In recent days, news reports have accused Richard Falk, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, of blaming the Boston marathon attack on Israel and the US. Some reports even claim that he had said the victims deserved it.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon officially “reject[ed]” Falk’s alleged comments. The UK Mission to the UN “object[ed] strongly.” The Canadian foreign minister accused Falk of “mean-spirited, anti-Semitic rhetoric,” while the US Mission “completely reject[ed]” Falk’s “provocative and offensive commentary.”
US Ambassador Susan Rice even tweeted her views on the matter:
Yet Richard Falk never even made the comments he was being accused of making.
UN Watch crafts the smoking gun
In the early morning of April 19, as Boston police continued to search for one of the prime suspects in the Boston bomber case, the Al Jazeera website published an opinion piece by Richard Falk entitled “Collective Self-Reflection in the Wake of a National Tragedy.” The article used the Boston bombing—specifically reactions to the bombing—as a starting point to talk about the trajectory of US foreign policy and the need for self-reflection on America’s role in the world.
That same day, Falk posted his piece—minus the light edits by Aljazeera editors—on his personal blog, with the title “A Commentary on the Marathon Murders.”
Neither site registered much of a reaction.
Two days later, however, Falk’s “Commentary” was reprinted in a small website called Foreign Policy Journal, which was then seen by UN Watch.
UN Watch is one of many overfunded watchdog-for-Israel organizations—like NGO Monitor—whose role is to target specific institutions and interpret every action by those institutions as a slight against Israel. UN Watch is affiliated with the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which has funded it to the tune of over a million dollars in 2010 and 2011 combined, according to IRS filings. Ever since Falk was appointed as the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, UN Watch has waged a campaign to unseat Falk, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian human rights. (In 2009, on the most ridiculous grounds, UN Watch even questioned whether Falk was really Jewish.)
On April 22, UN Watch issued what it called an “exclusive report” under the headline “Exclusive: UN Official Blames America for Boston Marathon Terror Attacks.” The report itself was a three-sentence preface followed by an open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, cc’d to US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, calling yet again for the denunciation of Falk.
The letter accused Falk, through his article, of
1. blaming the US for the Boston attack,
2. blaming Israel for the Boston attack, and
3. engaging in “9/11 conspiracies” by suggesting that the Bush administration had exploited 9/11 as a pretext to wage war on Iraq.
Never mind that the third argument is not controversial. Much of the UN Watch letter quoted from the Falk piece, though in disjointed and verbless fragments rather than complete sentences. For instance:
Terrorism will target Americans until they reflect upon and change their action, says Falk. Lamenting a “taboo” on “self-scrutiny,” he predicts “adjustments” that will come either from “a voluntary process of self-reflection” or “through the force of unpleasant events.” America’s “military prowess” and “hard power diplomacy” make the country “a menace to the world and to itself.” [emphasis mine]
In the preface to the letter, UN Watch even places the name Tel Aviv in quotes:
…Richard Falk is blaming the Boston terrorist attacks on U.S. foreign policy and “Tel Aviv.” [emphasis mine]
UN Watch found the word “retribution” so frightening that it quoted it twice:
[Falk] justifies the Boston terrorist attacks as due “retribution” for American sins …
And five sentences later:
Falk approvingly cites comments justifying the Boston Marathon bombings as “retribution” for the actions of the U.S.military in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. [emphases mine]
Yet “retribution” appears once in Falk’s piece, only as a quote of something Falk had heard on a call-in radio program, and only in reference to Iraq—not Afghanistan or Pakistan. Moreover his “approval” of the quote was that it signaled a willingness from the public to be willing to talk about US foreign policy following a horrific attack.
In the entire UN Watch “exclusive report,” there are only two sentences quoted in full from the Falk piece—one of which is Falk quoting a line from a W.H. Auden poem, which UN Watch neglects to attribute.
The most damning quote—so damning that UN Watch placed it in bold and italics—is this:
Falk conjures up the sinister specter of another global menace by blaming the Boston bombings on the Jewish state: “[A]s long as Tel Aviv has the compliant ear of the American political establishment those who wish for peace and justice in the world should not rest easy.”
