Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Richard Falk at SDSU

Gary Fouse

Richard Falk spoke earlier this month at San Diego State University as part of lecture series hosted by Professor Jonathan Graubart. The event was videotaped by JJ Surbeck of Training and Education About the Middle East (San Diego). This was one in a series of speaking appearances in Professor Graubart's class. The first hour was open only to the class and the second hour was open to the public. Surprisingly, and probably by design, Falk did not speak about the Israel-Palestinian conflict-at least in the second hour. Below is Mr Surbeck's report verbatim.

Well, the big event so many people were waiting for finally arrived: the infamous Richard Falk in person showed up at SDSU on Monday afternoon April 7, 2014, at the invitation of Jonathan Graubart, a professor of political sciences. Falk's reputation as an obsessive anti-Israel voice preceded him and prompted a lot of people to complain to SDSU President Elliott Hirschman to step in and rescind Graubart’s invitation. These calls were (obviously) ignored. To appreciate why there was such a brouhaha over his appearance there, we need to remember why Falk is held in such disregard. The following is a limited list of his many offensive comments or actions:

- In 2013, he blamed American policy, including its alliance with Israel, for the Boston Marathon Bombings. For that he was widely condemned by U.S., UN, and European officials.

- In 2011:
- he publicly endorsed Gilad Atzmon’s “The Wandering Who?”, a book widely criticized as anti-Semitic.
- he was condemned by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay for posting an anti-Semitic cartoon on his blog.
- he wrote that there was “an apparent cover-up” by the U.S. government over 9/11 and praised David Ray Griffin, a leading proponent of the claim that 9/11 was an inside job. His remarks were condemned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and many others.
- he accused Israel of ethnically cleansing Palestinians in East Jerusalem, when fact the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem has grown by 280% over the last four decades.

- In 2010:
- he endorsed the one-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, meaning the elimination of Israel and its replacement with a majority Palestinian state. This would end Jewish self-determination, in violation of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states All peoples have the right of self-determination.”
- even the Palestinian Authority itself called Richard Falk “a partisan of Hamas” and called on him to resign as UN Special Rapporteur.

- In 2007, he falsely accused Israel of planning a holocaust, or genocide, of Palestinians.

You get the idea. Truth and fairness do not belong in Richard Falk’s vocabulary or even universe.

The room where he was to speak was packed, every seat taken, and people literally lined the walls. Clearly there was a sense of expectation, and Graubart himself looked a little nervous. He opened the lecture by complaining that StandWithUs was being unfair to him and was clearly against freedom of speech because it tried to have the event cancelled. To quote him exactly, he said the following:

“…. The first hour is just me and the students going over class material. We’re not plotting anything sinister those first 45 minutes as one outside group has suggested. You can ask the students. No cabal. …. So, before introducing our speaker Dr. Richard Falk, I feel compelled to make a few comments on a campaign launched by an advocacy group that bills itself as “pro-Israel” against my inviting Dr. Falk to speak. And I put “pro-Israel” in quotes because I consider myself pro-Israel as well as pro-US, and don’t find what the group is advocating as pro-Israel. Although in its press release the group claims to be “unequivocally committed to upholding free speech and academic freedom”, its demands express the exact opposite message. It called upon San Diego State to either cancel the lecture, move it off campus, or change the format to a debate, something that’s not asked of any of the other speakers for this lecture series. To justify this call for censorship, the group cited a litany of attacks from others, selective quotations and interpretations, and a blurb Dr. Falk wrote for one book. As you know, Dr. Falk has given blurbs during his long career for hundreds, maybe thousands of books. What I found most striking, though, in the alert from this group is that at no point did they mention any of Dr. Falk’s many scholarly writings, or even the title of today’s talk, which is “In pursuit of human rights and global justice: hopes and frustrations”. Presumably the group’s view is, because they don’t like Falk’s views on Palestine-Israel, he shouldn’t be allowed to speak about any topic. I thank however the SDSU leadership, my colleagues, the SDSU student body, and many members of the community for their kind messages of support. And the fact they stand with us in supporting academic freedom, opposing character assassination and rejecting efforts at intimidation and distortions from outsiders.” Interesting but not at all surprising that Graubart didn’t see the irony of his own statement, questioning as he did StandWithUs’ own free speech rights to question his abuse of free speech and academic freedom.

