On Human Identity

26 Jun


            Early in my blog life I wrote about Jewish identity. It was partly an exercise in self-discovery, and partly a response to those who alleged that I was a self-hating Jew, or worse, an anti-Semite. These attacks on my characterwere hurtful even as I felt their distance from my actual beliefs and worldview. In my mind and heart criticisms of Israel and support for the Palestinian struggle for their rights under international law and in accord with fundamental ideas of justice had to do with taking suffering seriously,which for me is the most solid foundation of human identity.

            It is my conviction that in a globalized world human identity should serve as the moral trump card in relation to conflict situations. Of course, the optic of human identity can produce a variety of interpretations of a particular situation, and is not meant to eclipse other experienced identities. The Holocaust was a most horrifying instance of what the great Catholic monk, mystic, and writer, Thomas Merton, called the unspeakable. The memories of victimization can never function as a moral excuse for the victimization of another. Tragically, the unfolding of Israel’s quest for security and prosperity beneath the banner of Zionism has generated a narrative of severe Palestinian suffering taking multiple forms, ranging from the prolonged and acute vulnerability of statelessness and rightslessness to the humiliations of living decade after decade under harsh military rule in an increasingly apartheid setting.


            But our wider concern beyond the specifics of any given situation should also encompass the future of humanity. So long as ethnic, religious, and nationalist identities are given precedence in a world of inequality and critical scarcities of water, energy, food, and health, there will be oppression and widespread abuse. For the modern world the identity of the part, whether state, religion, or ethnicity, has consistently prevailed over the identity of the whole, whether that whole is understood to be humanity or world. As a result, globally reasonable policies to control global warming or world poverty or the instability of financial markets seem unattainable. Primacy accorded to the national interest continues to obstruct the fulfillment of the human interest.


            In earlier periods of history this kind of dispersal of authority was sustainable, although often cruel in maintaining hierarchies as during the colonial period and in relation to the annihilation of many indigenous peoples whose pre-modern wisdom has much to teach us about survival in the emergent post-modern world of scarcities and limits.


            At the same time, a plural world order allowed for diversities that were consistent with the variety of religions, civilizations, cultural traditions, and worldviews. Warfare and exploitation made such a world order morally deficient, but so were the envisioned alternatives associated with a global state or world government. A potential tyranny of the whole seemed to most of us worse than the anarchic failures arising in a world of sovereign states.


            Increasingly, conflict patterns based on the technologies of oppression and resistance are illustrating the menacing realities of a borderless world. Drones ignore borders. Cyber warfare is heedless of space. We cannot go on in  this manner much longer without bloodying our heads against the stone walls of history. We are living as a species on borrowed time. It is not the occasion for panic, but it is a time to recalibrate our relations with one another, with nature, with past and future, with this inevitable and mostly invisible transition of mentalities underway– from the enclosures and openings of a spatially oriented world of borders to the before and after of a temporally shaped world now and in the future beset by scarcities and limits.


            In such a global circumstance, human identity is not so much a choice as a destiny thrust upon us. It can produce a spectrum of responses. The tendency is to strengthen border controls, increase surveillance, indulge in blame games, and build high, electrified walls, making sovereign territory resemble at its best ‘a gated community’ of gargantuan proportions or at its worst ‘a maximum security prison.’ In this sense, the captivity of Gaza prefigures one kind of regressive future that resists the imperatives of a world of limits, seeking to lull us in the belief that we can remain safe in a world of borders.


            And so my orientation is in support of those who struggle against the odds, and for freedom, and it is in solidarity with those who believe that empathy and compassion bring greater security than guns and guard dogs. For me this means a celebration of human identity, and a citizenship that is derived primarily not from the blessings of a state or the sense of national belonging, but from the feeling that life is a journey toward a just and humane future, a pilgrimage endowed with spiritual significance throughout its unfolding. It is an engagement with impossible possibilities for the future, dreams and dramas of human fulfillment, and the person who fully endorses such a journey and the human identity that accompanies it is what I choose to call, and aspire to be:  ‘a citizen pilgrim.’

16 Responses to “On Human Identity”

  1. Fred Skolnik June 27, 2012 at 12:09 am #

    Just checking in to see if you are still fulminating against the State of Israel, and am not surprised to see that you are.

    Your misuse of the word apartheid with reference to Israel’s occupation of Judea and Samaria indicates either that you don’t know what the word means, or are not aware of the fact that the Arab inhabitants of Judea and Samaria are not citizens or residents of Israel but inhabitants of occupied territory and therefore no different in status from the Germans in Occupied Germany after World War II. The security fence, roadblocks and curfews in the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza are there to prevent terrorist acts. When the terrorism stops and the terrorist organizations are dismantled, they will disappear and the Palestinians will get their state.

    Your suggestion by juxtaposition that the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust somehow resembles the fate of the Palestinians under the Israeli occupation is dishonest and worse than contemptible.

    • imleif June 27, 2012 at 1:58 am #

      Mr Skolnik,

      Jewish occupation and annexation of Palestinian land through settlement is proof of victimization of Palestinians and systematically executed Zionistic policies. Your opinions and outrage are not based on the reality but on propaganda and one sided nationalism.

      I think you have “lost your human identity” and thus are proving Mr Falk’s point.

