TFF Associate and friend over decades, Richard Falk, last year turned 90. Read more about him here – and use the search engine to find lots of his writings. The latest we’ve published is on championing lost causes...
March 10, 2021
Writing this memoir has been as much about discovering my story, that is, myself as it is about telling it. That’s Falk’s version of Socrates’ ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ Or should I say, Forrest Gump’s? Falk’s life reads like a storybook, starting with meeting Supreme Court judges with his father at age 9 in 1939, making friends with Claudette Colbert, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Liz Taylor (long story) at age 15, befriending and befoeing many of the dramatis personae of the Cold War throughout his long and productive life, finally landing on the shores of democratic socialism as the US charges towards the (literal) finish line.
Falk came from a high power home, his mother a tennis champion, father a lawyer for movie stars. Richard went to Yale, Princeton and finally Harvard, where despite his growing activism against the Vietnam war, he gained tenure, was even invited to join the imperialists’ ivory tower, the Council for Foreign Relations, where he immediately (1964) protested the plan by Governor Rockefeller to parachute in his drinking buddy, McGeorge Bundy, already a budding Vietnam-era war criminal, as CFR president. He was politely ignored, and Bundy presided over the imperial elite for a decade, after mining US foreign policy (not to mention poor Vietnam). By the 1980s, Falk had ascended to the stratosphere as UN wise man.
The high (or low, depending on your pov) point has been the past two decades. In 2001, Falk served on a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Inquiry Commission for the Palestinian territories, then in 2008–2014, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, taking on the irascible Israeli Minotaur at the heart of the Middle East labyrinth.
He used his secure position to good effect, emerging as one of the very, very few prominent intellectuals putting their careers on the line to fight the imperialist monster; in the good old days of Vietnam, writing opeds in the New York Times, etc., a talking head on TV (a favourite target of William Buckley), travelling the world over many, many times (leaving a heavier carbon footprint than I would wish for others). Falk discovered the Minotaur rather late in life, long after his Vietnam clashes, and his descent into the chaotic, thrilling Iranian revolution.
There are many fascinating stops on Falk’s life journey, but my favorite is this sudden appearance in Tehran in January 1979, as Chair of the Committee Against Intervention in Iran to lead a delegation of three including Ramsey Clark. This, at the very moment Ayatollah Khomeini was poised to return and secure the Islamic revolution. He met with Khomeini in a Paris stopover on the way home, as if surfing a tidal wave of revolution. Falk shortly after returned to Tehran to meet with the first prime minister of the Islamic state Bazargan, and first president Banisadr. At the embassy, Ambassador Sullivan admitted he had been ‘blindsided’ by this massive popular mobilization achieved beneath the banner of political Islam. Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski refused to authorize the embassy in Tehran to make any accommodating or reassuring gestures to post-Shah Iran.i
Falk laments that Sullivan was a military guy, not a diplomat, but in this case, he realized the military sensibility was actually priceless. People who have actually fought the enemy, know that you have to be flexible, that negotiations are always better than dropping bombs. It is trigger-happy civilians who build regime-change castles in the sky.ii
Falk watched the crisis in Tehran in 1979 unfold and explode in one of the most spectacular diplomatic events of the 20th century, the 444-day hostage crisis, which could have been avoided if Pentagon scout-on-the-scene Sullivan’s advice had been followed. The meeting left me with a somewhat sympathetic feeling toward William Sullivan that I had never expected in view of his earlier role in Laos during the Vietnam War. No one will ever know what might have happened with respect to US/Iran relations if Carter had followed Sullivan’s advice. How different might have been the whole history of the region had the United States decided to live with this expression of the Iranian people’s right of self-determination? It was the same type of fundamental and costly geopolitical mistake that the U.S. made in Vietnam, and elsewhere.iii
Falk’s looking-glass Iran keeps getting more bizarre. Who should he meet in Evin prison but Ross Perot! Long before billionaire Perot’s quixotic run for president in 1992, Don Quixote in person was rescuing two of his employees, held in prison on charges of spying. (He succeeded.) There are many ‘what if?’s in Falk’s life. Here’s one: what if Perot had won in 1992 and fulfilled his fantasy of organizing the world according to his free enterprise precepts, starting with the US Government, which, he felt, should be run by capitalist winners like himself. Wait! That is the horror we’ve just lived through under Trump. But at least Perot was a real businessman, producer of things (electronics) and philanthropist, unlike snake-oil salesman Trump, owner of hotels, golf courses, and casinos.