Before proceeding to introduce Falk, he then made a very surprising comment, however, to inform the audience that Falk would not be speaking about Israel, but would follow the theme of the lecture’s title, i.e. "Building a Global Framework for Human Rights and Justice: Looking Back, Moving Forward”. Specifically, he said the following: “With that said, moving to today’s topic. It’s not about Palestine-Israel, but it’s about the final section of our class, which is reviewing the global historical record of promoting human rights and trying to prevent mass atrocities, and discussing what role the United States has played in this enterprise. We’re thinking about the moral responsibility. I have invited four speakers on the topic…. So there are few people more qualified than Dr. Falk to reflect on this topic.” He went on to paint Falk as a staunch defender of human rights, which is of course to be understood as a defender of human rights only when said human right are violated by either the US or Israel, and not at all from the myriad of other violators around the world."

That’s a trick Graubart has pulled before: two years ago he had invited Judge Richard Goldstone, of the famous report fame, and everyone was of course expecting the discussion to swirl around said report, especially in view of the fact that Goldstone had just recanted the conclusions that had been written under his name, but Graubart stunned everyone by declaring right off the bat that Goldstone would not be discussing the Godlstone Report!!! Why invite Goldstone then if it was not to talk about his report? With a sense of déjà vu, it became clear that this is one of Graubart’s manipulative gimmicks: invite a controversial figure (the more controversial, the better, since that spurs debates among the students, or so Graubart assures us, even if some of these individuals are loathed by the whole world), but then eliminate any possibility of real debate about the topics these guests are known for when the public audience comes in! And he’s the one complaining about censorship? His abuse of the whole process is shameful.

With that clarified, just as Goldstone had done, giving an interesting lecture on his otherwise rich career in the field of Human Rights, so did Falk, who started right off by reminding us that today was the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the hideous Rwandan genocide during which some 800,000 people were killed, most hacked to death with machetes. Starting with this grim memory, he then went on to describe in a relatively balanced way the conflicting forces at play regarding the necessity of intervention when large-scale massacres and genocides are known to happen. His well-known anti-Americanism peaked up a few times but he remained contained and managed to come across as a reasonable judge of the situation of human rights in the world. Most shocking was the fact that he stayed carefully away from the Israeli-Arab conflict, as announced by Graubart. Instead, he peppered his presentations with references to nebulous notions of “liberal humanism”, “global humanism” and “humanitarianism”, whatever that may mean. At one point he explained that they refer to “a system of laws that treats all equally”. Really? Given the remarkably unequal way he’s spent his life applying this lofty notion to Israel, it would have to be redefined as “Falk humanism: good for all except Israel". This was grotesque.

Nevertheless, the plot hacked by Graubart overall succeeded: Falk spoke fort an hour, in a slow, at times halting but deliberate tone that made him sound off as a reasonable man genuinely dedicated to the cause of human rights, or at least that’s the impression anyone not aware of his career highlights was left with. He projected his best Mr. Jekyll side, while keeping his Dr. Hyde, amply and repeatedly revealed during his six-year career at the UN Human Rights Commission (and long before) in check.

Then came the questions. One of Graubart’s students started off by asking an excellent one, i.e. “How do you deal with a situation like North Korea?”. To which Falk responded vague generalities along the lines that we live in a world that is state-centered, and there are regimes that are oppressive and not amenable to transformation, and the best we can do is hope that there will be “internal political changes to challenge the status quo”. With that highly unsatisfactory answer, he veered off into reminiscing how he visited South Africa just before Mandela was released, to point out that no one expected the end of Apartheid to happen as it did as a result of “soft power”. Why deal with a difficult case like North Korea when you can have so much fun harping exclusively and without impunity on Israel alone?

