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Richard Falk: For What?

Richard Falk considers how he came to find himself so drawn to the Palestinian cause.
Image from Flickr via Wall in Palestine

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

Being disinclined to look in mirrors, not only to avoid evidences of aging, but also because of an autobiographical deficit, I have recently started to question the vectors of my motivation. Not to raise doubts but to seek some understanding of “for what?” I am especially wondering the reasons behind my solidarity with the struggles of distant strangers, why such solidarity is not more widely shared with likeminded friends, and why the inevitable priorities as to what is emphasized and what is ignored have the shape they do. Most pointedly, why am I giving the Palestinians so much more attention and psychic energy than the Kurds, Tibetans, or Kashmiris, and a host of other worthy causes? And how do I explain to myself a preoccupation with the unlawful, immoral, and imprudent foreign policy of the U.S. government, the sovereign state of my residence upon whose governmental resources I depend upon for security and a range of rights?
There are rational answers that tell part of the story, but only a part, and probably the least illuminating part. I was drawn to the Palestinian struggle as a result of friendship with prominent Palestinian exiles while still a student. I formed a well-evidence belief that the U.S. Government and the organized Jewish community were responsible for the massive and enduring confiscation of Palestinian land and rights. And with this awareness came some added sense of responsibility. “Just don’t sit and stare, do something.”

And with this modest kind of engagement came pressures to do more by way of public identification and witnessing, which led to a somewhat deeper awareness, greater familiarity, and of course, a dumpster full of harsh criticism. After many years of speaking and writing, the opportunity and challenge to do more in relation to Palestine/Israel conflict came my way unexpectedly in the form of an unsolicited invitation in 2008 to become the next Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council.

I find particularly satisfying the extent to which my two reports each year on the Israeli occupation of Palestine provides a truthful witnessing to the unspeakable ordeal of this prolonged and harsh occupation

I never sought such a position, and realized that it would expose me to an escalating onslaught of vicious personal attacks and threats, an expectation that has been amply fulfilled. It is always uncomfortable to be the target of toxic language, and it is even more scary and disturbing to expose my closest partner in life and love to such calumny. Besides the hotly contested terrain that exists whenever Israeli policies are subject to objective scrutiny and criticism, a position within the UN hierarchy is both burdensome and often frustrating. True, being a Special Rapporteur is essentially a voluntary post, without salary or civil service affiliations, although “compensated” to some degree by institutional independence within the UN, which I have discovered in my four years, can be a considerable blessing. There is little doubt in my mind that if I had been a paid employee I would long ago have been handed a pink slip. As it is I have merely endured a barrage of slanderous insults, including from the Secretary General and Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the UN in New York.

Lest I protest and complain too much, I hasten to add that there are also deep and moving satisfactions. I find particularly satisfying the extent to which my two reports each year on the Israeli occupation of Palestine provides a truthful witnessing to the unspeakable ordeal of this prolonged and harsh occupation. Actually, it is less and less an occupation and more and more an apartheid-style form of annexation, aggravated by continuous land grabs, various instruments of ethnic cleansing, and a range of gratuitous cruelties most recently dramatized by a series of heroic hunger strikes by Palestinians protesting those aspects of their plight resulting from violent arrest procedures, administrative detention, and deplorable prison conditions falling far below accepted international standards. Bearing witness, giving the Palestinians an authentic voice with which to formulate their grievances, and having the means to issue press releases calling attention to particular incidents of abuse, makes me feel as though my time is well spent even if the bodies keep piling up on the Palestinian side of the border. Part of the challenge in such a role is to realize the discouraging constraints on what can be achieved. Governments mainly don’t listen, and even when they do, their actions and policies are rarely informed by moral imperatives, and so nothing changes, however much the evidence is present.

The devastating impact of the Gaza blockade has been known and lamented for years by political leaders, and yet the costs of doing anything about it have seemed so great that even those who complain most loudly in the chambers of the UN are silent or worse when it comes time to doing something. Someone at my level is shouting to be heard amid the clamor that prevails in the diplomatic discotheques of New York and Geneva, and even when heard, must learn to expect nothing to be done, or else despair, even madness, will soon follow.