Falk’s memoirs are littered with such momentous ‘what ifs’. It seems that at each crucial moment of the post-WWII period, the US did the opposite of what would have served genuine US interests. Is this a rule of capitalist logic? Non-Western nationalism, even though the anti-colonial forces were far weaker, was in the end stronger than Western militarist interventionism. And despite this uncontrovertible truth revealed time after time, nothing has changed. US policy under the present talking heads, either Trump or Biden, is disastrous, just as it was under Brzezinski and Kissinger, the same broken record following the same surreal script, leading us merrily along the road to Armageddon.
A Twilight Zone ‘what if’: what if the American War in Vietnam had ended with a Saigon/American victory? Falk shudders at the thought. A unified, independent Vietnam is a stable presence in the region, an outcome more consistent with American strategic objectives in Asia (not to mention the desire of the Vietnamese and everyone else).
By analogy, ‘what if’ the US had worked with the Soviet Union to stabilize a secular regime in Afghanistan in 1979? Brzezinsky was doing his mischief there are the same time he was leading the US over the cliff in Iran. It’s too painful to think just how different life would be today if by some miracle, reason had prevailed then.
Constantly Falk sees that US/ Israel thinking is always framed in win-lose terms: if it’s good for me, well, tough luck. If it’s bad for me, watch out! But there are more win-win games. Everyone loses in war. There are no winners. Lose-lose. This became so obvious in Vietnam, it jolted Falk into his journey of understanding. What he became politically is thanks mainly to the people of Vietnam, their struggle, their friendship and inspiration, and even their victory in a long cruel war that also inflicted lasting damage on American wellbeing.
But it was all uphill for Falk after that, and downhill for his place in mainstream America. The political compass began moving to the right, and Zionist smears took their toll on my reputation. For the last dozen or so years I have been annually nominated by the Nobel Peace Prize by a Norwegian Nobel NGO watch group. As with Gandhi’s resolve to stand with ‘the last man’ I instinctively opt for the underdog, not dogmatically but in the spirit of a Rawlsian emphasis on fairness or in an effort to understand how someone ‘other’ conceives and experiences reality.iv
As Falk witnessed this repeatedly, he came to see his role as not just doomsayer, but as having a responsibility to do something about this dangerous course. It was after his visits to revolutionary Iran that he finally found his path to the Minotaur. His first meeting was not until the 1980s, when in my late 50s. I had already been scorched to some extent by my earlier engagements with Vietnam, and especially Iran, and didn’t relish the idea of being burned alive at the stake of Zionist versions of ‘political correctness.’ Good image. Israel’s use of white phosphorus on Palestinians was first documented during his time (2009).
He has been plagued by Zionist wasps buzzing around him, trying to drive him crazy, ever since. UN Watch is a particular bugbear, along with Human Rights Watch, and its director, Ken Roth. Unlike HRW, UN Watch (UNW) did not hide its Zionist dedication to Israel behind a liberal pretension of objectivity. However, the strong Zionist presence on the HRW Board did him in. Falk was a local member of HRW in Santa Barbara, where he had retired, but left when Zionist critics assailed him for a conflict of interest resulting from my current role as UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine. UN Watch used this supposed purge by HRW as evidence of Falk’s ignominy as an anti-Semitic self-hating Jew, which his UN boss Ban Ki Moon immediately seconded. HRW director Roth and Ban ignored Falk’s complaints.
