In his memoir, Richard Falk, one of the most prominent yet controversial experts on international law and relations, unravels many secrets of both the academic world and global affairs.

It's a rare privilege to publish a memoir at the age of 90. Richard Falk, an American-Jewish scholar and one of the top experts on international law, is among the blessed ones. 

A fierce member of academic discipline, Falk has earned a reputation for speaking on behalf of victims and the weak. He believes in the idea of being a 'citizen pilgrim', which means taking up a "life journey to build a better future by addressing the injustices of the present wherever encountered.”

Much to the dismay of Israel, Falk showed how effective international law could be during his tenure as UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. He recommended that the International Criminal Court should investigate Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians. Last month, the ICC allowed its prosecutor to go ahead with the investigation, a landmark move towards addressing years of abuse against Palestinians, which could see justice delivered for thousands of victims.

Falk believes in a careful balancing act, which means applying legal options to complex political realities with the utmost care and with the ultimate aim of promoting universal human rights and democratic principles.

His memoir, Public Intellectual, is a testament to his belief that international law defended by citizen pilgrims like him could be one of the best political instruments to restrain brutal state powers entertained by countries like Israel, Syria and the US. 

“These deeper normative impulses toward living together in better ways on a planet with limited carrying capacities overlap with issues associated with conflict resolution and human rights. I consider these normative proposals or ideas concerned with living together on a planetary scale to be both better responses to the present and improved ways of addressing the future,” he writes in the book. 

The cover of Richard Falk's memoirs, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim.
The cover of Richard Falk's memoirs, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim. (Credit: Richard Falk / Richard Falk)

Academic “destiny”

Unlike most Jewish people, Falk does not believe in the myth of “chosenness”. A closer look into his life, however, suggests that he was chosen to have a special destiny right from the time when he graduated from Yale Law School.  

In 1955, Falk was unexpectedly offered to teach law at the Ohio State University, an event that radically changed his life. Falk aspired to follow in his father's footsteps and become a lawyer. His father was a member of the New York City Bar Association.

Carl Fulda, an immigrant scholar from Germany, was tasked with interviewing Falk, who vividly remembers that hot summer day in New York City. Recalling the encounter, Falk writes in his memoir that Carl, a faculty member at the Ohio Law School, asked him where they could "have a quiet lunch" in order to "escape the sweltering heat".

"We were across the street from the Algonquin Hotel, hangout of The New Yorker crowd in those days, with its famous lobby. I made a point of saying to Carl that I knew the restaurant was air-conditioned but I had no idea about the price. Carl’s response was a single, trusting word, ‘fine'".

During the job interview at the New York hotel, the restaurant's head waitress mistook Falk for somebody else. The incident made him nervous but it remained etched in his memory. 

The interview went well and Falk was offered a teaching job at the Ohio Law School. Although he trained students at one of the best law schools in the country, he failed the New York City Bar Association exam. 

“Had he [Fulda] been aware [of my prospects of the bar exam failure], he would almost certainly have passed on me, as I would have done when later given the chance to pass judgment on applicants for faculty appointments,” Falk writes. 

Interestingly, years later, during his tenure at Princeton University, he had another meeting at the Algonquin Hotel with a lawyer who represented Germany's Baader Meinhof terrorist organisation. The lawyer sought Falk’s legal advice ahead of preparing his trial arguments. 

Again, for the second time, Falk was mistaken for someone else as he entered the restaurant. 

“As I entered a man on a couch rose to greet me. I sat down, and he indicated he would start ‘the interview’ in a few minutes,” Falk recalls the incident, which he believes carried some divine weight with regards to his destiny. It also reminded him of his first meeting with Carl.  

Although Falk has ambivalent feelings towards religion, he still feels that it was at that New York restaurant where he was destined to be given an entry into academia. 

“My unexpected turn toward an academic life occurred in Ohio only because of an implausible series of unlikely occurrences, which only later appeared coherent enough to be more portentously describable as ‘destiny’,” the professor writes. 

Campus and politics

Falk’s memoir also looks deeply into academic life in the US. While he has a lot of affection for it, he's also critical of it on various grounds. He finds “the claims of merit-based professionalism in academic life” untrue and “misleading”. 

While he credits both Ohio State University and Princeton University, where he has spent four decades teaching, for being the cradles of his intellectual maturity and independence, he thinks the American academic structure is biased. 

“The real defining criterion of academic excellence is scholarly and political like-mindedness, often unconsciously exhibited,” he says in the book. 

Falk thinks that this criterion had also played a significant role, particularly at Princeton University, to help shape intellectual discourse against the communist threat during the Cold War years in the early 1960s, when he joined the Ivy League institution. 

In this April 5, 2018, file photo, people walk through the Princeton University campus in Princeton, N.J. Princeton University said it would reject federal relief money available in the government's multi-trillion dollar coronavirus rescue package.
In this April 5, 2018, file photo, people walk through the Princeton University campus in Princeton, N.J. Princeton University said it would reject federal relief money available in the government's multi-trillion dollar coronavirus rescue package. (Seth Wenig / AP Archive)

“I found myself squeezed between my effort to fit in at Princeton and my growing visceral discomfort with regard to an intellectual environment shaped by Cold War hawks in firm control of the academic discourse on foreign policy and national security in those years, also dominating media approaches,” he says. 

“This group of war thinkers were extremely smart, adopting an intimidating, cool and detached analytic approach to diplomacy, strategy, and war-making that I believed could have easily ended up, if given full sway, producing unspeakable ruin for the entire world,” he adds. 

He also recounted how the CIA recruited students on campus, with sometimes even the Dean of Students acting like a CIA recruiter at Princeton University. Also, it was fine at Princeton “for faculty members to act as regular consultants to RAND or the Pentagon,” due to the fact the university was “in the nation’s service”. 

Despite his reservations, he considers himself lucky to be part of American academia. 

“I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to be within a university setting where I could freely express and explore ideas, and that I could be rather independent from an early age, and with many opportunities to meet and become friends with interesting and admirable persons while traveling the world,” Falk tells TRT World. 


While Falk, the writer of more than 20 books, describes his academic background as his intellectual base, his political activism, which has incrementally developed after his Hanoi visit in 1968 during the Vietnam War, defines who he is as a public intellectual and citizen pilgrim. 

The 1968 visit left a lifelong track on his life, allowing him to understand that “such imperial wars fought with high tech weaponry against a low tech society from the perspective of the Vietnamese victims.” 

“It transformed my political worldview,” Falk explains to TRT World. 

Afterwards, he saw a powerful need to conduct sophisticated political activism against state-sanctioned powers, among whom Israel became one of his main targets for its brutal treatment of the Palestinians. 

From 2008 to 2014, he served as the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, confronting indecent attacks from pro-Israel groups, “discovering that bearing witness to the crimes Israel was committing against the Palestinian people led to defamation even when speaking as a UN official.” 

Falk’s international involvements have brought him an understanding of world politics and conflict beyond what he could have learned in libraries and by reading. He describes his experience as “an experiential pedagogy” in which he has sought “the pursuit of justice” by exposing injustices around the world. 

“My professional life has involved exploring ideas both through research and engagement in political struggles on behalf of those who are vulnerable, oppressed, marginalized whether at home or around the world,” he says. 

“My sense that citizenship in the 21st century involves action as well as thought and feelings; I accept the formula thought minus action equals zero,” he concludes. 

Source: TRT World