UCLA’s Jewish Studies Center honoring anti-Israel academic-boycott-loving Prof. Cornel West
It’s only been a few weeks since the last scandal and already UCLA is embroiled in yet another controversy over its alleged anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist campus climate.
Back in February, in an incident that generated media headlines and a tidal wave of condemnations, several student government leaders questioned sophomore Rachel Beyda’s eligibility for a seat on a council judicial board because of her Jewishness.
Legal Insurrection broke the story and had the good wisdom to cache the videotaped meeting. LI later provided the incriminating evidence to the media.
Now some faculty and community members are up in arms over a conference honoring the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), one of the preeminent Jewish theologians, public intellectuals, and civil rights activists of our time.
The conference, titled “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” will take place on the UCLA campus on May 3 and 4.
Sponsored by UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and co-sponsored by Hillel, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, the Center for the Study of Religion, and the Departments of History and English, the two-day conference brings 24 top-flight scholars to the UCLA campus.
It’s obvious that this is going to be a serious academic event, with a rigorous scholarly program and a star-studded guest speaker and panelist lineup.
Except that one of these academic superstars—Cornel West, a Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union Theological Seminary and Professor Emeritus, Princeton University—is also a notorious intellectual hero of the BDS movement and an outspoken critic of Israel.
And he’s been invited to give the keynote address.
So, not surprisingly, for the past few weeks some pro-Israel Jewish voices at UCLA and other activist organizations have been kicking up a fuss, outraged that West will be given a prominent campus platform.
They’ve been campaigning to have UCLA’s Jewish Studies Center rescind the invitation, or for West to withdraw.
Neither has budged.
West is still scheduled to speak tonight.
Cornel West: Intellectual Hero of the BDS Movement
An influential, albeit controversial, author and speaker on race in America and a leading civil rights activist, West’s inflammatory statements on Israel are legend.
In July, he posted on Facebook that “The Israeli massacre of innocent Palestinians, especially the precious children, is a crime against humanity!”.
Then there’s this gem from a February 25 interview at Stanford University with David Palumbo-Liu, published subsequently in Salon, where West promoted the academic and cultural boycott of Israel and characterized Gaza as “not just a ‘kind’ of concentration camp—it is the hood on steroids”.
West is also featured in a New York University Informational Packet, “Should NYU Divest? Labor, Fossil Fuels and Palestine,” that’s been circulating around that campus this spring. In it West appears along with seven other “individuals in academia” as “endorsing the call to boycott institutions, including academic institutions, complicit in Israeli abuses of human rights, either as individuals or through organizations”.
In the NYU document, a 2011 statement by West also shows that his animus towards Israel predates this summer’s Israel-Hamas war:
According to Professor Todd Samuel Presner, Chair of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies, and the primary sponsor of the conference, West’s hostile anti-Israel rhetoric and BDS activism isn’t germane to his suitability for the role of delivering Sunday’s opening remarks.
To his credit, Presner doesn’t try to “excuse, justify, or apologize” for West’s positions on Israel. In an opinion essay published last week in the Jewish Journal and in an interview with the paper, he readily acknowledges that “some of West’s language is not always precise and, indeed, is downright incendiary”.
But Presner insists that, when it comes to his knowledge and appreciation of Heschel’s “prophetic voice,” West will contribute more to the conference than the sum of his Israel-hating verbiage and BDS-supporting activities:
Based on twenty-five years of scholarly engagement with Heschel, we asked West to speak about the impact of Heschel’s ideas and activism, especially in the Civil Rights Movement. We did not invite him to speak about the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement (BDS) or to espouse a boycott of Israel or divestment”.
The Backlash to West’s May 3rd Keynote
In their rejoinders to Presner, his critics have argued that the issue isn’t whether West will stick to the script on Sunday’s keynote.
It’s about “what he represents”.
In an open letter to Presner published in the Times of Israel, 23 organizations representing hundreds of thousands of supporters and members wrote that:
In light of West’s history, inviting him to be the keynote speaker…is an affront to Jewish students and faculty at UCLA, as well as to the community members and organizations that support them. It is also a horrible perversion of the memory of Rabbi Heschel”.
Here’s a screen shot of the 23 organizations that were signatory to the April 24 open letter to Presner:
Judea Pearl—president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation and the Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science and Statistics at UCLA—has also weighed in, penning an open letter to West himself, and imploring that he recuse himself.
In Pearl’s words, “the keynote speaker at the Heschel memorial conference does not represent the ecumenical legacy of Rabbi Heschel…but the moral deformity of BDS”.
In their blog, Jewish community activists David A. Lehrer and Joe R. Hicks write that “It is insulting to memorialize Rabbi Heschel, a Jewish leader who extolled the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, with the likes of West”.
