Forward Thinking

What Ashton Really Said: Watch the Video

By J.J. Goldberg

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The foreign policy chief of the European Union, Catherine Ashton, is under furious attack for a speech she gave March 19, several hours after the deadly shootings at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, in which she mentioned the Toulouse attack and deaths of Palestinian youths in Gaza in the same sentence.

First Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, called the supposed analogy “inappropriate.” Then others piled on: Defense Minister Ehud Barak called her words “outrageous.” Interior Minister Eli Yishai demanded she resign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized her more indirectly, just before a meeting with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who had flown to Israel for the funerals of the Toulouse victims. The Anti-Defamation League expressed “outrage.” The American Jewish Committee expressed “profound dismay.” For a more detailed critique, here’s Middle East scholar (and my old high school chum) Barry Rubin, dissecting what’s wrong.

Actually, what’s wrong is the false notion that Ashton’s words were, as Barry puts it, “a statement” issued “in response to the Toulouse shooting.” They were nothing of the sort. As I write in my latest Forward column, she was delivering the keynote address at a U.N.-E.U. conference on the challenges facing Palestinian refugee youth. She concluded with a sad litany of unrelated tragedies around the world that clearly share nothing except that young people die. Here’s the video of the speech.

How did everyone get it so wrong?

It seems to have started with the advance prepared text of her remarks, which were handed out to the press and posted on line. Here is a slightly amended version, as I’ll explain. Her prepared text notes tragedies in Switzerland (where 22 Belgian middle-schoolers had been killed a week earlier in a bus crash, returning home from a ski vacation), followed by the shootings of Jewish kids in Toulouse that morning and a similarly ideological mass murder of socialist kids in Norway a year ago, followed by deaths in Syria and Gaza “and other places throughout the world.”

Her actual speech included a considerable amount of ad-libbing, including an aside that a friend of hers lost a child in the Swiss crash, plus the addition of Sderot alongside Gaza. Considering that she was addressing Palestinian youth, it was her impromptu decision to add Sderot was noteworthy. It can be seen as a rebuke to the overall tone of the conference – you can note it if you keep listening to the video and hear Palestinian Authority foreign minister Riyad Malki condemning Israeli cruelty (look for the “language” switch on the video to hear the simultaneous English) – by reminding the audience that there’s another side to the Palestinian narrative.

The original text, as noted, doesn’t mention Sderot. I saw it earlier but didn’t save the link, and now I can’t find it. What I’ve posted above is an amended text put up by the E.U. after the storm erupted with Sderot added. It’s referred to in various news articles as a “corrected transcript,” distinguished from the earlier “transcript” critics were working from. But neither one is a transcript. They are “before” and “after” versions the advance. If you read the corrected version, it still leaves out Ashton’s friend’s child. It also contains numerous minor differences – it’s worth following the text while listening to the actual video to see how often she departs from the prepared text in little ways. That’s the usual way with speeches and prepared texts. That’s why the advance text says “Check Against Delivery” on the first page.

I don’t know how this outrageous snowball got started. It could be that some sharp-eyed but dimwitted aide in Jerusalem happened to see the text and decided to have some fun with it. It’s also possible, considering that the reactions seem to have started with Lieberman, that an Israeli Foreign Ministry representative was in the room in Brussels when she spoke, monitoring the event, and missed her mention of Sderot – note that she mispronounces it “Sredot” – and so forwarded the text to Jerusalem unedited.

Either way, a lot of people owe Ashton a big, fat apology. Don’t hold your breath.


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