Yet the comment did not refer to the Boston bombing but rather to calls for war, and specifically a war on Iran. Here is the offending sentence in its actual context:
[I]t seems that for the present irresponsible and unlawful warfare are no longer the centerpiece of America’s foreign policy as had become the case in the first decade of the 21st century, although this is far from a certainty. The war drums are beating at this moment in relation to both North Korea and Iran, and as long as Tel Aviv has the compliant ear of the American political establishment those who wish for peace and justice in the world should not rest easy.
This was also the only reference in the Falk’s article to “Tel Aviv.”
Blaming Israel and/or the US
The accuracy of UN Watch’s interpretation was irrelevant. On April 23, the AJC issued a press release condemning Falk for his “Boston Terror Slander” and “for asserting … that U.S. and Israeli policies were responsible for the Boston Marathon terrorist bombings.”
The same day, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) published an article titled “U.N. Official Pins Blame for Boston Marathon Bombing on ‘Tel Aviv,’” which was a rehash of the UN Watch “exclusive report.” For instance, where UN Watch falsely claimed that
Falk approvingly cites comments justifying the Boston Marathon bombings as “retribution” for the actions of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
the JTA merely shortened it to
[Falk] called the Boston attack “retribution” for the actions of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
As well, “Tel Aviv” appeared in quotes—both in the JTA headline and in the article—as was the case in the UN Watch “exclusive report,” which would appear in other articles about the Falk piece.
The Jewish Daily Forward reprinted the JTA article with its own headline: “Richard Falk, Controversial U.N. Official, Blames Boston Bombing on Israel Support: Human Rights Official Calls Marathon Terror ‘Retribution.’”
Fox News shifted the focus from blame-Israel to blame-America:
UN Official Blames Boston Marathon Bombings on American “Domination”
A United Nations official known for blaming the U.S. for unrest in the Middle East has angered critics again by blaming the Boston Marathon bombings on “American global domination.”
blamed the Boston Marathon bombings on the U.S. and Israel—or “American global domination” and “Tel Aviv,” as he put it in an online commentary.
The following day, the UK Mission to the UN issued a statement against Falk:
The UK objects strongly to recent remarks made by UN Special Rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, linking the Boston bombings to “American global domination” and “Tel Aviv”.
Note how the UK Mission’s only quotes to the Falk piece are the exact same quotes appearing in Ahmari’s Wall Street Journal piece. The terms “American global domination” and “Tel Aviv” appear in two separate locations in the Falk article, and neither quote relates directly to the Boston bombing.
Ahmari was then interviewed by Wall Street Journal editorial board member Mary Kissel for a video segment entitled “U.N’s Resident Anti-Semite,” which claimed to explain Falk’s “defense of jihad.” During the conversation, Kissel displayed a screen that purported to quote “Falk on the Boston Bombings,” but again quoted Falk on a potential war on Iran:
The Forward published a second piece about Falk, this time by Reuters, under the headline “Richard Falk Chided for Linking Boston Bombings to U.S. Support for Israel”—even though the Reuters piece made no mention of Israel. Instead it claimed that Falk “suggested the Boston bombings were a response to U.S. foreign policy.”
Boston victims deserved it/Had it coming
Another common theme perpetrated in the media was that Falk believed that victims of the Boston bombing “deserved their fate” or “had it coming”:
The Times of Israel’s headline was “UN Official Says US Had Boston Attack Coming.”
On the Fox News website, Anne Bayefsky (an associate of UN Watch) claimed that Falk “announced that Boston had it coming.”
Another article by Bayefsky appearing in Breitbart.com stated that “Richard Falk has published a statement saying Bostonians got what they deserved in last week’s terror attack.”
Michael Goodwin in the New York Post (fresh from smearing a random Saudi national and a Moroccan American teenager) claimed that Falk’s article “basically calls the Boston terror attack just deserts [sic].”
The website for CBS DC claimed that Falk believed “Boston Marathon Victims ‘Have to Die’ Because of American-Israeli Relations” and that “Bostonians who were injured or killed in the Boston Marathon bombing were deserving of their collective fate.”