These attacks continued with Nikki Haley and Samantha Powers, with trusty sidekick Ki Moon. At the end of 2008 when I was detained in an Israeli prison cell and then expelled at the start of my first UN mission, I was deeply disappointed by the tepid response of the UN. By way of contrast, Israeli diplomats and concerns were treated with utmost respect, and given access to whatever venues within the UN Israel chose to express their views, which were often inflammatory.
This Zionist spider’s web of intrigue and calumny just made Falk more determined to fight the Minotaur, to free the world of this scourge. Though he admires much of its work, I never wanted anything further to do with HRW. It seems it was this straw that broke the camel’s back and pushed him to declare myself in essential solidarity with the Palestinian national struggle in settings that attracted public attention.
Falk’s intellectual development began fighting US apartheid, while at Yale and Ohio State, where he launched a law suit against the Board of Trustees over the appalling situation of black students, who had to live off campus at extortionate rents. He won then, as they backed down and agreed to an out-of-court settlement, achieving easily what Rosa Parks did through boycotting buses.
That is Falk’s Rosebud. What a way to start your legal career. He later worked with South Africans, defended Mandela in court in the 1980s. Then on to the last great apartheid battle, Israel, making apartheid his lietmotif.
At Yale in the early 1950s, he circulate a petition opposing McCarthyism among his fellow students. It was for me a learning experience that lasted a lifetime. I was taken aback by the unwillingness of most students to sign, including those with liberal views. He didn’t let McCarthy make him a coward. He knew then that he had to keep a clean conscience, and at each stage in his life, he kept that commitment. Communism was not the problem, it was anti-communism, just as it is not criticism of Israel that is the problem, but Israel itself.
So yes, imperialism, capitalism. Nasty stuff, we must fight the good fight. But Falk was never a Marxist, an understanding of imperialism as a system was not part of his CV. He learned it on the job, when faced with the Minotaur. He was shocked when he realized that for a hundred years the inhabitants of Palestine, instead of being liberated from Ottoman Rule in 1918, were then
subjected to a much worse fate than previously. The new regional grid of territorial states ignored ethnicities and traditional communities, and subjected the region to territorial delimitations suiting the convenience and serving the strategic interests of European colonial priorities … led to coercive and oppressive forms of statism replacing colonial patterns of coercion. The realities were further complicated by the growing importance of the region’s immense oil reserves.v
Yes. Bad. But I think what made him really passionate was he was forced to confront his own Jewish identity as he was wrestling with Israel-Palestine. Like me, he felt the betrayal of the best of Jewish heritage. My earliest memories include trips to Dr Wyler, my smiling, quiet, slightly other-wordly dentist in Guelph. Such Jews are the ones the world loves. Talented, highly trained people operating, advising, teaching, rabblerousing at times, a bit apart, but not a threat. My Russian teacher, Sonya Tsukert, an immigrants to Canada in 1920, who had had a taste of 1917, even heard Trotsky speak to a crowd in Poltava. Sonya was originally from Poland and lost all her relatives who didn’t manage to leave. She had friends in Israel, but was always critical of the dispossession of the Palestinians. Her Jewishness was socialism with latkas, Yiddish her first language, her home welcoming one and all, full of laughter and joy.
Reading Falk, I’m heartened to confirm that he also feels this betrayal. That is what drives our passion to assert fundamental human truths over dangerous, inhuman tribalism. My idols were such as Einstein (whom our Forrest Gump met), Einsenstein, the best of mass culture, musicals by George Cohn, Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, classical composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. None particularly religious, but representing the best of diaspora Jewish culture. No issue of our time is more ethically compelling for me, given my social location as Jew, American, and progressive humanist, than the plight of the Palestinian people, and the responsibility of my country and its government for indefinitely prolonging this ordeal.
His approach to law and legal thinking from Yale on has been context-oriented and values-driven, rather than rule-based and precedent-confined, attempting to bring American ‘legal realism’ into the modern age of science-based knowledge. While there are fundamental moral truths behind all human activity, laws must respond to the needs of society as it develops and changes.
