en Samuels interviewed Cornel West for Haaretz.Here are some highlights.
Harvard University refused to consider West for tenure – a decision he links to his support for Palestinian rights.
West tells Haaretz that while he believes his anti-occupation stance played a central role in the university’s decision, he feels bullish about how far pro-Palestinian activism has come over the past 40 years and where it’s heading.
He does not believe his public support for Sen. Bernie Sanders or Black Lives Matter was a deal breaker, “Then I thought of the Palestinian issue and the Israeli occupation – now that is a taboo,” West says.
“I begin to see a pattern and hear the different stories of folks being weary of any critique of Israeli occupation,” West says. “What’s happening now in this reactionary moment in both the United States and Israel – our gangster is gone, yours is still in place – [is that] the neoliberal hegemony in the universities is still very reluctant to have a robust, respectful, free dialogue on what’s going on, past and present, when it comes to Israeli and Palestinian issues,” he adds.
West, who will now join the faculty at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, describes his claims as “a hypothesis based on evidence,” adding that he’s sure there were other issues influencing his particular case.
West describes the support he has received as overwhelming, and that the Ivy League school’s decision backfired on them. “I don’t think they had planned on this, I really don’t,” he says, adding that the support he has received could influence similar events in the future.
He is careful to note that he is in solidarity with anybody tracking anti-Jewish hatred, but says that criticism of Israel does not correlate with such prejudice. “I can understand some suspicions people have where critiques of Zionism shade into anti-Jewish hatred. We can have none of the latter, we need to have a serious discourse on the former. I don’t really get upset when folks say ‘Brother West, you know, you strike me as antisemitic.’ Let’s sit down and let me tell you why I’m not. I won’t brush it off and act as if it’s irrelevant,” West says.
“Many of us can argue some very important points, and very compelling conclusions of critiques of Israeli occupation, that have nothing to do whatsoever with anti-Jewish prejudice. It’s a moral and spiritual issue across the board, and one tries to be consistent in that regard,” West says. “That argument, unfortunately, doesn’t resonate among a significant slice of my Jewish brothers and sisters.”
One such critic is Harvard Hillel Executive Director Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg, who recently accused the “shameful” West of “egging students on” in “scapegoating and demonizing” Jewish people.
“I told the rabbi, ‘It’s clear you don’t understand me. Let’s have a jam session. Let’s go at it, that’s what students need. Not just at Harvard, but anywhere and everywhere.”Said and Chomsky
Despite the events surrounding his departure, West believes the debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has evolved exponentially over the past several decades. He recalls that he, the late Palestinian academic Edward Said and renowned linguist Noam Chomsky were essentially “voices in the wilderness” when they protested in front of The New York Times, attempting to get them to use the word “occupation” and leading protests against Israel’s actions in the first Lebanon war in 1982.
“Edward was viciously attacked; they would have security and police in front of his office” at Columbia University, West recounts. “When I think of where we are now, it’s a very different moment owing to their sacrifices. To go from where we were 1980 to 2021, I see unbelievable progress.”
West, who describes himself as “a prisoner of hope,” calls Said and the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel his spiritual forebears, despite their seemingly disparate connections.“There’s a crucial overlap between their legacies,”
West adds: “I have both of them inside of me – a free, Jesus-loving Black man. I come out of Martin Luther King Jr., John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin. I add something else that Heschel didn’t have and Said didn’t have, but we overlap as a threesome.”
West highlights the growing demand from students to engage with these issues as perhaps the most important development in the pro-Palestinian movement, specifically noting the IfNotNow progressive Jewish organization. “The students are now hungry and thirsty. They’re awakened and it’s setting in – but it’s not spilling over to too many on the faculty,” West says.
“You could hardly get a faculty member to raise a public voice being critical of Israeli occupation, they’re scared,” West charges. “There’s this fear among the faculty, and among the staff.”When asked if his falling out with Harvard could dissuade others from speaking out, he says it cuts both ways. “It would scare some, but for others it could make them think about their fear and become more bold.”
He continues: “Palestinian students would look for faculty advisers and hardly anyone would come forth. I said, ‘I would, sure.’ We had some very intense dialogues in the years I was here, we’ve had at least three death threats and all the things that go along with those kinds of events.”
West recounts how he would start each gathering by saying, ‘This is a spiritual and moral issue. There’s wholesale internationalism with occupations all around the world. We are concerned about structures of domination wherever they are, we’re talking tonight about this particular occupation and we do not tolerate any anti-Jewish sentiment, prejudice, hatred or contempt.’ And if it spills over, human beings are human beings and we point it out.”
He believes the debate about Palestinian rights will continue to trend in what he calls the proper direction. “To use Harvard’s motto, it cannot but be a move toward veritas, toward truth, and the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. It’s harder for defenders of Israel who act as if the occupation either doesn’t exist or is some tertiary element, and therefore overlook the suffering and social misery of Palestinians. Their position is increasingly weaker, and this situation reveals this,” he says.
I know 2,000 years of history of being hated and haunted. I know the history of pogroms and ghettoization and the Shoah. I’m deeply committed to Jewish security and justice, but you can’t predicate Jewish security on domination and occupation. That’s basic 101 history. Sooner or later, chickens come home to roost.”
West is further reminded of his activism on South Africa when he considers the controversy surrounding the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, for which he has long been one of its most notable proponents.
“I understand BDS as very similar to the boycott vis-à-vis South African apartheid“Go back to Martin King’s Montgomery boycott – he was not hating the white brothers and sisters, he was hating American apartheid and Jim Crow and Jane Crow,” he notes. “As soon you mention BDS in the United States, oftentimes hatred and contempt come up rather than love and justice. And it’s very difficult to have a conversation on that issue.”
West stresses that his desire to be morally consistent is what he hopes his skeptics understand about him. “When I talk about my deep love for Palestinian brothers and sisters, it always goes hand-in-hand with a deep love of Jewish brothers and sisters. But when you’re consistent, it means that you’re always willing to be trashed, misunderstood, misconstrued – you’re willing to pay that cost,” he says.
“I’m following a Palestinian Jew named Jesus; I’m not on Pontius Pilate’s payroll. I’m never surprised by evil or paralyzed by despair. I’m having a good time. I do it with joy and a smile on my face, and whatever style I can preserve.”