      • walker percy June 28, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

        It is interesting to watch the logical contortions of Israel “helpers” like Mr. Skolnik as they struggle to construct plausible explanations for Israeli aggression and war mongering at a time when the whole world is struggling and falling apart. We have much more serious problems facing the world than how to preserve the character of the Jewish state. Therefore, it is time to stop treating Israel like a special case, whose safety must be protected. The US must stop all payments to Israel as soon as Obama is re-elected.
        By the way, I like the way Mr. Skolnik closes with a nice holocaust shout out, just like in the hasbara handbook. When are these guys going to realize that the world is on to them. We know that there are rooms full of torah “students” in Judea and Samaria who need something while away their days…..

  2. Alicia June 27, 2012 at 12:14 am #

    Thank you for this wonderful reflection.

  3. monalisa June 28, 2012 at 2:41 am #

    Dear Richard,

    extraordinary and wonderful thoughts !

    Thank you,


  4. rehmat1 June 28, 2012 at 7:56 am #

    The terms such as ‘anti-Semitism’, ‘Holocaust’ and the Jewish ‘promised land’ are some of Zionists’ imperial tools to suppress the criticism of Israel’s Zionazi behavior.

    Shulamit Aloni, former Israeli cabinet minister, during her August 14, 2002 interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! said: “Well, it’s a trick, we always use it. When from Europe somebody is criticizing Israel then we bring up the holocaust. When in this country (US) people are criticizing Israel then they are antisemitic. And the organization (Israel Lobby) is very strong and has lot of money. And the ties between Israel and American Jewish establishment are very strong – and they are strong in this country as you know. And they have power which is ok”.

    The Israelite state of Judea and Samara along with its sister state of Israel – was wiped-off the map by Babylonian (Iraqis) many centuries before the birth of Christ. The children of those Israelites have long converted to Christianity and Islam – and replaced by Asiatic Khazar Turks in the 10th century AC.


  5. Ed Gordon June 28, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    Wonderful essay, Richard.

  6. monalisa June 28, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    Remark: Post Scriptum to my above expression:

    I think being already in the 21st century A.D. people should be aware of the fact, that religious leaders tend to intimitade its followers.

    Childen are usually nowadays (and centuries before !!) born into some religion. They aren’t asked whether they want to belong to this or that religion. The human brain takes about 21.6 years to develop representing a grown-up human being. So even asked at 14 or 16 years wouldn’t do good as especially these teen-age years are shaping the human brain in certain ways.

    From my own born-in religion, Roman-Catholic, I know how it works.
    Influence from childhood on by regular ‘religious education’ will do it so that as a grown-up it will become extremely difficult to loosen oneself from all these in the childhood brain sunken “formulas” telling us – usually as the big religions (and some smaller ones too !!) – people belonging to other religions are bad.
    That’s why some politicans like to use still nowadays the cloth of religion. It works very well to set peoples’ emotion into a certain direction.

    The other point is: mankind like to belong so some group. Religion is providing it. Race is providing it. Country is providing it.

    With education all these dangerous influences can be much more controlled and its fault lines clearly seen.


    • rehmat1 June 28, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

      Holy Qur’an says that every child is born to worship his/her Creator (Allah). It’s the parents and the society which turn the child into a Jew, Christian, Hindu or Atheist.

      On December 1, 2001, Zionist Jew Larry King, while interviewing Catholic priest, Rev. Michael Manning, on air – asked Manning: “How do you view Muhammad?” Manning, to great surprise to Larry replied: “As a very wise man. I see the beauty of Islam in very strong way. A simple approach to God. I’m very touched by five times prayers by Ramazan, by the fasting; the beautiful presence of God and the power of God. And as a Catholic I need to learn from that“. Watch the video below.


  7. Jacques d'Nalgar June 28, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    What a wonderful sentiment. I have not read such yearnings for a transition beyond nationalism since reading the pre-WW2 sermons of Harry Emerson Fosdick.

    • ridou July 4, 2012 at 4:19 am #

      Zionists are making all their efforts to associate antisemitism with anti-zionism, but I think since persons like R. Falk exist, the zionists will fail trying that.

  8. Levi July 31, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    I thought you might appreciate that Michael shared this particularly inspiring post with many Magi via email. He wrote: “Falk is the man. Let us all aspire to be a citizen pilgrim.”

  9. Beau Oolayforos November 22, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,
    When you speak about victimization never being an excuse for further victimization, you remind me of criminal defendants who plead prior abuse as extenuation for present acts. Whatever the morality of individual cases, it seems to me an interesting psychological dynamic, which might be driving, in a vastly expanded theater, Israeli cruelty, what Susan Abulhawa calls the “dreadful irony”.

  10. dcdave2u May 15, 2017 at 1:44 pm #

    “It was partly an exercise in self-discovery, and partly a response to those who alleged that I was a self-hating Jew…”

    Gilad Atzmon in “The Wandering Who” speaks of 3 main categories of those who call themselves Jews, and characterizes the third category as “problematic”:

    1. Those who follow Judaism.
    2. Those who regard themselves as human geings that happen to be of Jewish origin.
    3. Those who put their Jewish-ness over and above all of their other traits.

    One would have to be from that third category even to conceive of the notion or the term of “self-hating Jew.” It presupposes that one’s very selfhood is defined by his or her Jewishness, which is precisely the mentality of Atzmon’s category 3 individual. One’s membership in the Jewish tribe–whatever that might be–by this reasoning, is more self-defining than one’s membership in the human race. Richard Falk is clearly not a category 3.


  1. On Human Identity by Richard Falk | ikners.com - June 27, 2012

    […] On Human Identity(richardfalk.wordpress.com) […]

  2. TRANSCEND MEDIA SERVICE » On Human Identity - July 2, 2012

    […] Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).Go to Original – richardfalk.comClick to share this article: facebook | twitter | email. Click here to download this article as a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: