report, which was submitted last month to the UN Human Rights Council and was endorsed by the council last week.

The dispute over the report has become so heated that it threatens to disrupt attempts to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Under US pressure, the Palestinian government at first agreed not to press for the UN Security Council to take up the report, but after a domestic outcry, reversed its stance. Some Palestinian analysts, in turn, have accused Israel of trying to exploit the controversy to fend off growing US demands for concessions.

The report covers the three weeks of the Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip in December and January, which Israel said was necessary to halt fighters from the Hamas faction in Gaza from firing rockets into civilian areas. More than 1,000 Palestinians were killed in air strikes and ground operations before the Israelis pulled back. Israel argued that Hamas fighters hid behind civilians, actions that are themselves a war crime, making civilian casualties unavoidable.

The fact-finding report focused most of its criticism on Israel, saying the battle plan ensured that civilians would be targeted and that civilian infrastructure was deliberately attacked. The report also said Palestinian armed groups had caused terror by launching thousands of rockets at civilians in Israel since 2001.

The Goldstone-Gold forum on Nov. 5 will be cohosted by the university’s International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life and by the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies.

Goldstone, a South African Jew, is a prominent jurist who has taken part in numerous international tribunals as a prosecutor.

Professor Daniel Terris, the director of the ethics center, said that he has worked closely with Goldstone for a decade in his role as a member of the center’s advisory board and that “he has a longstanding reputation for integrity and courage.’’

Professor Ilan Troen, who heads the Schusterman Center, said in an interview: “What we’re in for is learned, direct, and honest drama. I don’t know that we’ll resolve anything, but we can certainly clarify, and that’s what universities do.’’

Several leaders of Boston-area Jewish organizations said that while they were highly critical of the Goldstone report, they respected the university’s role as a venue for airing different views and fostering debate.

Rob Leikind, head of the American Jewish Committee’s Boston office, said, “It’s pretty clear at this point that the Goldstone report has been co-opted by nations and groups that are committed to delegitimizing the state of Israel.

“That said, it is an appropriate role for a college or university to present people involved in controversial issues, particularly when they are making an effort to get well-informed responses from people with a different point of view.’’

Nancy Kaufman - executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the umbrella group for Jewish organizations - said Goldstone was “coming into the lion’s den in some respects.

“He knows this is of concern to the Jewish community,’’ she said. “I actually applaud Brandeis.’’

Nadav Tamir, the Israeli consul general in New England, said, “it’s the job of universities to have debates; I have nothing against that. But I’m very worried about the report.’’

Brandeis did not provide details on the time or venue for the forum on Nov. 5.