On Taking Controversial Public Positions: A Reflection      

18 Apr

On Taking Controversial Public Positions: A Reflection      

 

Not long ago a cherished friend directed a remark at me during a dinner with several other friends: “You keep sticking your neck out. I used to do that, but I don’t do it anymore.” At the time, I listened, unsure whether it was a rebuke—‘isn’t it time to grow up, and stop exposing yourself to ridicule and behind the back dismissals’—or merely an observation. on different ways of growing old.  I am still unsure, but it made me think.

 

It had never occurred to me to stop signing petitions or writing blogs that staked out controversial positions, sometimes with provocative language. It seemed. like an extension of my ideas about global civic responsibility in a democratic society,a matter of trusting and acting upon the dictates of conscience and the affectionsof solidarity. I didn’t start making my views known in public spaces until my mid-30s at the onset of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. In recent years, aside from periodic writing on my blog, I am mainly responding to requests for support of activist and academic initiatives by kindred political spirits or sympathetic journalists.

 

I suppose that a certain level of public notoriety followed my period as UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestine during the period between 2008 and 2014. During those years I was under quite frequent attack by Zionist zealots, often operating under the misleading camouflage of NGO auspices with such anodyne names as UN Watch or NGO Monitor. It was defamatory and malicious, but it left an imprint in the mud. For those who know me best the main accusations didn’t make sense. I was clearly neither an ‘anti-Semite’ nor ‘a self-hating Jew.’ I suppose it was empirically accurate to consider me as an ‘anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist extremist,’ although I don’t think of myself in this way. True, my views on Israel/Palestine and the Zionist Project were overwhelmingly in support of the Palestinian national struggle for basic rights, including the right of self-determination, but this also represented my understanding of the application of relevant rules of international law and morality. I also came to believe that the Zionist insistence on ‘a Jewish state’ was the source of legitimate Palestinian resistance, and to quell this resistance Israel resorted to the establishment of apartheid structures of discriminatory  separation and domination, the elements of apartheid as an instance of a crime against humanity (as specified in Article 7 of the Rome Statute governing the operations of the International Criminal Court). I never thought of reaching such conclusions as sticking my neck out. I thought expressing these views while holding the UN position was an aspect of doing my unpaid job. This represented my sense of professional duty, including the recognition of the importance of civil society activism devoted to obtaining global justice.

 

Back at Princeton, especially after my visit to Iran in early 1979 during the last stage of the revolution, and the pushback I received after publishing an opinion piece in the NY Timesexpressing my hopes and concerns about the future of the Islamic Republic,  I did myself, partly as a gesture of self-irony, adopt the metaphor of sticking my neck out, attributed this move to my love for giraffes, their grace, absence of vocal chords, and strong kick. The giraffe became my totem, and my home was soon filled with carved and ceramic giraffes acquired during my trips to Africa. A friend with gifts as a woods craftsperson even made me a life-sized replica of a baby giraffe, which was slightly taller than I, and provided a vivid reminder of this identity that dominated my Princeton living room for many years. Yet, strangely, after moving to California I never thought about sticking my neck out until my friend reminded me, and led me to think about whether I am frozen in patterns of behavior apt only for those who are young or middle aged. The question for me is not whether we should stop caring after 80, but only whether it is unseemly for the elderly to keep acting.  Or perhaps having chosen ‘retirement’ from Princeton implies that I should stop actingas if I care, and leave the future to those young enough to have a more significant stake in what is happening and where it is leading.

 

A related kind of feedback from someone even closer was along the same lines, but could be classified as ‘a loving rebuke.’ It was the insistence that I was ‘obsessed’ with Israel/Palestine, and I should move on to other concerns as bad or worse than the Palestinian ordeal, with the example given of the horrifying persistence of the Yemen War with atrocities an almost daily occurrence. Here, I resist more than I reflect. Yet this is a matter of heart as well as head. From both sides, as my loving friend also insisted that she was saving my reputation from being permanently mired in mud, telling me I was smearing my own legacy by continuing to speak out critically of Israel and Zionism.

