U.N. Official Answers Questions About Fierce Criticism of Israel
Richard Falk, the 80-year-old United Nations special rapporteur to the Palestinian territories, posted a cartoon on his personal blog June 29, depicting a dog chewing on a pile of human bones while lifting his leg to relieve himself on Lady Justice. In the drawing, which Falk placed next to a short essay about the International Criminal Court, the dog is wearing a shirt that says U.S.A. and a yarmulke with a Star of David.
Falk removed the picture a week later, once a commenter on his blog pointed out that it could be construed as anti-Semitic. But the self-described slip — Falk said he initially thought the yarmulke was a helmet — did not go unnoticed by his main detractor, the American Jewish Committee’s UN Watch. On July 11, the Geneva-based organization succeeded in its campaign to get Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, to denounce the comic as anti-Semitic.
“I have challenged him repeatedly through the past few years,” said Hillel Neuer, UN Watch’s executive director. “The cartoon is just a tiny thing in a giant mountain.”
Charges of anti-Semitism are not new to Richard Falk. A former Princeton University professor of international law, Falk has been publishing intermittently on Palestinian self-determination and what he considers Israeli military misdeeds for the past four decades of his 55-year career. His long record of criticizing Israel, claiming violations of international law, provoked Jewish groups to lambast his 2008 appointment to the U.N. as evidence of the international body’s anti-Israel bias.
This has heightened Falk’s profile as a Jew who is highly critical of Israel, and one — thanks to his position — whose criticism carries the imprimatur of a U.N. legal fact-finding body. Falk is not as widely known as Richard Goldstone, another Jewish U.N. appointee, who chaired a commission that investigated Israeli and Palestinian human rights violations related to Israel’s invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009. But he is characterized in the same broad stroke by his online detractors, many of whom refer to him as a “self-hating Jew.”
To call Falk a “self-hating Jew,” however, would imply that Falk harbors a deep discomfort with his Jewish identity, and that this anguish manifests itself as anti-Semitism in his personal life and academic work. In reality, Falk told the Forward, his criticism of Israel is less a reflection of his Jewish identity than his posture as an American leftist, perennially dedicated to history’s underdogs — in his eyes, the Palestinians. Throughout his life, Falk has maintained a cool detachment from his own faith that has allowed him to critique Israeli policy with the same standards he brings to bear in his assessment of the U.S. military and its foray into Vietnam. If Falk’s writings on Israel and Palestine have brought him more attention than his other works, which also address contentious topics, it is because his critics have highlighted them over the years.
Falk inherited his remote relationship to Judaism from his parents, two New York Jews who knew little of the anti-Semitism that was roiling Europe in the first half of the 20th century. His mother was born in Japan —her father was a textile importer-exporter who was conducting business there — and was raised in New York. According to Falk, his mother’s single brush with anti-Semitism occurred when, at 18, she was barred entry from a tennis club that disallowed Jews. Falk contends up until that moment, his mother did not know she was Jewish. Falk’s father was a naval historian and a lawyer whose clients included several high profile anti-Communists, such as Alexander Kerensky, the exiled Russian prime minister.
When Falk was young, his parents divorced due to the stress of raising his older sister, a troubled girl who received one of the earliest lobotomies. Falk was raised by his father in an apartment on Central Park West. Though Falk’s paternal grandmother attended synagogue on occasion, Falk’s father banished religion from the home. Falk was the only Jew at his Ethical Culture elementary school who attended school on the High Holidays; his first taste of bagels and lox was at a Jewish friend’s home. Looking back, he suspects that his father’s rejection of Judaism was both pragmatic and philosophical.
“He wanted to be American and thought that was not entirely consistent with being Jewish,” he said in a phone interview. “I think he subscribed to this idea that we were part of an evolving scientific civilization and that religion was an earlier stage.”
Falk was a high school senior when the State of Israel was founded. Though Falk was aware of the horrors that anti-Semitism had wrought in Europe, he was influenced by his father, who “did not celebrate the emergence of Israel in any way.”
As a young man, Falk was politically conservative, stumping for Republican Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election against incumbent Harry Truman. Though many American Jews rallied behind the Jewish state, Falk’s conservative views and his assimilationist upbringing kept any engagement with Zionism on his part at bay. By the time Falk made his political transition to become a prominent leftist academic — he was galvanized by the Vietnam War — Zionism had lost its sheen among some American leftists, who began a long defection from sympathy with the cause after the 1967 Six Day War.
Falk’s interest in Palestinian self-determination began when he was a doctoral student of international law at Harvard University. There, he became friends with two other academics — an American Jew named Saul Mendlovitz and an Egyptian named George Abi-Saab. At that time, the U.N. was in its infancy and the three — they jokingly called themselves the “holy trinity,” with Falk as the “Holy Ghost”— engaged in heated discussions about whether world government could forestall war between states. On occasion, they talked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Abi-Saab introduced Falk to his point of view.
“There was a different narrative than the one I had earlier subscribed to, that the Palestinians had fled of their own free will” in 1948, said Falk. “From an international law point of view I became partly convinced that the Palestinian grievances were well-grounded in law and morality and history. In a way, I suppose I developed a rather critical perspective on the way in which Israel addressed these issues.”
Falk later became friends with the late Palestinian academic Edward Said, who encouraged him to publish on his views. In the late 1970s, Falk says he was invited by the Ford Foundation to conduct an overview of the legal framework of the occupation. Over the next 30 years, Falk published about a dozen articles and book chapters on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, writing about the status of West Bank settlements under international law and the Israeli government’s Kahan Commission report on the Israeli military’s role during the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, among other topics. Falk also co-authored a 269-page book critiquing the The New York Times’ coverage of the Mideast conflict called “Israel-Palestine on Record.”
Though Falk’s work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents a mere fraction of his academic output over the past several decades, his commentary on this topic —along with a few essays delicately questioning the U.S. government’s explanation of 9/11 — has earned him mountains of criticism from Jewish groups like UN Watch and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. If there is one article in particular that has baited Falk’s attackers it is “Slouching Toward a Palestinian Holocaust,” a piece that he wrote for a Turkish newspaper in 2007 that was republished in English on the web site for the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research in Sweden.
Like much of his academic work, Falk’s essay vacillates between scholarly inquiry and moral outrage as he makes the case for comparing the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza with “the criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity.” In a departure from the typical detachment with which he regards his Jewish identity, Falk writes, that “it is especially painful for me, as an American Jew,” to make such a comparison.
In 2008, Falk was elected by the U.N. Human Rights Council — a body of 47 member states — to be the special rapporteur to the Palestinian territories. The council itself has been roundly criticized by the United States, among others, as a biased body that focuses disproportionately on Israel. In his first address to the council, Falk asked it to broaden his mandate to explore Palestinian violations of international law. But this did little to allay his critics, several of whom pointed to his essay on the “Palestinian Holocaust,” in addition to past U.N. research he conducted in the region, as evidence that he could not be an impartial observer in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Comparison between the Holocaust and Israel is simply beyond the pale of reasoned discourse. It belongs to that genre of hate speech that includes claims that blacks are racially inferior, that women enjoy being raped and that all gays are pedophiles,” wrote the pro-Israel author Alan Dershowitz in a December 2008 article on The Huffington Post. (Dershowitz declined to comment for this story.) “No one who holds such views should ever be appointed to a position of trust and responsibility that requires fair judgment and an ability to distinguish truth from falsity — especially with regard to the Middle East.”
The outcry over Falk’s appointment extended to Israel, where Falk found himself barred from entry by the Israeli government when he went there on an investigative mission in December 2008. Nonetheless, he has continued his research unabated, relying on human rights groups on the ground to provide him with information for his twice-yearly reports, some of which have made brief references to Hamas violence in addition to Israeli war crimes. Falk also said that his relationship with the Palestinian Authority has been rocky at times, particularly after he criticized it for voting to defer consideration of the Goldstone Report in the U.N. Human Rights Council.
“My role is less presenting the facts than interpreting their legal significance,” said Falk. “That doesn’t depend on me having access. It would be humanly helpful to, but it wouldn’t alter my basic analysis or conclusion.”
In what may have been an attempt to clarify his earlier writing on the oncoming “Palestinian Holocaust,” Falk recently penned a piece on Jewish identity and Palestinian suffering on his personal blog.
In the posting, Falk engages in a kind of mental tightrope walk, embracing the idea that Judaism compels him to overcome injustice in the world while rejecting the notion that Jews are somehow “chosen” by God to do just that.
“I am not comfortable with institutional identifications by and large, so to be part of a religious community has never been something that I have found myself drawn to do,” Falk told the Forward. “I am a Jew because I think of myself as a Jew and given my biological heritage, I am a Jew.”
If there is one person who is sympathetic to the way that Falk’s religious identity intersects with his political and academic life, it is his wife, Hilal Elver, the 57-year-old Turkish woman whom Falk married 15 years ago. Elver and Falk live in a two- story home on the beach in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Elver is a professor of global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Elver grew up in a devout Muslim household, but she does not practice her religion. Though Falk is more spiritual than she is — he brought Sufi, Christian, and Jewish elements into their wedding — the two keep a decidedly secular home.
There is one point of tension between the couple, though: Falk’s provocative statements and, of late, his inflammatory blog posts.
“He is very reckless. He is very fast,” Elver said. “He writes very fast and he puts things out very fast and sometimes if I get to it before he publishes it, I tell him, ‘You know, this is going to be a problem, don’t do it.’ But he doesn’t listen that much. He believes what he believes and he thinks things have to be said.”
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected]