Skip to Content

Share

Richard Falk: On Human Identity

July 2, 2012

It's time to focus on the things that unite us in the common struggle for a brighter future.

http://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/3387203709_09e9bd7014.jpeg
Image from Flickr via Jim Boud

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

Early in my blog life I wrote about Jewish identity. It was partly an exercise in self-discovery, and partly a response to those who alleged that I was a self-hating Jew, or worse, an anti-Semite. These attacks on my character were hurtful even as I felt their distance from my actual beliefs and worldview. In my mind and heart criticisms of Israel and support for the Palestinian struggle for their rights under international law and in accord with fundamental ideas of justice had to do with taking suffering seriously,which for me is the most solid foundation of human identity.

It is my conviction that in a globalized world human identity should serve as the moral trump card in relation to conflict situations. Of course, the optic of human identity can produce a variety of interpretations of a particular situation, and is not meant to eclipse other experienced identities. The Holocaust was a most horrifying instance of what the great Catholic monk, mystic, and writer, Thomas Merton, called the unspeakable. The memories of victimization can never function as a moral excuse for the victimization of another. Tragically, the unfolding of Israel’s quest for security and prosperity beneath the banner of Zionism has generated a narrative of severe Palestinian suffering taking multiple forms, ranging from the prolonged and acute vulnerability of statelessness and rightslessness to the humiliations of living decade after decade under harsh military rule in an increasingly apartheid setting.

But our wider concern beyond the specifics of any given situation should also encompass the future of humanity. So long as ethnic, religious, and nationalist identities are given precedence in a world of inequality and critical scarcities of water, energy, food, and health, there will be oppression and widespread abuse. For the modern world the identity of the part, whether state, religion, or ethnicity, has consistently prevailed over the identity of the whole, whether that whole is understood to be humanity or world. As a result, globally reasonable policies to control global warming or world poverty or the instability of financial markets seem unattainable. Primacy accorded to the national interest continues to obstruct the fulfillment of the human interest.

We are living as a species on borrowed time. It is not the occasion for panic, but it is a time to recalibrate our relations with one another, with nature, with past and future.

In earlier periods of history this kind of dispersal of authority was sustainable, although often cruel in maintaining hierarchies as during the colonial period and in relation to the annihilation of many indigenous peoples whose pre-modern wisdom has much to teach us about survival in the emergent post-modern world of scarcities and limits.

At the same time, a plural world order allowed for diversities that were consistent with the variety of religions, civilizations, cultural traditions, and world views. Warfare and exploitation made such a world order morally deficient, but so were the envisioned alternatives associated with a global state or world government. A potential tyranny of the whole seemed to most of us worse than the anarchic failures arising in a world of sovereign states.

Increasingly, conflict patterns based on the technologies of oppression and resistance are illustrating the menacing realities of a borderless world. Drones ignore borders. Cyber warfare is heedless of space. We cannot go on in this manner much longer without bloodying our heads against the stone walls of history. We are living as a species on borrowed time. It is not the occasion for panic, but it is a time to recalibrate our relations with one another, with nature, with past and future, with this inevitable and mostly invisible transition of mentalities underway–from the enclosures and openings of a spatially oriented world of borders to the before and after of a temporally shaped world now and in the future beset by scarcities and limits.

In such a global circumstance, human identity is not so much a choice as a destiny thrust upon us. It can produce a spectrum of responses. The tendency is to strengthen border controls, increase surveillance, indulge in blame games, and build high, electrified walls, making sovereign territory resemble at its best “a gated community” of gargantuan proportions or at its worst “a maximum security prison.” In this sense, the captivity of Gaza prefigures one kind of regressive future that resists the imperatives of a world of limits, seeking to lull us in the belief that we can remain safe in a world of borders.

And so my orientation is in support of those who struggle against the odds, and for freedom, and it is in solidarity with those who believe that empathy and compassion bring greater security than guns and guard dogs. For me this means a celebration of human identity, and a citizenship that is derived primarily not from the blessings of a state or the sense of national belonging, but from the feeling that life is a journey toward a just and humane future, a pilgrimage endowed with spiritual significance throughout its unfolding. It is an engagement with impossible possibilities for the future, dreams and dramas of human fulfillment, and the person who fully endorses such a journey and the human identity that accompanies it is what I choose to call, and aspire to be:  “a citizen pilgrim.”

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterAdd to BufferShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUpon
Submit to redditShare on App.netShare via email

You might also like

One comment for Richard Falk: On Human Identity

  1. Comment by Fred Skolnik on July 2, 2012 at 11:45 am

    It is very easy to get away with half-truths when you are writing for an audience as eager as yours to vilify Israel.

    Your suggestion by juxtaposition that the fate of the Palestinians under the Israeli occupation somehow resembles the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust is dishonest and worse than contemptible.

    Your misuse of the word apartheid with reference to Israel’s occupation of Judea and Samaria indicates either that you don’t know what the word means, or are not aware of the fact that the Arab inhabitants of Judea and Samaria are not citizens or residents of Israel but inhabitants of occupied territory and therefore no different in status from the Germans in Occupied Germany after World War II. The security fence, roadblocks and curfews in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza are there to prevent terrorist acts. When the terrorism stops and the terrorist organizations are dismantled, they will disappear and the Palestinians will get their state. But that does not really seem to interest you as much as compiling a list of Israel’s “crimes.”

    You know as well as I do that the suffering of the Palestinians has been caused by their own leaders, who could have had a state almost at any time in the last 45 years but refused to relinquish the Big Dream of destroying the State of Israel and engaging in another of their massacres on the shores of the Mediterranean. You also know that Israel is not at war with the Palestinian people but with the terrorist organizations in their midst. You will be doing the Palestinians a greater service by counseling them to uproot the terrorists among them than by vilifying Israel for protecting its population.

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting