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John Felstiner, an emeritus professor of English at Stanford, posed a more provocative question. Prefacing his comments by noting that he was neither enamored of Netanyahu’s policies nor of Israel’s settlements, he challenged Falk’s presentation of the issues: “I fear we were hearing perhaps half the truth historically . . . why was so much omitted?”
In response, Falk reiterated his focus on the imagined over the actual:
I provided an interpretation based on my understanding of how to see the essential issues. . . . Of course I left out some of the complexities that do exist, but I would stand behind my view that the essential character of the conflict represents the systematic and progressive denial of Palestinian rights, the expansion of Israel, [and] the unconditional way in which the U.S. has handled the conflict. . . . I can understand that people can have a different reading of the issues.
A few other audiences members challenged Falk’s assertions, including a woman who, in the course of a lengthy exchange, asked:
Why would the UNWRA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East] call a Palestinian refugee someone who was in that area from 1946-1948 if they were indigenous? I don’t think the majority were indigenous; I think they were immigrants also.
This was met with mocking laughter from several students and positive references from Falk to “the Nakba”—the Arabic term meaning “catastrophe” used by Israel’s opponents to describe its founding in 1948—and to the “right of return . . . on the part of [Palestinian] refugees.”
An elderly gentleman in the audience who described himself as a Christian member of J-Street—a left-leaning organization that claims to be “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” but is in fact notoriously anti-Israel—asserted that “there has been a shift in Christendom in America,” suggesting, despite polls consistently showing otherwise, that Israel may not be able to rely on the support of Christian Zionists much longer. While Falk was skeptical about the accuracy of this claim, he fondly recalled that the founder of J-Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, was his thesis advisee at Princeton. Falk’s legacy of Israel-bashing seems secure.
Falk’s lecture rehashed the familiar tropes used to demonize Israel: accusations of apartheid, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and military and political aggression. Unfortunately, his advocacy of “imagination” and “interpretation” over “facts” is all too common in the fields of international law and Middle East studies.
Yet his pessimism about the prospects for what he called “real change” in the Middle East, thanks to continued American support for Israel, offered an unintentional ray of hope in an otherwise gloomy presentation.
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