Richard Falk: Anger at my Israel 'apartheid' report puts free speech at risk

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Israeli leaders have warned for decades that, if a separate Palestinian state wasn't established, their country would become an apartheid state

I arrived in Edinburgh on 13 March to begin a 10-day string of speaking engagements arranged by my publisher, Pluto, to launch my new book, Palestine’s Horizon: Towards a Just Peace.

The Scottish phase of the visit went smoothly enough with well-attended talks and discussions in Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh on the main themes of the book.

Then on 15 March, the calm was shattered.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) released a report [see PDF below] that I had co-authored with Virginia Tilley, a political scientist at the University of Southern Illinois, that examined the question as to whether sufficient evidence existed to conclude that Israel’s forms of control exercised over the Palestinian people amounted to the international crime of apartheid.

What this discussion of the fallout from the report shows is the refusal by Israel and its supporters to engage in reasoned discussion of an admittedly controversial set of conclusions

It was an academic study that analysed the relevant issues from the perspective of international law and summarised Israel’s practices and policies that were alleged to be discriminatory.

Before being released, the study had been sent by ESCWA for review to three distinguished international experts on human rights and international law, each of whom submitted highly favourable reports as to the scholarly contribution of the report.

So why the perfect storm? As soon as it was released in Beirut at a press conference where both Professor Tilley and I participated by Skype, the furore commenced.

First came denunciations of the report by the recently designated American ambassador at the UN, Nikki Haley, and by the firebrand Israeli diplomat, Danny Danon.

This was quickly followed by a statement released by the newly elected UN secretary-general, Antonio Gutteres, indicating that the "report as it stands does not represent the views of the secretary-general" and was released "without consultations with the UN Secretariat".

The director of ESCWA, Rima Khalaf, holding the high rank of deputy secretary-general, was instructed to remove our report from the ESCWA website, and chose to resign on principle rather than follow the order.

Scholarly interpretation

There is so much "fake news" surrounding this response to our report that it becomes difficult to sift truth from rumour.

Ambassador Haley, for instance, self-righteously declared, "When someone issues a false and defamatory report in the name of the UN, it is appropriate that the person resign."

The report was clearly labelled as being the work of independent scholars, and did not necessarily reflect the views of the UN or ESCWA. In other words, it was not a UN report, nor had it been endorsed by the UN.

My experience these past days suggests that academic freedom in Britain has taken a fairly serious hit, and is definitely being tested in relation to the Israel-Palestine agenda

Beyond this, how could it be "false and defamatory" when its analysis amounted to no more or less than a scholarly interpretation of a legal concept and a presentation of Israeli practices?

Ambassador Danon, along with Haley, called the report "despicable" and "a blatant lie". He apparently forgot that a series of Israeli leaders had warned since at least 1967 that, if there was no separate Palestinian state established soon, Israel would become an apartheid state.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, put the issue this way in a radio address: "Israel... better rid itself of the territories and their Arab population as soon as possible. If it did not Israel would soon become an apartheid state."

Or consider what Yitzhak Rabin, two-time prime minister of Israel, told a TV journalist back in 1976: "I don’t think it’s possible to contain over the long term, if we don’t want to get to apartheid, a million and a half [more] Arabs inside a Jewish state." And more definitively from a legal perspective, Michael Ben-Yair, a former Israeli attorney general, concluded "we established a apartheid regime in the occupied territories."

It should be clear from these statements, and there are many others, that an investigation of apartheid in the Israel context is not something outrageous, or even particularly new, although our study does break new ground.

It looks at the contention of apartheid as applicable to the Palestinian people as a whole, and not just those living under occupation. This means including refugees, involuntary exiles, the minority in Israel, and residents of Jerusalem within a coherent overall structure of systematic discriminatory domination.

It also examines whether Israeli practices rise to a level of clarity and intentionality to satisfy the notion of apartheid as it is defined by the 1973 Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid.

An investigation of apartheid in the Israel context is not something outrageous, or even particularly new, although our study does break new ground

Ambassador Danon also accuses the study of "creating a false analogy", presumably a reference to the South African apartheid system. The study, rather than claiming an analogy, goes out of its way to argue that the international crime of apartheid has nothing to do with its historical connections with South Africa’s racist regime, and that Israel’s control over the Palestinian people proceeds in a wholly different manner.

For instance, South Africa’s leaders claimed to be proud of apartheid as a beneficial system of racial separation while Israel’s leaders seek to affirm Israel as a democratic state that rejects racism.

What this discussion of the fallout from the report shows, above all, is the refusal by Israel and its supporters to engage in reasoned discussion of an admittedly controversial set of conclusions. Instead, it is better to wound the messengers rather than respond to the message.



Israeli forces detain a Palestinian protester during clashes near Israel's Ofer Prison near the West Bank city of Ramallah (Reuters)

Part of the pushback at the UN was to brand me as biased and an anti-Semite, drawing on a series of defamatory attacks that I endured while serving as UN Special Rapporteur on Israeli Violations in Occupied Palestine. 

This is part of a trend in recent years in which supporters of Israel move to close down critical discussion rather than to respond substantively.

In my view, such tactics are a reflection of how weak Israel’s positions have become on such contested issues as settlements, excessive force, Jerusalem residency, discriminatory laws and regulations, and diversion of water.

Academic fallout

Following these developments at the UN, my early events in London, supposedly featuring my book, were predictably dominated by concern about the report. The first such misfired book launch was held at LSE, and attracted several Zionist extremists, as well as some harsh critics of Israel.

My presentation was allowed to proceed, but when a Q&A period got started, pretty soon all hell broke loose, with members of the audience shouting at one other.

Among the most disruptive of those present were a middle-aged man and woman who stood up, unveiled an Israeli flag, shouting "lies" and "shame", and holding up large sheets with such insults in large letters.

Finally, after seeking quiet, the security personnel present removed them from the hall and discussion more or less resumed.

It is worth struggling to ensure that British universities will in the future act more responsibly, and make a greater effort to uphold the ideals and realities of academic freedom

However, on the following two days, previously announced lectures at East London University and Middlesex University were both cancelled. The excuses given were in the first case that procedures governing outside speakers "had not been adequately followed" and in the other case, "health and safety concerns" led high university administrators to issue their cancellation orders.

In both instances, the conveners were well-regarded academic friends who tried their best to persuade the authorities in their institutions to go ahead with such planned events.

What is disturbing about my experience is not only the personal loss of opportunities to discuss my views on Palestine and bringing a sustainable peace to both peoples, but also the adverse institutional consequences of silencing discussion of controversial issues of wider public interest.

Few elements of advanced educational experience are more lastingly beneficial than exposure to various viewpoints, reasoned discussion, and learning how to become responsible and engaged citizens.

In this regard academic freedom, along with independent media, is integral to the proper functioning of constitutional democracy.

UK freedom under attack

My experience these past days, suggests that academic freedom in Britain has taken a fairly serious hit, and is definitely being tested in relation to the Israel/Palestine agenda.

It should be obvious that the vitality of democratic society is most at risk when the subject matter touches on matters of fundamental belief and opposing views of justice.

For this reason alone, it is worth struggling to ensure that British universities will in the future act more responsibly, and make a greater effort to uphold the ideals and realities of academic freedom, and not give in to insidious pressures designed to produce dangerous silences.

I would not separate too sharply what happened at the UN from my disappointing loss of these opportunities to address university audiences.

- Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for 40 years. In 2008 he was also appointed by the UN to serve a six-year term as the Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Falk, then one of the coordinators of the World Tribunal on Iraq, gives the opening speech of the organisation's Istanbul session in July 2005 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.