Richard Falk's Imagination Gone Wild

Anti-Israel professor comes to Stanford to explain all that is needed for peace in the Middle East.

Richard Falk, Princeton University professor emeritus of international law and United Nations Human Rights Council special rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, is well-known for his hostility towards Israel. Indeed, this antagonism, and his high-profile involvement in any number of anti-Israel organizations, led to his expulsion from the country in 2008.

A recent lecture at Stanford Law School entitled, “Imagining Israeli-Palestinian Peace: Why International Law Matters,” provided a platform for more of the same vitriol. Approximately 100 people attended, about evenly split between students and local residents. One of the latter, when asking a question, described himself as an “activist” and an elderly couple sporting keffiyehs and political buttons sat in the front row, nodding enthusiastically in agreement throughout the lecture.

Falk’s solution for how to achieve “peace” in the Middle East was to “move from the domain of reason and analysis to the domain of imagination,” which, throughout his lecture, trumped facts, analysis, and history.

For instance, he suggested that policy makers “conceive of a region-wide solution, coupled with the establishment of a nuclear free zone for the Middle East,” which, against all evidence, he claimed Iran would fully support. In Falk’s view, Israel’s alleged nuclear capabilities threaten stability in the Middle East, whereas Iran’s push for nuclear armament, constant threats to annihilate Israel, and attempts to destabilize the region count for nothing.

Of the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and its effect on the “peace process,” Falk asserted that “Israel could not hope for softer Palestinian leadership” and disparaged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for making “Palestinians . . . choose between making peace with Hamas and making peace with [Israel].”

Imagination drifted to fantasy as he argued that, despite the Palestinians’ “extraordinary concessions . . . what Israel is willing to offer is much less than what [they] could afford to accept,” and that the “cycle of tension . . . keeps the region in pre-war conditions” that robs attention from the “ordeal of suffering imposed on Palestinians.”

Falk was encouraged, however, by what he called a “strong shift in tactical emphasis from armed resistance to popular resistance” and chalked up this alleged “shift to non-violent militancy” as the reason for increased global support for the Palestinian cause. He claimed that the public is beginning to see the conflict as “unfinished business from the colonial era” in which the Palestinians are victims who can no longer be consigned to this “intolerable ordeal.” And he lamented Israel’s “unlawful” settlement expansion in East Jerusalem, which he claimed amounted to “ethnic cleansing.”

During the question and answer period following the lecture, Joel Beinin—Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and professor of Middle East history at Stanford University—expressed his admiration for Falk’s work. Beinin, best known for his anti-American and anti-Israel pontificating, was heartened by Falk’s portrayal of the U.S. as a declining world power relative to China and India and asked whether this, “among all the other positive diplomatic and geo-strategic factors [Falk] mentioned, is also likely to change the balance of forces in favor of the Palestinian people?”  Falk said he was “grateful for the construction of the issue,” but was less optimistic, given what he sees as America’s ingrained, pro-Israel stance.

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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