Yet nowhere in Falk’s article did he state—explicitly or implicitly—that the bombing victims “deserved their fate” or “had it coming.” This did not deter Noga Gur-Arieh in the Jewish Journal, who wrote that
Richard Falk, a UN official, referred to the Boston Marathon in a column he wrote for the Foreign Policy Journal , saying the US “had it coming” because of its policy around the world and specifically in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The quotations around “had it coming” gave the impression that Falk actually wrote those words when he didn’t. Instead, he wrote that the bombing was “horrific,” that the “scale and drama of the Boston attack [was] great,” and that “each life is sacred.”
The bombing was justified
A similar theme was that Falk somehow justified the Boston attack.
A “UN Watch briefing” used the word “justify” four times. The headline claimed “UN Official Justifies Boston Bombings as ‘Retribution,’” followed by claims that Falk “justifies the Boston terrorist attacks as due ‘retribution,’” “Falk approvingly cites comments justifying the Boston Marathon bombings as ‘retribution,’” and “Crystallizing his justification of the terrorist attacks.”
A later UN Watch press release referred to Falk’s “April 21st article justifying the Boston atrocities” and quoted UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer claiming that “here we have a UN-appointed human rights figure … blatantly justifying terrorism.”
Falk made no justifications—much less “blatantly.” Such charges evoke the reactions following the 9/11 attacks, in which asking why the attacks were committed (that is, beyond “They hate us for our freedoms,”) was perceived as justifying the attacks.
In contrast to President Obama’s statement following the capture of Dhokhar Tsarnaev that “the families of those killed so senselessly deserve answers,” these critics want us to believe that ignorance is not only a virtue—it’s the law. And the best way to honor the victims of the attack is to not ask why.
We’re doing it for the victims
It was only predictable, then, that those leading the campaign to smear Falk would claim that their concern was for the memories of bombing victims. UN Watch’s benefactor the AJC claimed that “Falk’s latest commentary demonstrates his total insensitivity to the victims of the terror attacks in Boston,” while UN Watch Executive Director Hillel Neuer claimed that Falk was “insulting the memory of Boston’s dead and wounded, insulting the American people, desecrating the founding values of the UN.”
Never mind that UN Watch had been working to unseat Falk ever since he was appointed to his UN position. Never mind that its mission is to undermine the UN, not consecrate it. And never mind that the entire case against Falk was based on a willful misreading of his article. We are supposed to believe that this entire smear campaign was done to honor the Boston victims.
Summaries—mine and theirs
Here is a summary of the points made in Falk’s article, numbered by paragraph:
1. Responses to the Boston bombing have been “generally benevolent, especially when compared to” the calls for war and revenge that followed the 9/11 attacks.
2. Then again, 9/11 was on a much larger scale and occurred during a time when the Bush administration was looking to start a war with Iraq. 9/11 gave Bush the pretext needed to go to war despite protests at the UN and around the world, and it allowed the neoconservatives to pursue their “American grand strategy.”
3. Circumstances are different in the current Obama administration, having come in on the heels of two failed wars. Whereas the 1990s saw a period of “quick victorious wars” in Iraq I and Kosovo and a “unipolar moment” for the US, the failures in Iraq II and Afghanistan have quelled this “geopolitical intoxication.” For now, at least, “irresponsible and unlawful warfare are no longer the centerpiece of America’s foreign policy.” However, this is not a sure thing, as there is increased hostility against North Korea and Iran. And we cannot take for granted this reprieve from war “as long as Tel Aviv has the compliant ear of the American political establishment.”
4. Following 9/11, it was taboo to question US foreign policy and to question US actions. We should not allow that to happen in the aftermath of the Boston attack. After the Boston attack, I tuned in to a PBS radio program and “was struck by the critical attitudes of several callers to the radio station.” The callers were openly criticizing US drone strikes and torture and drawing connections between how the US treats others, and how these others may want to treat the US. This willingness to talk about US actions appeared to be a “hopeful sign” of open-mindedness that was absent following 9/11. If everyday citizens can talk about this, why can’t politicians?
5. Aspiration for “American global domination…is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world.” It is fortunate that the US has not “experienced worse blowbacks.” But it could still happen, especially if the US doesn’t reconfigure its foreign relations, particularly with the Middle East. “Some of us naively hoped that” such a reconfiguration would begin with Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo. But instead Obama “backpedaled,” particularly in the face of “strong pushback by Israel and its belligerent leader, Bibi Netanyahu.”
6. For his second term, Obama has given up on a visionary foreign policy, “succumbing to the Beltway ethos of Israel First” and maintaining the status quo. Even his recent trip to Israel was no more than “a love letter to the Israeli public rather than” an effort to promote “a just peace.”
7. “Aside from the tensions of the moment,” self-reflection on “America’s global role is long overdue. Such a process is crucial both for the sake of the country’s own future security and also in consideration of the wellbeing of others.” A change of course will “come about either as a result of a voluntary process of self-reflection or through the force of unpleasant events.” Until then, “hard power diplomacy makes the United States a menace to the world and to itself.” We should ask, “How many canaries will have to die before we awaken from our geopolitical fantasy of global domination?”—a metaphor that suggests dying canaries in a coalmine is a signal not to continue on course, as it would be suicide.
And here is a summary of Falk’s article, numbered by paragraph, according to pundits and news reports:
1. Blah blah blah.
2. 9/11 was an inside job.
3. “Tel Aviv” is responsible for the Boston attack.
4. The Boston bombing was a response to drones and torture.
5. US actions incite “resistance,” which is code for justified terrorism. The Boston victims deserved to die because they had it coming.
6. Israel controls the US.
7. Bostonians “have to die.”
In Falk’s article, most of the references to the Boston attack occurred in Paragraph 1, and that’s the paragraph most ignored in the news reports. When he did refer to the Boston attack (much of Paragraph 1 and parts of Paragraphs 2 and 4) he often referred to reactions to the Boston attack and not to the attack itself. The bulk of the article used the reactions to the Boston bombing as a springboard to discuss US foreign relations and how Americans see themselves compared to how others might see them.
The article did not focus on blame.
Falk has received much criticism for his association with 9/11 Truther David Ray Griffin and his questioning of official narratives around the 9/11 attacks. Yet Falk has denied that he
had endorsed the conspiracy theory that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. Government and not Al Qaeda terrorists … I wish to be absolutely clear … I do not endorse the theory that the U.S. government orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. What I did do, in my personal blog … was argue that investigations must be, and must be seen to be, transparent, exhaustive and honest.
What I stressed is the importance of carefully examining evidence before drawing conclusions about political and legal responsibility for highly tragic events, in particular those that have grave consequences for human rights.
As for how these allegations disseminated, Falk stated:
The pro-Israel group, UN Watch, that created this mess deliberately distorted comments I made, in my personal capacity, on my blog … Not only that, they then deliberately connected it to my UN mandate on the Palestinian territories, and on that basis started calling for me to be fired from that position.
Falk on Falk
The final word should go to Falk himself—because, after all, he did respond when someone actually bothered to ask him whether UN Watch’s interpretation was correct. On April 23, the following question was posed by a Jewish Chronicle reporter in the comments section below Falk’s piece:
Mr Falk – how do you respond to the claims of Hillel Neuer of the UN Watch group, who claims that your remarks above regarding Tel Aviv amount to a suggestion that Israel was responsible for the Boston bombings?
Twenty minutes later, Falk responded:
I never suggested such a connection. My reflections were only a commentary on focusing all attention on the wrongdoing of the perpetrators, and avoiding self-scrutiny as to why the United States, more than elsewhere, was the target of such extremist behavior. This has been a national characteristic ever since the atomic bombs were dropped at the end of World War II, and before as well. It does not lead to any kind of learning experience that might make the world a less menacing place to inhabit.
Following Falk’s response, the Jewish Chronicle changed the headline of its own coverage from “Blame Boston on US-Israel Link, Says UN Man” to the less sensationalistic but still misrepresentative “US-Israel Ties Factor in Boston Bombing, Says UN Man.”