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UN official’s Princeton talk dismays critics
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UN official’s Princeton talk dismays critics

Princeton University’s English Department hosted a talk by a UN official who has been accused by fellow diplomats of anti-Semitism and a deep bias against Israel.

Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton and UN special rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967,” delivered the annual Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture at the university Feb. 18.

Falk’s talk drew a diverse crowd of 250 to McCosh Hall.

Falk said the boycott campaign against Israel is rapidly gaining traction in Europe, where some investment funds have divested from companies doing business with Israel, causing great concern among Israeli leadership. He acknowledged it has gained less traction in the United States, largely because of the strong pro-Israel stance of the U.S. government.

What he called the “legitimacy campaign” has empowered the Palestinians with “the embrace of hope” and has fanned “the flame of Palestinian identity” in the Palestinians’ quest for “a just peace,” he said.

The choice of Falk to speak at the program drew fire from several sources, who noted that he has accused Israel of having “genocidal intentions” toward the Palestinians, suggested that U.S. support for Israel was in part responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, and made what Canadian officials once called “numerous outrageous and anti-Semitic statements.” Falk is Jewish.

Two months ago, the U.S. State Department labeled Falk’s “genocide” comments “despicable” and “deeply offensive.”

A Feb. 14 op-ed by Sohrab Ahmjari in the Wall Street Journal headlined “The Shame of Princeton” sharply criticized his appearance. Jewish groups also made their displeasure known.

“We recognize the freedom of academic departments to sponsor lectures with speakers of their choosing,” said Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton University. “At the same time, we are deeply dismayed that the Said Memorial Lecture Committee extended an invitation to Professor Falk, given his public record of anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic comments.”

Roth added that the center is “committed to constructive and respectful dialogue which, we believe, has the most potential to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.”

In a similar vein, John Rosen, executive director of the New Jersey area American Jewish Committee, said he supports academic freedom but that he was “disappointed” at the choice of Falk.

“Our concern is compounded by the fact that over the past 10 years the annual Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture Series has promoted a one-sided agenda which has focused almost exclusively on the Palestinian narrative,” Rosen said. “Given the breadth of themes in Said’s work, this series could be better used as a vehicle to expose the university students to multiple perspectives which will enhance their knowledge of the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East and which will promote interfaith understanding and dialogue.”

Said was a Palestinian-American activist who taught at Columbia University and served on the Palestinian National Council.

University spokesman Martin A. Mbugua said Falk was chosen by the lecture committee, which includes faculty from various departments and holding many points of view.

“They invited him because they wanted to hear what he had to say,” he said. “We respect their right to do that and his right to speak.”

The program was sponsored by the Department of English and Princeton Committee on Palestine, which bills itself as working “to end the occupation in Palestine, defend Palestinian human rights, and raise awareness in the Princeton community about the Palestinian narrative. We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people against injustice.”

In his talk, Falk, whose term as special rapporteur ends this year, drew an analogy between the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the “oppression” of the Palestinians, although he added, “I’m not claiming the Palestinian situation is the same as South Africa.”

However, much like the anti-apartheid boycott, “the boycott and divestment campaign will be the dawn of a new realism” for Israel’s leaders, he said.

“Omar Barghouti now may be a more important leader than [Palestinian Authority] President Mahmoud Abbas,” said Falk, referring to the cofounder of the Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

“No matter what setbacks, the spirit of the people is unshakeable as they carry on the struggle no matter how long it takes for freedom and dignity,” he said.

While the crowd remained respectful through much of the two-hour program, during the question-and-answer period, several opponents made their feelings known. One man yelled out, “You’re not comparing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to [Soviet dictator Josef] Stalin are you?”

Falk also denied that he suspects U.S. involvement in the 9/11 attacks, but said rather that there are “unanswered questions” surrounding the attacks.

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