That helped him to see the context and values implicit in Israel-Palestine. The fact that the occupation was so long, with no end in sight, meant that it is no longer an occupation, but open colonization. His successor as UN rapporteur, Michael Lynk, concluded that the occupation itself should be declared unlawful, and terminated by the UN as a matter of law.
Yes! That is the only way out: the world must unite and enact peace through the UN, no Westphalian-style confidence trick. The UN’s first child — Israel — is still squawking, lashing out, an eternal ‘terrible twos’. It is the UN’s first child and the UN’s responsibility to discipline and educate it.
The central conclusion of Falk’s 2017 study for the UN System, the Economic and Social Council for West Asia (Arab World) only confirmed this. It concluded the allegations of apartheid were justified, and accordingly,
entailed responsibilities of governments, international institutions, corporations, and individuals to act within their respective spheres of competence to bring Israeli apartheid to an end. Israeli leaders themselves, going back as far as Ben Gurion and forward to Rabin and Olmert, had warned the Israeli public in Hebrew that the failure to find a solution for the Palestinian problem would eventuate in an apartheid structure of control imposed on Palestinians.vi
The scandal around that study still resounds. It was quickly denounced by the UN Secretary General António Guterres, and it was removed from the website, but never disowned, and of course the Zionist rants just made it all the more read and approved by anyone who was interested in how to solve this final case of, yes, apartheid. The Nuremberg Obligation of resistance to evil, adding a dimension to the constitutional framework of checks and balances, remains a relevant idea.
As I age, I keep coming across people of great moral standing who lived or are living well into their 90s. Chomsky and Falk, spies such as Melitta Norwood and Agent Sonya, my own leftist mentors, people who were/are sharp and alive long past the normal ‘due date’. What is their secret? Like Falk, I think it’s having a moral code that they live by, never giving up no matter how bleak things appear. Many are religious, and swear by prayer, which Falk, raised without religion, came to respect over time. During my involvement with developments in Iran, I came to appreciate the political importance of religion and spirituality in achieving change under certain conditions that could only come from popular movements acting outside the law. Falk calls himself a citizen pilgrim.
He rejects the R2P (Right to Protect) cover for interventions, preferring to let the internal dynamics of change take their own course. Invasion or massive sanctions to bring down a regime never produce a good result except when genocide is taking place (WWII Germany, 1970s Cambodia). Collapse of a society, as happened in 1991 in the Soviet Union, or as appears possible today in the US, is not to be abetted, celebrated. It is increasingly clear that everyone lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and everyone would surely lose again if the same happens to the US.
The slander is amusing:
*The Weizmann Institute in Los Angeles listed me in 2012 as the third most dangerous anti-Semite in the world on their list of ten. I trailed only the Supreme Guide of Iran and the Turkish Prime Minister, Erdogan. The others on the list were mostly also public intellectuals critical of Israel.
*Bolton described me as a fruit cake, my 2008 UN appointment exhibited exactly the kind of action that made sane and reasonable people view the UN as a rotten organization.
*Falk is also pilloried for writing a preface to David Ray Griffin’s The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11 (2004), calling for a Warren commission-style independent investigation of the many gaps in the official story.
Like most of the world, Falk doesn’t really know who did what then, and prefers to focus on more routine things now, which in the case of Israel, is how it violates countless international norms every day, every minute, with its hourly harassment of Palestinians at border controls, or in their own homes, as Israeli troops barge in and drag family members, mostly young men and boys, away. How Israel carries out the equivalent of 9/11 every so often with impunity!
Whoever did it — just as with ‘whoever did Pearl Harbour’ — we still know who the biggest thorn in our sides is: US-Israel, just as in 1939, we knew who was the real enemy. And in both cases we know what to do, and will not be cowed by gatekeepers who try to muzzle us and prevent us from resisting.