Somewhere in this agonizingly slow formation of my character there was being constructed a self that took the shape of “engaged scholar” and “citizen pilgrim.”

Beyond this rational balance sheet of gains and losses is a deeper less accessible convergence of feelings and impulses which cannot be explained, but only acknowledged. I am not sure why direct exposure to victimization has such a powerful animating effect on my behavior, but it does. I do feel that a sense of responsibility emerges with such knowledge, especially that derived from direct contact with the suffering of victims caught in some historical trap not of their own making. Also, whether visiting North Vietnam as a peace activist during the Vietnam War or seeking to understand the Iranian Revolution by talking with its leaders as the extraordinary process was unfolding in Tehran, I felt a meta-professional obligation to share this privileged exposure by talking and writing about it, however inadequately, particularly, as seemed generally to be the case, that the mainstream media distorted and manipulated their presentations of such historic happenings as misleadingly seen through their Western optic of (mis)perception.
Somewhere in this agonizingly slow formation of my character there was being constructed a self that took the shape of “engaged scholar” and “citizen pilgrim.” In retrospect, I think I was reacting somewhat dialectically to my academic colleagues who mostly felt it inappropriate to speak out on controversial issues although they viewed it as entirely professional to consult with the government and quite all right to avoid the public sphere altogether by packaging themselves as experts who should not be expected to take public stands on partisan issues that divided the polity. I felt, increasingly with age, the opposite. I came to believe that it was an organic part of my integrity as teacher/scholar to create a seamless interface between classroom and sites of political struggle. In truth, not entirely seamless, as the classroom must always be treated as a sacred space by a faculty member. It should be maintained as a sanctuary for the uninhibited exchange of views, however diverse and antagonistic, in an atmosphere of disciplined civility. I have always felt that it is a primary duty of a teacher to establish sufficient trust with students, that is, permission and encouragement of openness of expression with a clear understanding that performance will be objectively assessed, and not affected by agreement or disagreement with what the teacher happens to believe. This is a delicate balance yet far more conducive to learning than a sterile and journeyman insistence that what people beyond the campus are dying for can be usefully addressed with sanitary dispassion.
In the end, this vital domain of conscious pedagogy and unconscious morality, is spiritually validated by an unmediated and uninterrogated sense that this or that is “the right thing to do.” It certainly helps to remain as free as possible of vested interests and career ambitions that tend to crush an implicit pledge of truthfulness that authentic witnessing depends upon. And beyond witnessing there exists an iron wall of moral obligation: caring about the future, doing what I can to make the world a better place for human habitation and co-evolution with nature, which I have understood as a species obligation that has been made historically urgent ever since an atomic bomb was exploded over the Japanese city of Hiroshima and is now also deeply connected with protecting the planet from the multiple hazards of global warming hopelessly embedded in our carbon-dependent life styles as promiscuously promoted in disastrous directions by the greed of superrich fossil fuel billionaires and their far-too-powerful corporate allies.
I have not rested these life commitments on the teachings of any particular religious tradition or institution, although I have long found that the great world religions, East and West, despite their menacing contradictions and multiple readings, provide me with the most profound sources of wisdom and guidance. It is the basis of my ecumenical longing for human solidarity, along with my feelings of awe produced by contact with cosmic and natural wonders, and deeply informs my sense of the spiritual ground of the human adventure. These sentiments are reinforced in my case by a commitment to an emergent form of cosmopolitan citizenship that owes allegiance to the ethics and praxis of human sustainability, the individual and collective dignity of all human beings, and a respectful kinship with and love of our non-human co-inhabitants of the planet. Such perspectives, I believe, respond to our historically precarious situation as a species, and here in America, this concern is accentuated. For this is a country with a surfeit of moral and political pretensions. It exhibits hubris to an alarming degree, and in extravagant ways, and is endangering itself along with the rest of the world by a refusal to heed what the geopolitical mirror of reflection warns about. 

