Truth-teller Cornel West stands up to Israel lobby bullies

Cornel West (Bradley Siefert/Flickr)

Cornel West has hit back at criticism from anti-Palestinian organizations and Obama supporters who have tried to smear and silence him – including by citing a fabricated quote.

This comes as the Jewish studies center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), has rejected calls to cancel a high-profile lecture by West because of his support for Palestinian rights.

“The escalating deaths and sufferings in Black and poor America and the marvelous new militancy in our Ferguson moment should compel us to focus on what really matters,” West, a celebrated public intellectual and professor emeritus of African American studies at Princeton University, wrote in a message on his Facebook page: “The life and death issues of police murders, poverty, mass incarceration, drones, TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] (unjust trade policies), vast surveillance, decrepit schools, unemployment, Wall Street power, Israeli occupation of Palestinians, Dalit resistance in India and ecological catastrophe.”

“Character assassination is the refuge of those who hide and conceal these issues in order to rationalize their own allegiance to the status quo,” West continued in an apparent, though indirect, reference to recent attacks that have targeted him personally.

These have included, most prominently, an essay in the conservative magazine The New Republic by Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, accusing West of being too harsh in his criticism of the administration of President Barack Obama.

Rather than refuting West’s often searing critiques of Obama’s policies, Dyson pathologizes West in personal terms for “narcissism” and “self-destructive hate.”

In a powerful analysis at Alternet, Max Blumenthal argues that Dyson’s hit piece is motivated in part by the Democratic Party establishment’s desire to suppress the radical organizing around the country that West has tirelessly championed.

Targeted by Israel lobby

It is notable that West, unlike the overwhelming majority of public figures in the United States, has been forthright in criticizing Obama’s support for Israel’s massacre in Gaza, and recently urged Princeton University to divest from companies complicit in Israeli human rights crimes.

“[Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu is a war criminal not because he’s Jewish but because he has chosen to promote occupation and human annihilation,” West said at a mass rally during the Israeli attack on Gaza, in Washington, DC, last August.

“Barack Obama is a war criminal, not because he’s Black or half African and white but because his drones have killed 233 innocent children and because he facilitates the killing of innocent Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank,” West added.

It is precisely because of his support for the Palestinian struggle that West has also become a target of Israel lobby groups.

Pressure to cancel UCLA lecture

UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies has rejected pressure to disinvite West from giving a lecture on the legacy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on 3 May.

“It is with dismay that we have been confronted by the outrageous pronouncements of Cornel West, a keynote speaker at the Heschel Conference,” Hillel at UCLA said in a statement that called West’s views on Israel “an affront to Rabbi Heschel’s pursuit of truth.”

Hillel, a national network of campus centers for Jewish students, staunchly opposes the Palestinian-led movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel and works to silence critics of Israeli policies in Palestine.

“No matter how eloquent your speech and how crafty your words, the audience you will face at UCLA will not be able to take them too seriously in light of your recent decision to become a leading propagandist for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement,” Judea Pearl, a UCLA professor and president of the pro-Israel Daniel Pearl Foundation, wrote in an open letter to West in Jewish Journal.

But Todd Samuel Presner, director of the Center for Jewish Studies, rejected the attacks and affirmed that the invitation to West would not be withdrawn.

In an article in Jewish Journal, Presner took issue with some of West’s views and affirmed that neither he nor his center supports the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

“At the same time, the center does not apply a political litmus test to potential speakers, faculty, students or members of the general public,” Presner wrote. “At a university committed to academic freedom, we do not insist that our speaker’s views be aligned with our own.”

Presner also noted West’s long engagement with the work of Heschel, a leading twentieth century American Jewish philosopher.

Both Presner and West have recently canceled appearances at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign over its firing of Steven Salaita.

Fabricated quote

Presner also points out an apparently fabricated quotation that has been used to attack West.

“The Israeli occupation of my Palestinian brothers and sisters is a crime against humanity,” The Times of Trenton claimed West said at a Princeton panel where he endorsed divestment, “They are killing hundreds daily – but where are the voices?”

“To the best of my knowledge, the claim appears to be invented by Kevin Cheng, a reporter who covered West’s participation in the 8 April 2015 event,” Presner writes.

Presner points to a video of the panel at which “West speaks of his ‘moral outrage’ against what he sees to be ‘a crime against humanity,’ referencing the deaths of 500 children during the fifty-day Israel-Gaza conflict of 2014.”

“Yes, this is highly impassioned language, but the facts are not, according to many credible accounts, inaccurate,” Presner states.

The false claim that West accused Israel of killing hundreds daily – and Dyson’s hit piece – were both cited in another Jewish Journal article denouncing UCLA’s invitation to the professor.

At about 2:00 into the video of the Princeton panel, West says: “The Israeli occupation, the vicious Israeli occupation of my Palestinian brothers and sisters, for me, is a crime against humanity. Killing two thousand folk within fifty days, 500 babies. Something is not just wrong, but where are the voices?”

The panel, organized by Princeton Divests, also featured Princeton professors Robert Tignor, Molly Greene and Max Weiss, alumnus and anti-apartheid campaigner Larry Hamm and Goliath author Max Blumenthal.

“Neither saint nor prophet”

“I am neither a saint nor prophet, but I am a Jesus-loving free Black man in a great tradition who intends to be faithful unto death in telling the truth and bearing witness to justice,” West says in his Facebook posting.

“I am not beholden to any administration, political party, TV channel or financial sponsor because loving suffering and struggling peoples is my point of reference. Deep integrity must trump cheap popularity. Nothing will stop or distract my work and witness, even as I learn from others and try not to hurt others.”

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Comments

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thanks for the blog piece. the issues are what matter, and US support for ethnic cleansing is the issue.
the "hit" piece on West is just a long tantrum. who cares if West mistakenly supported Obama? who cares if West's mom isn't a Marxist? (that made me laugh) Larry Summers is a zionist, and so is Obama. West isn't, and neither are most Americans. the Democrats should be talking about Baltimore right now as well as the ongoing slaughter of humans by US weapons, but they write idiotic "hit" pieces instead. we really need a new political system.

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It's a thrill-a-minute living in a "democracy" like the US where you can
say what you want, believe as you wish...

I would like to be the First Anti-Zionist President of the US, but I am
too old and too poor," (Don't we believe in the famous "separation of
Church and State"?)

----Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

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Ali you have every right to see it as you do, say it as you choose and defend the right of Cornell West to speak on behalf of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at UCLA or anyplace else. Dr. West both has great vision and is a provocateur on behalf of human rights. Many times he has placed his finger directly on the pulse of the nation as it struggles over issues of civil rights and public wrongs. I have not read Dr. Dyson's article or Max Blumenthal's rejoinder as yet, but I do believe that you have twisted information through labeling and like almost all smart writers, (sometime even me), edited the copy to accentuate your positives and underline your negatives. There are lots of reasons to be for or against BDS. I often state a simple reason for my opposition: It will not work!

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Cornel West reminds me of Erich Mühsam.

Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.