I pointed out the contradictions between the two sides of his persona mentioned above (although I didn’t use the Jekyll/Hyde analogy), and asked him how he managed to reconcile the two. He took it in stride and gently reassured us that there was no conflict since he’s been merely “following his conscience”. To be exact, he said: “… Anyone with a 10% open mind would come to the same conclusions regarding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza as I have reached. But these issues, from the perspectives of international humanitarian law, are so clear that… as special rapporteur, as well as I’ve done to be an honest witness to what I perceived of that reality. Others of course would perceive it differently. I can only report as I have understood the issues and bring the relevant thoughts to bear on the facts. So I don’t find an inconsistency between what I have tried to express in this lecture and the kind of views that I hold over the conflict. As I said in the beginning, my vision of the future is a just and sustainable peace between equals, but it has to be based on acknowledgement of Palestinian rights, denied and deprived now for too long” . In other words, no he doesn’t see any contradiction between stating lofty goals about human rights around the world (even if he can’t do anything about them, like North Korea and dozens of other murderous regimes), and hammering mercilessly one of the few countries in the world that is actually paying more attention to human rights than anyone else. What a joke.

Another questioner, who identified herself as the mother of a student, asked essentially what it would take for action to be taken whenever genocides start or are even allowed to be under way. To that Falk had nothing better to say than pointing out the fact (accurate as it is) that without political will to do something, no one will do anything. A rather meek and discouraging answer coming from a figure allegedly recognized as a champion of human rights.

And finally, an obviously knowledgeable speaker in the audience asked how Falk could support an institution like the United Nations Human Rights Commission, where he was special Rapporteur on the situation of the Palestinians for the last six years, where the worst violators of human rights in the world sit without ever being bothered by a resolution condemning their behavior because all the attention is deflected from them to focus on Israel’s alleged violations. To that Falk said - surprisingly enough - that there was no doubt there was a massive manipulation from countries violating human rights to deflect attention from themselves. He went on to explain that one needed to remember that it was because Israel was created by the international community, exclusive of any other (he was referring to the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate for Palestine), therefore that same international community has a special responsibility to right the wrongs that resulted for the Palestinians. The same questioner replied (correctly) that it is false to present the creation of Israel as unique when in fact all the countries of the Middle East were created primarily by the colonial powers, to which Falk responded weakly by saying that it was a matter of interpretation. Right….

So the real question to ask after watching (some might want to say enduring) this theater is: what was Graubart hoping to achieve by inviting not only Falk, but even worse, namely Huwaida Arraf, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, better known by its acronym ISM, whose declared goal is to go on campuses and try to lure young Americans to join them and become human shields between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian terrorists. What is exactly the pedagogical value in inviting this kind of people on campus? It seems clear that Graubart enjoys being a provocateur, stirring the pot at every opportunity, but doing it in such a way that even if he invites people with questionable morals and motives, they come off as relatively moderate, thus undercutting the accusation that he invites extremists.

But no one should be fooled. If Graubart is so convinced of the sacrosanct character of free speech and academic freedom, he would have no problem inviting opponents of the views held by the people he brings to SDSU in public debates that leave equal time for cogent comments to be shared among the different speakers (at the same time, not separately). Anything less leaves him open to the deserved accusation that he is manipulating the academic freedom he is enjoying to brainwash his students in the political directions that he favors, and everyone knows what they are (hint: they are not on the right, or even in the center).

The tactics used by Graubart and professors like him all around the country have been well deconstructed and documented in a remarkable book called “The Uncivil University - Intolerance on College Campuses”, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this crucial issue (link to Amazon: ).

The question we're left with is what is the community willing to do to rein Graubart’s excesses, as well as others like him. Nothing, as usual (you know, let’s not rock the boat)? Or shall we gather together a task force with the goal of not allowing ideologically-motivated professors like him to dominate the debate regarding the Middle East? He is entitled to his opinion like all of us, but he has no right to manipulate the system the way he does with impunity to instill his political views on class after class of unsuspecting (and trusting) students.

I videotaped the whole lecture. If anyone is interested in viewing it, let me know (it is amateur work, but you can hear the speakers).

J.J. Surbeck
Executive Director

Training and Education About the Middle East
Tel. 760-613-9993

No comments: