This weekend marks another milestone in the history of intellectual dishonesty, for the so-called “Russell Tribunal on Palestine” meets in Cape Town, South Africa on November 5th and 6th.

What is the Russell Tribunal? It is the heir to the “International War Crimes Tribunal” to which Bertrand Russell lent his name in 1966. The stated purpose then was “to investigate crimes committed in Vietnam,” or in other words to attack the United States. In those days, the doddering Russell was already in the hands of Ralph Schoenman, the anti-American activist with whom he finally broke in 1969 and who was the driving force behind the “Tribunal.”

The only difference today is that the guns have turned toward Israel. Well, perhaps “guns” is not the right term. What has been turned on Israel is the same torrent of clerical nonsense, virulent bias, and Hollywood-style self-aggrandizement that marked the “Tribunal” in the old days. The 1966 panel was financed in large part by the government of North Vietnam, which no doubt helped assure its carefully balanced neutrality. Back in 1966, the cast of characters included the Soviet fellow traveler Jean-Paul Sartre, Stokely Carmichael, the writers James Baldwin, Julio Cortázar, and of course Simone de Beauvoir, and other worthies. This weekend’s panel is even more impressive. Start with the stars: Israel’s violations of international law will be judged by a group including the eminent experts Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and the Spanish actor Alberto San Juan. Members of the Tribunal’s “Support Committee” include other experts and jurists such as the actress Julie Christie, the fashion designer Agnes B, the great poetess Alice Walker, Cindy Sheehan (the Peace activist” who at last seems to have abandoned her tent near Crawford, Texas), the British actress Juliet Stevenson, Norman Finkelstein (whose writings on the Holocaust got him denied tenure at De Paul University)—and, of course, Noam Chomsky. Also listed are Harold Pinter, Howard Zinn, and Julio Saramago, whose active support will be harder to arrange as all three are dead. There are also on the list people who should know better and ought to be ashamed of themselves—but won’t.

You are probably already asking yourself “Where is Bishop Tutu?” Never fear. This week he wrote an op-ed for the Guardian in London, supporting the Tribunal on the ground that “We have visited Israel/Palestine on a number of occasions and every time have been struck by the similarities with the South African apartheid regime.” This was in part a response to the op-ed by Judge Richard Goldstone, who is seeking redemption these days by walking away from the “Goldstone Report” and defending Israel from the apartheid charge.

That charge will obviously be the main product of the Tribunal, whose purpose is to further the campaign of delegitimization aimed at Israel. Tutu’s op-ed (co-authored with Michael Mansfield, the British radical lawyer whose fairness on these issues is suggested by the fact that he was scheduled to be on the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza in June 2010) ends this way:

the ultimate objective is to consider the Israel-Palestine situation on its own facts and apply the norms of international law to identify three major issues. Have there been violations? If so, what are they and who is responsible? And thirdly, what are the legal ramifications and processes which should ensue? It is hoped that this process may contribute and not detract from the urgent need to progress understanding and peace, truth and reconciliation.

But this is nonsense. The Tribunal’s previous sessions have noted that “The Tribunal takes it as an established fact that some aspects of Israel’s behavior have already been characterized as violations of international law by a number of international bodies,” so the only issue before them is what forms of punishment are available.

The Tribunal’s previous sessions, in London and Barcelona, spelled out its real goals. The London session, in November 2010, “asked” the following “questions:”

1. Which Israeli violations of international law are corporations complicit in?

2. What are the legal consequences of the activities of corporations that aid and abet Israeli violations?

3. What are the remedies available and what are the obligations of states in relation to corporate complicity?

In other words, the objective was a boycott of commerce with Israel by companies in the EU. The Barcelona session, in March 2010, focused on “the relations of the European Union and its member states with Israel” and aimed at breaking those political ties. It urged that “the existing legal actions in the context of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS)… be stepped up and expanded within the European Union” and that Israeli officials visiting the EU be prosecuted or extradited.

The Tribunal’s web site says that it “is imbued with the same spirit, and espouses the same rigorous rules as those inherited from the Tribunal on Vietnam.” I’ll say. The Russell Tribunal on Palestine is indeed a worthy heir to its 1960s predecessor, which found the United States guilty of genocide while ignoring issues like North Vietnamese torture of prisoners. Needless to say, the Tribunal was unable to reconstitute itself to consider, in the 1970s, the massacres in Vietnam or the actual genocide in Cambodia. Similarly today, terrorism against Israel is of course not to be discussed. If Bishop Tutu genuinely believes the Tribunal will actually consider any of his three questions, much less consider them fairly, he is an even greater fool than I had previously thought.

The Tribunal is worthy of contempt, but it is a part of the serious international effort to destroy the state of Israel by breaking its economic and political ties to other nations. Coming just when UNESCO has elected the non-state of Palestine to full membership, it is a reminder that ideas—even, and perhaps especially, evil ideas—have consequences.

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