   

I have long believed that outsiders have much blood on their hands in relation to evolution of Palestine and Israel ever since the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Beyond this, the United States had the leverage, responsibility, and opportunity for decades to make a political compromise happen, but refused to explore such an option evenhandedly. Instead, the U.S. Government, especially after 1967, subsidized Israel’s militarization to the point where it has become a substantially autonomous and affluent regional power, and yet continues to receive more than $3.8 billion per year, proportionately to population far more than any other country. A compromise might have accommodated Palestinian basic grievances sufficiently to produce a sustainable peace, although it would still have required the Palestinian people to swallow a large dose of injustice taking the form of outside forces imposing an alien political template on their future, which is the essence of colonialist expansion.

 

During the Trump presidency with its unseemly responsiveness to Netanyahu’s wishes, the situation facing the Palestinian people has further deteriorated in rather dramatic ways: the American embassy has been moved to Jerusalem, the Golan Heights have been formally annexed following a green light from Washington, unlawful settlement building has accelerated, funding for essential UNRWA education and health services have been cut to zero, and even the pretension of the near universal international commitment to the two-state solution has been pointedly abandoned. Waiting for ‘the deal of the century’ seems likely to be either a matter of waiting for Godot or an ultimatum disguised as a peace plan demanding Palestinian surrender to Israeli one-statism.

 

And there is the outrage of a well-funded campaign to brand supporters of BDS and justice for the Palestinians as anti-Semites. This was never done during the global anti-apartheid movement after it adopted a BDS approach to South African apartheid. Why is Israeli apartheid being treated so differently? With amoral opportunism, debasing Jewish memories of the Holocaust, Zionist zealots, with money and encouragement from Tel Aviv and wealthy diaspora donors, are distorting reality by using Nazi genocidal tactics against Jews to intimidate those seeking justice for both peoples.  What is as bad is the degree to which most of the governments of the West go along with this smear campaign even altering the definition of anti-Semitism to conform with these lamentable tactics. To get the fuller picture this use of anti-Semitism as a smear tactic confuses the threats associated with the return of real hatred of Jews as embedded in the scary second coming of fascism with diaspora Jews again cast in the role of the unassimilable other, a degenerate enemy of the global wave of ultra-nationalism.

 

With this understanding, I can no more turn away from the Palestinians than those closest to me. It would represent a tear in the fabric of the life and love I have lived and affirmed. It is, for better or worse who I am and who I will always be. It may dim my image in the mind of many decent people of liberal persuasion, but I value self-respect and personal sovereignty more than the conditional affection of others. Having written in this vein, I also wish to affirm my identity as a Jew, and my realization of the desperation ignited by the Nazi experience. Yet such an experience could as easily have been tinged with compassion rather than a racist willingness from its very origins of an intention to displace, dominate, and victimize the majority long-term residents of Palestine. Offsetting this intention by reference to a Jewish biblical or historical entitlement has neither legal nor moral weight in my opinion.

 

Having so far affirmed continuity of belief and practice, there is something to be said in favor of discontinuity, breaking old habits inspired by giraffes running across an African savannah or overcoming obsessions even if morally inspired and intellectually justified. Choosing discontinuity has something to do with learning how to age so that the inner self takes command. The Hindu tradition emphasizes stages of life, to be a house-holder or family person until the age of 60, and after that go forth alone to nurture spirituality generally long marginalized by the pressures of ordinary life, if not dormant. Thinking along such lines, may make my defense of continuity of engagement seem shallow, if not wrong or at least exhibiting a stubborn streak.

 

Having so pondered and reflected, I am no nearer to closure. It feels inauthentic to abandon unfulfilled commitments, and yet to reconcile myself to being nothing more than a pale projection of my past seems a defeat. At least, this semi-meditation has made me more knowingly confused, and I share it on my blog because I feel that the dilemmas of ageing confront us all at some point, and are rarely faced clearly in Western culture, often inducing various degrees of denial, depression, and feelings of lost relevance and disengagement. I have chosen activism to the end, both continuing with sports to the limit of my ability and to honor the political commitments of a citizen pilgrim (dedicated to a journey to a desired and desirable political community that functions now only as an imaginary, yet has the ambition to become a political project) to the best of my ability.      

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23 Responses to “On Taking Controversial Public Positions: A Reflection      ”

  1. Steve Berube April 18, 2019 at 12:53 pm #

    Dear Dr. Falk, your reflection is especially poignant for me because of a variety of personal reasons around my involvement with a just peace for Palestine and Israel. I truly enjoyed your comments about giraffe; they too are my totem animal but for different reasons than yours. BUT – the idea of them sticking their necks out makes such good sense of the reality that I often face in dealing with social justice issues in my role as a minister. Thank you for your advocacy, commitment to human rights and a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis.

  2. Björn Lindgren April 18, 2019 at 1:18 pm #

    Dear Richard,

    I hope you are well and ok.

    Sometimes the task or struggle chooses us. Not the other way around.

    No doubt, you have choosen an honourable task. In your work you have been benefittied many people, protecting weak and speechless, and, not the least, clarified many complex and complicated issues.

    A Swedish journalist, Göran Rosenberg, has written a well dokumented history of modern Israel, titled ” Det förlorade landet: en personlig historia” [The Lost Country: A Personal History]. The second edition has a new chapter added. It ends very sadly. Rosenberg can not see any positive ending to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. And he fears that it will end with a repitition of the Masada catastrophe.

    The human conclusion, whether be it Masada or Auschwitz, is not that this should never happen again to a Jew, but this should never happen again to any human being.

    When young, and on pilgrimage in India, I met the Hindu view of the stages of life. Already then, I saw it as a conventional truth, which often is no truth at all.

    Much more important than to follow prescribed ways, is to listen to your heart/mind as early in life as possible. Religious practice, training, and realization takes effort, energy, and time. Starting a religious training late in life could be too late.

    Living fully, compassionately realizing no-self, no-other. What more can you ask for?

    Warm regards, Björn Lindgren

  3. Heather Stroud April 18, 2019 at 1:37 pm #

    Keep being as you are Richard and leave your regal neck sticking out. The relevance of what you do and say hasn’t faded, it’s increased with your experiences and wisdom acquired through age.

  4. Carlos April 18, 2019 at 6:50 pm #

    RIchard Thank you so much for your thoughts. I fully empathise for I too have reached a good age. A great fear of course is that I will lose my intellect. Not you, your writing is so clear and heartfelt. The Zionist moves so obvious to us and depressing. Even here in Australia, a recent withdrawal from standing for parliament, highlights Zionist influence. Look too st attacks on UN. Hold tight to your love of the giraffe. Go well blogging friend.

  5. davidhillstrom April 18, 2019 at 7:43 pm #

    I hope that I can continue to age as gracefully and honestly as the example that Richard Falk sets in this article.

  6. nada pretnar April 18, 2019 at 10:58 pm #

    Dear Richard, thank you for this – for me – very moving piece. Please don’t change your mind!

  7. Gene Schulman April 19, 2019 at 12:07 am #

    Bravo for your decision to carry on, Richard. Yes, age can slow us down, but the experience and intelligence it affords us is precious to the causes we take on. And incidentally aid us in sustaining our own raisons d’être. Please do not let anyone dissuade you from your good works.

  8. Fred Skolnik April 19, 2019 at 12:07 am #

    Hopefully for the last time, though I realize that your animosity toward the State of Israel has very little to do with the facts of the matter, which you simply ignore when they spoil the argument:

    The partition plan proposed the establishment of a Jewish state in that part of Mandatory Palestine where the Jews were a majority and half of which was a virtually empty desert (the Negev).

    At the start of Zionist settlement in the early 1880s, around 450,000 Arabs with no sovereign aspirations inhabited a territory that today accommodates over 10 million people with room for more. In plain English, why should they have gotten everything?

    The Jewish historical claim is no less valid than the Arab claim, which was not demographic but also historical, established in their eyes by right of conquest.

    I will ignore all your rhetoric and wild language, and also your false characterization of your critics, other than to say that you seem to be pretending that they do not address your assertions substantively in addition to very naturally addressing your hostility.

    • Gene Schulman April 19, 2019 at 11:35 am #

      Yep. Can always count on Fred to spoil any praises for Richard. Let’s throw his question back at him; Why should the Zionists grab everything while ethnically cleansing the indigenous peoples of the land?

      • Fred Skolnik April 20, 2019 at 1:10 pm #

        Israel didn’t grab everything. The agreed to a partition plan and were prepare to live with it.