And UCLA’s Hillel, which is hosting portions of the conference, released a complimentary statement on the gathering while repudiating West’s participation as a keynote speaker:
We firmly reject and condemn West’s recent statements concerning Israel at Princeton and Stanford as libelous incitement. They are an affront to Rabbi Heschel’s pursuit of truth”.
Presner also says that he condemns West’s anti-Israelism—and his BDS advocacy. The homepage of his Center prominently rejects the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. And in his Jewish Journal opinion essay, Presner confirms that:
The UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies does not support the cultural or academic boycott of Israel (nor do I personally), as it undermines the fundamental principles of academic freedom and unilaterally imposes a punishment on an entire country, thereby stigmatizing and demonizing it”.
But Presner’s recent activities and his Twitter account (with 700+ followers) tell a somewhat different story.
UCLA’s Jewish Studies Center: Actively Opposing BDS?
A few weeks ago, and well before the recent brouhaha over West’s keynote, Presner made a minor academic splash by canceling a lecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UI-UC) planned for April 27—in protest over the rescinding of the Israel-hating Steven Salaita’s job offer there.
This week he’s been tweeting about his visit to UI-UC, where he’s conferring with fellow Jewish Studies scholars about academic freedom.
That’s all well and good.
But while there did he also discuss how Jewish Studies can remedy the fact that so many UI-UC faculty endorse the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, which if implemented, would prevent UI-UC academic departments from holding joint programs or official interactions with Israeli universities? Did he speak out against BDS while also advocating in defense of a colleague (Salaita) who wrote the playbook for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel?
According to one observer, probably not:
Since this past Tuesday, Presner has also been tweeting (a lot) about the release of the American Association of University Professors’ new Salaita report which comes down strongly against UI-UC for its actions.
So even if he says he doesn’t support BDS, you have to wonder: does he really oppose it with the same vigor with which he’s defending Salaita?
Presner also has a penchant for retweeting the anti-Zionist Electronic Intifada and, shockingly, his account includes one retweet of the notorious BDS hero and Israel-hating Max Blumenthal.
His Twitter account is also peppered with retweets from Jewish Voices for Peace, a pro-BDS organization that reportedly also enjoys working side-by-side with sketchy anti-Semites.
Of course, Presner can tweet and retweet whoever and whatever he wants.
But as the Director of UCLA’s Jewish Studies Center, you’d think that he’d at least occasionally try to disseminate through social media a wider range of people, organizations, and perspectives on Israel—and not only the writings of those people and groups that support the academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
You’d think he’d want to do that just to maintain the impression that the Center really is committed to stamping out the vilification of Israel on the UCLA campus.
You’d think he’d want to do it to reinforce that he really is who he says he is: an outright opponent of BDS.
Because based on these tweets, he sure seems like a BDS sympathizer.
I emailed Presner this week to get his position, and for clarification about how UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies is taking a stance to actively oppose the BDS academic and cultural boycott of Israel.
Presner replied yesterday with a detailed overview of his Center’s programs over the past several years, including talks and exhibitions, as well as courses. He noted that the Center regularly partners with Hillel and UCLA’s Israel Studies for campus-wide events, listing five speaker events for 2013 and 2014. He also pointed out that the Center routinely invites speakers and students from Israel and sends UCLA graduate students to Israel in a summer student-exchange program.
It shows that Presner is committed, through his Center’s sponsored and co-sponsored programming, to exposing UCLA students and the greater L.A. community to a diverse set of viewpoints on Israel.
We should be grateful.
Because, in a disturbing essay written after the Rachel Beyda scandal, UCLA’s Chancellor Professor Judea Pearl describes a faculty-endorsed anti-Israel campus climate that “has been fomenting at UCLA, largely unabated, for the past decade or so”.
As Pearl tells it, this virulently Israel-hating culture has empowered students to “harass Israel supporters with ideological impunity”. And it’s a culture that has encouraged students to:
adopt the cultural norms of BDS, according to which Jews should only gain social acceptance and student government credentials by joining the ‘indict-Israel’ circus, as some of their professors have chosen to do”.
In the coming years, Pearl is going to need all the help he can get to clean up this toxic anti-Zionist campus environment.
Luckily, it looks like he can count on the director of the Jewish Studies Center for support.
To be sure, inviting the Israel-demonizing boycotter Cornel West to deliver a major campus address may not have been the smartest move.
But one keynote doesn’t define a Center or its director, and the central question isn’t whether UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies hosts West, but whether other prominent voices who would offer counter-claims are also invited to speak. And here, Presner can’t be faulted.
Still, there’s those niggling tweets. Presner wrote me:
I would be careful of reading too much into my tweets. To date, I’ve retweeted exactly one tweet from Max Blumenthal (and it was on Cornel West’s timely response to Dyson). Yes, I retweet news on JVP often, especially when I think it’s newsworthy and missing in the mainstream news”.
But these days students take their cues from social media more than they do from just about anything else.
[Featured Image via Jewish Journal]
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Syracuse University.