Richard Falk is professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University. He has written books and articles on a variety of global affairs. He has conducted extensive and important studies on the state of the Palestinian territories. Falk is the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. In 2001 Falk served on a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights inquiry commission for the Palestinian territories.
Daniel Falcone for Truthout: Dr. Falk, thank you for allowing me to interview you. I wanted to ask about your own educational background, perhaps in your younger years, what influences inspired or drew you into a career of important study and activism?
Richard Falk: Through my high school experience in NYC, I was not interested in serious study, but only in getting by. My passion through adolescence was sports. I was a reasonable athlete in the context of a small private school, but without enough talent to play on decent college teams. At the University of Pennsylvania after being placed on academic probation after my first year, I decided to try to do my best and did end up third in my graduating class at the Wharton School, with a major in economics but a growing love for literature and philosophy. I was influenced by a fine teacher of religious thought and my friendship with several gifted students. I went from college to Yale Law School, where I felt intimidated by the quality of the student but managed to survive despite ambivalence about becoming a lawyer and ended up in the top 10 percent of the graduating class. While at law school, I became interested in Indian law and studied Sanskrit for two years. After law school, I was awarded a Fulbright to study Indian Law at Lucknow University, but it was canceled late in the academic year because India had failed to pay for PL 480 wheat and was being punished by this policy of disallowing Fulbrights for that year. My fellowship was renewed the following year, but by then my father was seriously ill and I gave up the opportunity. In the meantime, I found myself teaching at the law school at Ohio State University, a last-minute substitute for a faculty member taken ill. This was an unexpected career twist but a happy one, as I discovered that an academic life suited my temperament: the freedom from an office routine, the sense of doing no harm, the ability to pursue interests, the challenges of the classroom, the wider intellectual community and the generally self-determined life. While at Ohio State, I took a leave to pursue further studies at Harvard at the interface between law and philosophy, having the benefit of courses with John Rawls, Paul Tillich and Lon Fuller.
Growing up in the middle of New York City as the son of a very conservative and forceful lawyer father with a strong love of the Navy, it took me many years to find my political moorings. My father was my single parent, and he was the lawyer and friend of a series of prominent anti-Communists, including the deposed Prime Minister of Russia, Alexander Kerensky. I was skeptical of their views, and probably learned to question unsubstantiated allegations, but I lacked the self-confidence to shape an independent viewpoint. And in academic settings, such as high school, I more or less put forward the political outlook that prevailed in my family setting, even to the extent of writing an editorial favoring Thomas Dewey over Harry Truman in the 1948 elections. I spent election night in Dewey headquarters in NYC, thinking that I had supported the winner. That was my last embarrassment on the right, at least that I can recall.
What seems clear in retrospect [is] that my political views were shaped over the years by two forces: existential contact with injustices and friendships at universities. I received a reasonable education, but it did not exert a direct influence politically and consciously. It did lead me to appreciate learning and the privilege and benefit of free inquiry.
My direct activist engagements arose quite late in my development, initially in reaction to racist housing arrangements that were imposed on African-American students at Ohio State University. I was shocked that these minority students were required to rent housing at double the prices charged to white students and, on top of this, often expected to live in locations inconvenient for access to the campus. I had never previously encountered such blatant discrimination. With others, we threatened the Board of Trustees of OSU with a lawsuit that raised discrimination issues, and won a quick settlement to avoid the publicity of going to court. That encouraged me to believe that citizen action could make a difference and that the experience of self-empowerment was very satisfying.
My more sustained activism was shaped in response to the Vietnam War, my role as an international law expert who tried to mobilize opposition through participation in teach-ins and demonstrations. The transformative experience for me was to visit North Vietnam in 1968 and to view a high-technology war being fought against a completely helpless peasant society. To grasp such a war from this perspective of its victims was to change my own understanding from one of realist criticism of the war as doomed by the anti-colonial drift of history to a sense of moral identification with the subjects of this historical struggle to achieve self-determination after decades of exploitative colonial subjugation.
It is only during the last 20 years or so that I have become identified with the struggle of the Palestinian people for their rights. I have written considerably on the subject. And the more familiar I became with these issues, the more conscious I grew of the injustice involved in sustaining the occupation, turning what was purported to be a temporary condition into a permanent condition of annexation and creating a situation of oppression that could only be sustained by humiliation and violence. My role as UN special rapporteur for occupied Palestine has both intensified my commitment and exposed me to much hostile pushback that was defamatory, directed at my supposed identity as “a self-hating Jew.” I more or less expected this kind of effort to discredit me, spearheaded by the spurious NGO, UN Watch, but what I didn’t expect was that such Zionist tactics would be given credibility by US diplomats and by the secretary general of the UN, who attacked me personally without bothering to check whether what was alleged was accurate, which it was not. I have learned a lot about the UN in the course of serving in this role for the past five years. And because the position is unpaid, I also enjoyed the benefits of “independence.”
Can you comment on textbook publishing in Israel? What are the controversies and the concerns over usage of such texts, and how does the Israeli text narrative correlate to American textbook propaganda?
I am not very familiar with Israeli textbooks except to know that the historical narrative generally presented does not address the realities of Palestinian dispossession from land that they had resided in for many generations or the deliberate demolition of hundreds of Palestinian villages, making return impossible. Also, the occupation is not examined in any detail except in the settlement contexts where the idea of “Greater Israel” is dominant.
All historical narratives tend to be told from a one-sided perspective, and the Israeli one is far from being an exception. Such a narrative tends to reinforce the Jewish sense of entitlement in a conflict that remains unresolved, and has produced in 1967 an occupation of the Palestinian remnant of historic Palestine, which is only 22 percent of the total territory administered as a British mandate in the period after World War I. This occupation extends to the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian narrative is also reflected in Palestinian textbooks, with an emphasis on the nakba, the catastrophic moment of dispossession at the end of the 1948 war. It has been most persuasively told in fictional form by Susan Abulhawa in her fine novel Mornings in Jenin. Increasingly, the more radical Palestinian narrative is gaining credibility, which insists that the occupation that commenced in 1967 has morphed over the decades into a fusion of apartheid and annexation that is best understood as a special form of “settler colonialism.”
Students of history, political science and international relations are not introduced to your writings nearly enough in high school and college. I searched hundreds of syllabi on the net and could barely find any mention of you, Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole, Lawrence Davidson, Phyllis Bennis and Howard Zinn. When it comes to world history survey courses, the standard Middle East viewpoint was represented by Bernard Lewis. What does this say about the confines of education?
Such a finding confirms that our educational experience is ideologically biased in directions that are reflected in the mainstream American approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, to the 9/11 attacks, and generally to the global projection of American power throughout the world. As in the extreme circumstances of Israeli and Palestinian education, the American approach encourages a self-congratulatory view of the American historical and global experience and discourages critical thinking and learning from failure. Citizenship is socialized by creating an attitude of pride and patriotism, rather than by emphasizing the role of conscience and vigilance, of resistance to abuse of state power and of a militarist political culture. The failure to establish strict gun control or to abandon the kind of counterinsurgency attitudes toward forms of national self-determination that are incompatible with a neoliberal globalized world order suggest an educational experience for most Americans that does prepare people to live as constructive participants in the kind of democracy that adapts to the realities of the 21st century. The lens provided by Bernard Lewis is one that blames “the other,” is typically Orientalist and offers little guidance for adaptation to a changing world order. I think there is a certain awareness of a counter-tradition of teaching and learning in relation to American history. I was brought up to view Columbus Day completely uncritically, without the slightest awareness that, for Native Americans, the “discovery” of America was a civilizational tragedy. Howard Zinn’s A People’s History has had a big impact on many young people, and Noam Chomsky is a bigger magnet for university communities than anyone on the right.
Arguably, most educational systems glorify the national narrative and suppress or marginalize the failures and crimes of the nation. The fact that this happens in the American educational experience is especially unfortunate and consequential. America is not just a territorial state. It is a global state that exerts its influence for better and worse everywhere. This has serious implications for the world because of the American global role, especially its projection of military power throughout the world. A more realist American narrative might induce greater humility when it comes to intervening around the world, and claiming, despite Vietnam, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan to be a global force for good, the greatest success story for a nation-state in all of history.
How would you describe our educational system to an international audience? Do you see other parts of the developed globe with similar troubles with their own educational systems?
The American educational system is very diverse and is much shaped by class and race elements. It had developed many fine public and private universities, although in the period since my childhood, there is a far greater burden placed on middle-class families, and even greater on the poor, to take advantage of such educational opportunities – even when highly qualified to do so. There is a certain loss of the sense that America is a place of opportunity based on ability and hard work. It is more of a struggle economically for all but the top 1 percent, who enjoy limitless luxury.
There is also a growing sense that universities exist to teach skills and prepare students for a successful career in the corporate plutocracy that America has become. There is far less emphasis given to becoming a humane and engaged citizen seeking to contribute to making the society and world more just and sustainable. There is very little educational attention given to promoting the public good or to a critical look at the global role of the United States or the dangers of global warming. To the extent that the world is studied from a political perspective, it is mostly a matter of security for the country in light of new threats in the post-9/11 world or the rising challenge posed by China’s economic growth or the degree to which American leadership is essential for the promotion of human rights, global stability and the spread of democratic forms of governance. There is little disposition to question the American global role beyond interpreting recent setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan in the context of wondering whether the United States should engage in some sort of military intervention in Syria on the anti-Assad side of the civil war. And there is almost no consideration of why the world resents the kind of global surveillance revealed recently by Edward Snowden.
Compared with Europe and many other parts of the world, the American educational atmosphere is more open and flexible. And because there is so much ethnic diversity in the country, there exist the benefits of working, studying and living with others who have different racial, religious and ethnic identities and experiences. Since 9/11, the impingement of “homeland security” is an ominous factor, and especially difficult for Muslim students, particularly women who wear headscarves and for those who are active politically.
Of course, the Information Age is also having its impact, with so much knowledge now accessible via the Internet, reading books and library research is in decline. It is difficult at this time to discern whether distance learning will be a great equalizer in educational opportunity and empowering force via social networking in political protest activity. Surely, American education is being transformed both by this dimension of digitalization, the pervasiveness of power point, stress on the visual as distinct from the reflective, and by the encompassing corporatization of learning to produce “useful knowledge” that combines political passivity with marketplace success.
Do you think it is an appropriate teaching tool to compare the plight of the Palestinians with that of Native Americans in the US? In what ways could this enhance a better understanding of the Near East from the US student perspective?
Yes, I think the plight of dispossessed peoples is among the best ways to convey the importance of justice in the establishment of legitimate political systems, and the persisting failure of American leadership to acknowledge these challenges in their appropriate ethical contexts. How often do American leaders mention the Palestinian ordeal, the destruction of Native American civilizations, the use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities? An adequate critical education would have to highlight these dark chapters in the American unfolding and raise questions as to where to go from here. Only through the pursuit of global justice can the United States hope to play a constructive role in world history.
It is essential that all approaches to controversial issues about which there is societal conflict and sensitivity be dealt with in a manner that creates safe space for diverse and contradictory viewpoints. The Palestinian issue is especially sensitive in these respects as Zionist support groups make an explicit effort to cast criticism of Israel as a disguised form of anti-Semitism. I have found greater openness among students of both Jewish and Palestinian backgrounds to discuss such a conflict in a spirit of open inquiry and have been frequently asked in courses I teach to address the conflict – even when I do not raise the issue myself – because I am so closely identified with a pro-Palestinian understanding of what is at stake.
The United States mainly considers the Holocaust to be the central historical event of the 20th century. In what ways does this limit our nation’s educational and political culture?
I am not sure that I agree with the assumption of this question. In the background, there is what Norman Finkelstein so clearly depicted as “the Holocaust industry” that forms the underpinning of pro-Israeli propaganda and lobbying that has been so effective in sustaining over decades a rigidly pro-Israeli American foreign policy despite the burdening of national interests. Rarely is the discussion in educational settings of the Holocaust contextualized by its link to the Israeli lobbying leverage as recounted so persuasively in the book by John Mearsheimer and Steven Walt, The Israeli Lobby.
The Holocaust is certainly treated in cultural studies and human rights courses as the clearest instance of genocide, and the criminality of the state, but I think it is less significant in the historical presentation of the last century than the triumph of liberalism and capitalism over fascism and communism or the advent of the atomic bomb. I think this ascendancy of the United States and market-oriented constitutionalism is regarded from a Western point of view as the most important happening of the 20th century. From a non-Western perspective, the dismantling of colonialism is probably the most transformative happening, which is given only a marginal importance in the educational experience of most Americans – and even the American Revolution is rarely connected with the Third World wars of national revolution that followed World War II. Also, in the shaping of American and global political culture, I would not underestimate the importance of the emergence and development of nuclear weaponry and the challenge to American invincibility implicit in the 9/11 attacks that exposed the resentment toward the United States that exists in the Islamic world, but also the vulnerability of a complex modern society to the weapons of the weak if their motivations are extreme. The rise of China, India, Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia have altered the geopolitical landscape in ways that have not sufficiently influenced the way the United Nations is organized or international relations is taught.