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty 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.

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One comment for Richard Falk: For What?

  1. Comment by Fred Skolnik on July 24, 2012 at 6:24 am

    There has been so much talk about “facts” in Professor Falk’s blog, especially among his followers, and so little knowledge of what they actually are, that I cannot resist repeating what I’ve written before so that his audience will at least have something real to think about.

    1) There is no historic Palestine that has anything to do with the Arabs, nor is there an “indigenous” Muslim population there. “Palestine” was the name given by the Romans to the province of Judea after they conquered it and was revived by the British during the Mandate period. The Arabs came out of the Arabian Desert and conquered the Land of Israel along with the rest of the Middle East in the 7th century, forcing its inhabitants to convert to Islam and making life miserable for anyone who didn’t. The Land of Israel was in turn conquered from them by the Crusaders, Turks and British. The Arabs have as much historical, political and moral right to sovereignty in the Land of Israel as they do in Spain, which they also conquered. Nonetheless, Israel accepts the principle of a two-state solution to the conflict.

    2) The displacement of Arabs in the Land of Israel during Israel’s War of Independence, as often as not encouraged by the surrounding Arab countries, who assured them that they would be able to return after they finished slaughtering the Jews, was paralleled by the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews living in Arab lands at the time whose lives became unbearable under vindictive Arab rule. However, unlike the Arab refugees, who were herded into camps and treated like animals by their Arab brethren, the Jews fleeing the Arab lands were received with open arms by their Jewish brethren, and that should tell you something about the moral character of the two people.

    3) The Nakba or Disaster is something the Arabs brought on themselves by attacking Israel in 1948. Those who remained in Israel, with all the problematics inherent in constituting a national minority whose primary identity is with an Arab world that is hostile to Israel (and to all non-Muslims in fact), live better lives is Israel, politically and economically, than Arabs do in their own lands and would be very reluctant indeed to change places with these other Arabs and endure the nightmarish conditions under which they live.

    4) Israel occupied Judea and Samaria (the West Bank of the Jordan River), the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights in 1967 after defeating four Arab armies who attacked it. In the case of the West Bank, it was Jordan who indiscriminately and without provocation began shelling Jewish Jerusalem, hitting over 500 buildings and killing 15 civilians on the night of June 5 and the following morning, reinforced by Iraqi troops, advancing on Israel’s border. You start a war, you lose a war, you get your territory occupied. This is the oldest story in history.

    However, whereas in the normal course of events, defeated nations sue for peace, the Arabs, with the support of a great many people and countries around the world who refused to condemn their aggression, then proceeded to issue the Khartoum Declaration with its three famous noes: no to peace, no to negotiations, no to recognition of Israel. Since that time, Arab terrorists have been launching attacks against Israel’s civilian population. Those who are apprehended are sent to prison, where they enjoy conditions denied to Gilad Shalit, including visits from the Red Cross, contact with their families, cable TV, canteen privileges and even the opportunity to continue their studies. As for the occupation, it is as humane as an occupation can be, given the fact that the Palestinian population harbors a considerable number of bloodthirsty terrorists. As for the closure of the Gaza Strip, this came in the wake of the continued shelling of Israeli settlements from Gaza by Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

    5) 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.

    6) The Arab inhabitants of Judea and Samaria are 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. At that time the fate of each Jewish settlement will be determined. It has been understood for years by all practical people on both sides that with regard to borders, settlements and the expansion of Jewish Jerusalem, there will be an exchange of land that allows the big Jewish settlement blocs to remain part of Israel and compensates the Palestinians territorially. All this involves around 5% of West Bank land.

    Screaming about “JewZionists,” as Professor Falk’s audience often does, does not alter these facts, nor does it bring the creation of a Palestinian state any nearer. Whoever really cares about the Palestinian people will urge their leaders to dismantle the terrorist organizations, cease their vicious propaganda and the spread of hatred among their children, and negotiate a settlement with Israel.

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