Falk is no longer afraid to go where angels fear to tread: The same people who make claims of exceptionalism consider it anti-Semitic to point to Jewish influence in the media, Hollywood, and finance or to complain about Israeli lobbying and money pushing American foreign policy in directions that do not serve national interests or that point to leverage exerted on political figures who receive pressure-laden huge donations from ultra-Zionist billionaires …
This instance of having it both ways disturbed me long before I became a critic of Israel and Zionism in the context of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights. viii
We are brainwashed into denying the truth and labelling it anti-Semitic. Forbid anyone, anywhere from criticizing Israel, so settlements, theft, murder, torture, are all carried out at will, until further notice.
The real takeaway from Falk’s memoirs is what the life of an honourable man looks like as the world around him crumbles, who at 90 believes we can still take joy from our life long beliefs, which must be burnished constantly, wiping away dirt and the deeper rust. Israel represents the great, final betrayal of western civilization, our Titanic. Falk is one of the crew, and prefers to go down listening to Mozart, rather than compromise to stay afloat for a few more ‘happy hours’.
Prognosis: There is a flicker of hope of a world government that would improve the human condition, only in the midst of a mood of despair that might arise after a global apocalypse—and even then, I would not be hopeful. More likely … the emergence of an incredibly inhumane network of arrangements managed by and for the benefits of small surviving elites.
The alternative, the flicker, is still the UN: the existence of the UN and the universal human rights framework offer starting points, an awareness of roadblock, and a plenitude of learning venues. It is a starting point because it provides a complex and durable institutional recognition, supported at least nominally by all governments on the planet, of the need for capabilities and norms that can serve the human interests as well as protect national interests…
i The head of the Iran Desk at the State Department told me ‘that Brzezinski would rather see the hostages remain forever in Tehran than see Andrew Young get credit for their release. Falk, Public Intellectual, 277.
ii My experience is similar, with a military attache in Moscow taking me seriously and helping me out, where the foreign office officials were unfocused and even incompetent.
iii As is so often the case, Sullivan seemed to have been rewarded for his record of war crimes in Laos, and then punished for his accurate and conscientious assessment of the unfolding situation in Iran and his constructive encouragement of a pragmatic response to the collapse of the Shah’s regime.
iv Falk, op.cit., 345, 241.
v Ibid., 424.
vi Ibid., 323-4.
vii Ibid., 414.
viii Ibid., 385.
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The author Eric Walberg
Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s. He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio. Here his own homepage.
The Life Of A Citizens Pilgrim
Clarity Press, February 2021 • US$ 29.95
Overview of the book
This political memoir reveals how Richard Falk became prominent in America and internationally as both a public intellectual and citizen pilgrim. interwoven and enriched with personal accounts of his living, learning and loving in many parts of the world. Falk’s journey began with a comfortable, yet troubled, childhood in New York City that included a conservative political and secular background, leading on to an Ivy League education.
From there, Falk built a life of progressive commitment, highlighted by visits to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, to Iran during the Islamic Revolution, to South Africa at the height of the struggle against apartheid, and frequently to Palestine and Israel.
This led to his enduring many defamatory attacks launched by militants defending U.S. foreign policy, and especially in reaction to his expressions of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle to achieve basic rights and a just peace. The assault reached its height during the six-year period when Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Occupied Palestine.
Along the way, while a professor of international law at Princeton University, he has published more than 50 books on many scholarly topics, including studies of the profound dangers now facing humanity, the relevance of international law and the UN, and prospects for transforming world order in the direction of peace, justice, and ecological viability.
His publications and activism describe various encounters with embedded American militarism, especially as expressed by governmental resistance to responsible efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons. In the course of his travels, teaching, and writing, Falk has dealt with many leading personalities around the world, such as Ayatollah Khomeini and Vietnamese PM Pham Von Dong.
Aside from a life of travel, commitment, and personal intimacy two themes have dominated his public roles – engaging with the controversies of the present and envisioning a future of world order that is humane and sensitive to ecological limits.
Order the book directly from its publisher here.