    • Brewer April 20, 2019 at 3:23 am #

      “your animosity toward the State of Israel has very little to do with the facts of the matter”
      Au contraire. I suggest that it has everything to do with facts such as:
      134 Israeli children have been killed by Palestinians and 2,167 Palestinian children have been killed by Israelis since September 29, 2000.
      1,242 Israelis and at least 9,510 Palestinians have been killed since September 29, 2000.
      Israel has been targeted by at least 77 UN resolutions and the Palestinians have been targeted by 1.
      0 Israeli homes have been demolished by Palestinians and at least 48,488 Palestinian homes have been demolished by Israel since 1967.
      It might also have something to do with the fact that the the Palestinians were the indigenous people of the land and the majority of Jews that you speak of were recent immigrants, mostly illegal, with no cultural or blood ties to the land whose ideology, well known for decades, involved the ethnic cleansing of the land of its non-Jewish population.
      Another fact is that Palestine at the time was more densely populated than the U.S. The myth of an empty land derives from the Joan Peters, now thoroughly debunked nonsense.
      How anyone can baldly state “why should they have gotten everything?” is beyond any concept of justice or logic. Simple fact is that the European interlopers, even those few who immigrated legally, possessed no proprietary rights whatsoever – just as any immigrant today does not possess a right to usurp native title to land or a controlling interest in government.
      What could possibly have put this idea into your head? The idea that being a member of a certain race or religion entitles one to such privileges? The answer lies in your own use of the language. Your use of “They” tells us all we need to know.
      Forget the Palestinian mother and her children, the artisan or shepherd, the shopkeeper, farmer or artist – “they” are the enemy because “they” stand in the way of Zionist ambitions.
      If anyone can provide me with a better description of ardent, disgusting racism I’d be interested to see it.
      It took me twenty years, starting from a thoroughly pro-Zionist position to realize this most simple of truths. Zionism is an ideology based on a claimed privilege that supposedly belongs to one according to the race (or even more reprehensibly, religion) of one’s parents.
      History teaches us that such ideologies inevitably fail and that the more persistent the ideology, the more violent its end.

      • Richard Falk April 20, 2019 at 7:45 am #

        Thanks for this highly informed and rather devastating response to Fred Skolnik.

      • Fred Skolnik April 20, 2019 at 1:30 pm #

        Not devastating at all, Prof. Falk, as you should be informed enough to know.

        More Palestinians than Jews are killed because Hamas launches it’s attacks on Israel from in and around schools, playgrounds, hospitals, infirmaries, mosques and residential buildings and does not allow inhabitants to evacuate the areas.

        Israel is targeted in the General Assembly of the UN because the Arabs have an automatic majority there. As Abba Eban once quipped, they could pass a resolution there declaring that the Earth is flat. The fact that the Arabs have only been censured once with all the horrors they have initiated should tell you something about what the General Assembly is.

        The Palestinians are not an indigenous population. They have abslolutely nothing in common with the peoples whose national identities the Arabs destroyed in their conquest – not language, not religion, not culture, not historical memory.

        To say that Jews had no cultural ties to the Land of Israel is absurd. Israel was the center of Jewish cultural and spiritual life for 2000 years, wherever they were.

        The “empty land” tag does not come from Joan Peters. It comes from the fact that in the early 1880s, 450,000 Arabs were living in a territory that today accommodates over 10 million people with room for more.

        The Jews made a claim no less valid than the Arab claim to sovereignty. There was nothing nefarious, racist, disgusting or priveleged in that claim, and you will forgive me for suspecting that anyone who thinks there was just may happen not to like Jews as such. A compromise was then proposed. The Jews accepted it and were prepared to live with it. The Arabs rejected it and went to war in the name of Allah. Wars have consequences.

  9. Don E. Scheid April 19, 2019 at 9:07 am #

    Concerning the responsibility of public intellectuals– One reason “elder statesmen” should “stick their necks out” is that they have higher credibility than their younger counterparts. This is simply because after retirement, the person has few ulterior motives for putting forward a position or criticizing a policy (no need to publish, no need for name recognition, or academic or political advancement, etc.).

  10. Beau Oolayforos April 19, 2019 at 9:52 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Your friend’s comment over dinner sounds like a wry, wistful compliment. Many of us grow indifferent or even callous with age, so please do not ‘retire’ – you are an inspiration to younger people. As for the Hindu stages of life, you sound easily peripatetic enough to qualify as a sanyasin; just don’t go living in a tree:)

  11. Ceylan Orhun April 21, 2019 at 3:35 am #

    Love you more so for being your ‘old’ & “old” self.

    A big BIG hug,

  12. Brewer April 22, 2019 at 2:52 am #

    Such a paltry response. Anyone with eyes can see the Palestinian deaths resulting from sniper fire on unarmed protestors from behind a security fence, the racist attacks by illegal settlers in the West Bank, the utter (and probably deliberate) failure of the occupier’s duty of care to the occupied. Even if it were true that Palestinians did indeed shelter around around schools, playgrounds, hospitals etc thinking that no civilized people would bomb children – they sure got that wrong eh Fred.
    Once again we see atrocious racism on display – “the Arabs” have an automatic majority.
    In other words “Arabs” conspire to falsely accuse Israel.
    Attributing characteristics to a group is the hallmark of racism.
    “The Palestinians are not an indigenous population.” This despite mountains of evidence from geneticists, archaeologists and plain old common sense. No doubt Fred believes Christian Palestinians came to the land from Arabia after Zionists made it habitable.
    “in the early 1880s, 450,000 Arabs were living in a territory that today accommodates over 10 million people”
    The same could be said for almost any territory you care to name – even the Jewish Autonomous Oblast Stalin created in 1926. My neighbour has a large tract of empty land. Tell me the legal mechanism by which I can evict him and take it on.
    Rome is the centre of Catholic spiritual and cultural life, England is mine. I or a Catholic would be locked up in either a gaol or loony-bin if we decided to move there and evict an Italian or Pom.
    Professor Falk, the crew over at Mondoweiss and many other Jews have my utmost admiration and affection. That said it is true Fred, I do not like you. I sense however that my dislike is less visceral than the blanket hatred for “Arabs” so evident in your posts.

    • Fred Skolnik April 22, 2019 at 7:52 am #

      I find it a little hard to follow you. You are incoherently bouncing around on half a dozen different tangents. You are certainly not addressing my remarks.

      Hamas itself announced that 80% of those killed in the Gaza riots were their own militants, armed with guns and explosives and as usual using civilians as shields after instructing them to overrun the border and murder and/or kidnap as many Israelis as they could, which is what they were trying to do. And the civilians weren’t “sheltering” in schools, playgrounds, etc. The schools, playgrounds, etc., from which Hamas was launching its rockets were located in the neighborhoods where they live.

      No, Brewer, I’m not a racist. You can be sure that I have had more human contact in a month with Arabs than you will have had in your entire lifetime. It’s those who are trying to kill me that I regard as enemies.

  13. Kata Fisher April 23, 2019 at 10:58 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    It’s hard to believe and almost unbelievable to me that a woman would point out a civil or national embarrassment to a 80 year Professor – who has self-respect.

    It boggles my mind.

    If would be her – I would instead pointed out to you contemporary, civil – or national embarrassment of college dormrooms (and that probably should only stay among women’s talk). Perhaps, not always

    K.F.

  14. Natalie Strecker April 29, 2019 at 8:57 am #

    A beautiful & poignant blog sir. You are an inspiration & example to us all. May I ask do you still travel to give talks?

    With love & solidarity

    • Richard Falk April 29, 2019 at 11:10 am #

      Natalie:

      What lovely words. Thanks for such emotional generosity!

      Yes, I still do talks, and travel rather extensively. If you send
      me your email address , I will send a poem I wrote on the morning
      of my 88th birthday and gathered the courage to read to an audience
      at the start of a talk in Berlin.

      warm greetings from Santa Barbara,

      Richard

  15. Gene Schulman April 29, 2019 at 11:19 am #

    Please publish your poem here, sir. I’m sure all of your many fans would like to read it.

    • Richard Falk April 29, 2019 at 10:11 pm #

      I will accede to this request, although it was posted on 11/13/2018, my actual birthday.
      Tomorrow or the next day I will re-post a slightly modified version of the original, perhaps
      adding a new poem.

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