Richard Falk: No issue needs more open debate than moral and political cost of I/P policy (going back to USS Liberty!)

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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On June 8th the eminent legal scholar Richard Falk gave this speech at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle. Falk is the former UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and he is a professor of international law at Princeton University, and a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It is impossible to summon the power of this speech with an excerpt. Here is my partial transcript:

No issue confronting American society more needs the kind of open discussion that I hope we will have this evening than the realities of the Israel Palestine conflict and how it has distorted the American reality.

There is an important price that is more than the monetary price tag. There is a moral and a political price tag that has been associated with allowing such an oppressive structure to be subsidized and to be complicit thru such a long period of time in the subjugation of a people deprived of its land and deprived of its rights.

My approach to the Israel Palestine conflict does not proceed very much from religious identity or on the basis of my national identity but it really is an expression of my human identity and I think if we want to live on this planet successfully we have to more and more think as humans not as Americans, not as Jews or Christians or Muslims. We have to retain the pride in those identities but they have to be part of a human experience and the more that we allow ourselves to be human the more likely we are to take suffering seriously and when we take suffering serious we become inevitably committed to the struggle for justice. 

I really think that’s what this whole set of issues, in the end, is about. And Rev. Lang referrred to the importance of courage and compassion and I think that also is really part of what is involved here. I would say less courage, although the hostility to truth seeking in this area sometimes requires at least stubbornness if not courage but what I really think it demands of all of us is responsibility.

Taking seriously our sense of freedom and opportunity as citizens to engage as we can in trying to solve a situation that has been so productive of violence and suffering and injustice. And so I would say responsibility and compassion are what guides my understanding of these issues and the compassion is something very fundamental in our historical space I believe. Because living in a more and more crowded planet that is fragile and exquisitely complex we need more and more to be able to think feel and act as if the other is not an object but a subject. We have to find ways to have sympathy with the circumstances of the other and if we allow ourselves to do that suffering does becomes intolerable. In a way I think what seeking the truth leads us to do is to bring us into contact if we allow ourselves with the suffering and therefore to recognize that it is intolerable to live passively in the presence such a condition.


We meet tonight June 8th on the 45th anniversay of the Israeli attack on the American espionage vessel the USS liberty. This happened a long time ago but it illustrates for me the fundamental distortion of our sense of reality that has been fostered by this disturbing relationship between our government and the government of Israel because this attack on the USS Liberty was a deliberate attack by the Israeli government. It has been well confirmed including by former CIA operatives, [and by] Stephen Green among others, and the reason for this attack was that this ship was listening to the messages between Tel Aviv and the Israeli forces on the Egyptian border. And the Israeli leadership, particularly the military commander Moshe Dayan, at the time didn’t want the US to hear the Israeli plan to attack Syria and occupy Golan Heights. And the US at that time was very nervous about doing anything in Syria because that could easily draw the Soviet Union into the conflict and escalate the situation in ways that were potentially extremely dangerous. So there was a motive for attacking the USS Liberty.

And what I think is really extraordinary about this is that Israel, the supposed closed ally, would conduct such an attack. The ship was well marked and in international waters, but what is more revealing and more disturbing is that the American government would suppress the reality of what happened and engage in a coverup all these years that was originally ordered by Lyndon Johnson, the president at the time.

And even then 45 years ago the US government was more willing to allow this criminal sacrifice of his own people than tell the truth of what happened and why– apparently because Johnson was worried about a domestic Jewish backlash that would result if Israel was blamed for the attack. But what I really think is important about this is the degree to which we need, as citizens and as human beings to pursue the truth and we cannot rely on our government unfortunately to transmit the truth even in such a situation where Americans serving as naval officers and seaman were the deliberate objects of lethal attack. I think we should all think about what that tells us, what does that incident tell us about this whole relationship?

The other anniversary which  overlaps with what happened with the Liberty was the Six Day War. The June war in 1967 which again was presented to all of us, including myself I must admit, as a war in which  Israel had no choice but to defend itself against the prospect of aggression. It’s only now that we’re beginning to get ripples of reality.

(cites Miko Peled/LATimes)

..Israel did not perceive a threat in 1967 and they understood that there was no way that the Arab neighbors could attack them with any effect. But what they did see was an opportunity for expansionism and they saw an opportunity to destroy the military capabilities of their Arab neighbors. And so what was presented, again with the complicity of our government because the intelligence was available, was a completely false conception. A war of aggression was portrayed as a war of necessary self defense, that Israel’s survival was at stake.

And again this is very disturbing on a number of levels. But in a certain sense at the most fundamental level because it illustrates that even in these most vital issues of war and peace one cannot trust our own popularly elected government to tell its own citizens the truth. In situations where people are dying and being killed one would have hoped that that kind of cover up and dishonesty would be a form of treason that is regarded as a crime against the people. But we tolerate, almost we legitimize, lying by the state for whatever strategic or domestic priorities it may have at a particular time. But it tell us that we have to depend on our own capacities to find the truth and pursue the truth without accepting  public manipulations of a sensitive and controversial political reality.

At only 14:45 minutes into the speech, this is Falk’s opening. I highly recommend the entire presentation.

Appreciation extended to the sponsors: the American Friends Service Committee, the National Lawyers Guild, the World Affairs Council and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign, among others. And thanks to Todd Boyle for the recording.

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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