Cornel West and Stealth Anti-Semitism at Harvard
Welcome to the moral trap for Israel-haters.
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.
As evidence of what the late Professor Edward Alexander has called “the explosive power of boredom” in rousing the liberal professoriate to its ideological feet, Harvard’s own Harvard Divinity School professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, Cornel West, recently wondered out loud why the university might have denied him tenure. His explanation: that because he is a relentless critic of Israel, and because he thinks so highly of his academic accomplishments and record, it must be his pro-Palestinian leanings that spooked the Harvard committee making his tenure decision. "This is my hypothesis,” West said, “because given the possibilities of why they would not be even interested in initiating a tenure process, what else it could be?”
Ignoring the possibility, of course, that the reason he was not offered tenure has more to do with his uneven academic reputation and credibility than with his criticism of the Jewish state, West conjured up a familiar trope of Jew-haters: that if you condemn Israel and denounce its policies and behavior, you potentially have to pay a high reputational price. “The problem is that [critiquing Israel] is a taboo issue among certain circles in high places,” West said. “It is hard to have a robust, respectful conversation about the Israeli occupation because you are immediately viewed as an anti-Jewish hater or [having] anti-Jewish prejudices.
Criticism of Zionism and Israel is, of course, an issue about which Professor West and others have many notorious opinions, but which are being threatened, in his view, through the suppression of Palestinian solidarity and an unrelenting cataloging of the many predations of Israel. Professor West’s implication is that on this one issue—criticism of Israel—the sacrosanct notion of “academic freedom” is being threatened by those pro-Israel opponents who wish to stifle any and all speech critical of the Jewish state. West goes even further, suggesting that Jewish power “among certain circles in high places”—and those who are afraid of it on the Harvard campus—is so pervasive and influential that it shapes tenure decisions and plays a role on who advances academically and who does not.
West is caught in a moral trap in which many critics of Israel now find themselves, particularly as universities and other organizations adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism. One of the sections of the definition says that those who “claim that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” are anti-Semitic, a point which, naturally, causes great discomfort for West and his fellow travelers on race-obsessed campuses who now frame the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a contemporary example of racism—even manifested as alleged apartheid in Israel’s supposed racist treatment of “brown” Palestinian Arabs. If it is now deemed anti-Semitic to refer to Zionism as racism, then West, naturally, has to reject any definition of anti-Semitism that would accuse him of expressing it.
The IHRA definition does not criminalize speech; what it does do, however, is enable university leaders to reject false claims that virulent anti-Israel activism is simply “criticism of Israel,” and call it what it is and what its pernicious effects are: that if the behavior of individuals on campus involves “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” and “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel”—opinions and accusations that West has himself expressed and which regularly animate the ideology of anti-Israel campus activists—then those expressions are not mere political commentary but are, in fact, anti-Semitic.
In 2014, for example, as Israel was conducting Operation Protective Edge against Hamas as a result of the terrorist group’s bothersome habit of showering Southern Israeli towns with rockets and mortars in an ongoing campaign to murder Jews, West astoundingly described the operation as “Israeli state terrorism in action and its Jewish racism in motion.”
At the same time, West was careful to sidestep any comments that might be perceived to be anti-Jewish even while he outrageously asserted that “[Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu is a war criminal not because he is Jewish but because he has chosen to promote occupation and annihilation."
More recently, West was a featured speaker at a February 2020 event entitled “Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine,” an event which called on Harvard to “Disclose direct and indirect investments in companies complicit in human rights abuses towards Palestinians” and to “Divest all direct and indirect holdings in these companies,” claiming that “Palestinians live under apartheid” and that the “recent ‘peace’ plan proposed by the Trump administration legitimizes this occupation of Palestinian land and restricts 4 million Palestinians to mere slivers of land simply because they are not Jewish.”
West, of course, is conflicted because he must deal with competing victimhoods: one is his own as a black man and the other is that of Jews for their historical and chronic persecution and the continuing existence of anti-Semitism as manifested in enmity toward the Jew of nations, Israel. How, then, do you deprive Jewish Israelis of the insulation of victimhood? By accusing them of being racists. By claiming that they maintain and utilize a system of apartheid against the ever-aggrieved Palestinians. By accusing them of being guided by the racist ideology of Zionism and employing it as weapon through which an indigenous people are subjugated, ethnically cleansed, and exterminated as part of the pursuit of a Greater Israel free of any non-Jewish, brown people. By suggesting, grotesquely, that they are the modern incarnation of the Third Reich, Nazi-like in their behavior towards the Palestinians.
Others at Harvard participate in the campaign to delegitimize and slander Israel and, like West, they seek to malign the Jewish state and Zionism but also wish to not be characterized as anti-Semites when their ideas and behavior are judged by the IHRA definition. To game the system by which they will be exposed as bigots, anti-Israel activists resist any attempt to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, and they wish to continue their incessant slandering of Israel without having to answer back to those pro-Israel individuals who call them on their attitudes. They wish to loathe and denounce the Jewish state and Jewish self-determination but not be called anti-Semites.
While West suggested that his criticism of Israel cost him his tenure bid when Jews had him punished him for his alleged bigotry, others at Harvard, such as members of the board of the Harvard Technology Review (HTR), of all things, wish to delineate very clearly what they believe to be the vast difference between Zionism-hatred and Jew-hatred, even though such subtleties are lost on the targets of that bigotry: Jews themselves.
This summer, in response to the racial hysteria that engulfed campuses in the wake of the George Floyd death in Minneapolis, the HTR board proposed establishing a fellowship, jointly with the Harvard Black Students Association (BSA) with the purpose of having the fellow “critically engage with the intersection of systemic anti-Blackness and technology” and “to use that as a segue to discuss broader issues of racial bias in technology. . . .”
A pro-Israel HTR board member pointed out that Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and the Allied Media Projects, two groups which were potential donors for the fellowship, both had records of maligning Israel and supporting the BDS campaign which seeks the elimination of Israel. Additionally, it was explained, a proposed speaker for an HTR event, Dr. Melina Abdullah, co-founder of the Los Angeles Black Lives Matter chapter, had “actively promoted anti-Semitic violence.”
In response to the board member’s observations about potential anti-Semitism seeping into HTR activities and the fellowship specifically, the board, along with some 30 other Harvard- and non-Harvard related organizations, in a veritable love-in of intersectionality, created a stern document, “HTR Summer Fellowship Must Take an Anti-Zionist Stance,” which not only rejected the pro-Israel board member’s suggestions, but committed the board and other groups to an even more energized and proactive anti-Israel campaign—as if that is the expected and appropriate role of a technology journal.
Central to the heated response was the notion that, as many Jew haters now contend, denouncing Zionism has nothing to do with Jew-hatred, nothing at all. “Zionism is not Judaism,” the document categorically announces, and “[o]pposing Zionism must be a central tenant [sic] in any anti-racism work,” presumably part of the mission of a tech journal. And in case anyone was unclear about the inherent and fundamental evils of Zionism, the document further explained that “Zionism is unquestionably a racist, sectarian, exclusionary, Jewish-supremacist political ideology that has dispossessed, displaced, and ethnically cleansed Indigenous Palestinians from their lands for over three generations.”
Anticipating the clause in the IHRA definition that that specifically links anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism, the HTR document conveniently rejects this notion completely, suggesting that “we cannot treat as respectable the false, ahistorical, intellectually dishonest, and dangerous assertion that criticism of Zionism is equatable [sic] to antisemitism.”
Repeating the lie as fact that Israel maintains a racist social structure and practices apartheid, the activists announce that “The fact that Israel is an apartheid state must not be up for debate, lest we descend into the perilous waters of moral relativism, disinformation, and mendacity.” It would be very convenient for these Israel-haters to not have to debate their position and to have the apartheid charge be accepted as fact whenever it is leveled against Israel, and so the suggestion here is that since they believe it to be true, and have stated it in no uncertain terms, there is no reason to evaluate the truthfulness of the charge or to permit opposing, pro-Israel views to be heard.
If Zionism is so fundamentally evil, and if tolerant and woke people like themselves feel compelled to “smash Zionism,” then boycotts to weaken and destroy Israel are not only not anti-Semitic, it is felt, but necessary, and no one should judge BDS efforts to be anti-Semitic, either in intent or effect, as former Harvard president Lawrence Summers once put it. “Again,” the document stresses, “the conflation of boycotting Zionism with antisemitism is both dangerous and disingenuous.”
It may give Professor West comfort thinking that his academic advancement at Harvard was compromised by powerful and influential Jews who wished to punish him for his criticism of Zionism, Israel, and the moral complicity of Jews who support the Jewish state. West’s accusation that Jewish interests blocked his tenure bid, not on its own merits, but in a furtive attempt to stifle criticism of Israel is also consistent with a pattern that David Hirsh of Engage in Britain has termed the “Livingstone Formulation,” part of which is “the counteraccusation that the raisers of the issue of antisemitism do so with dishonest intent, in order to de-legitimize criticism of Israel. The allegation is that the accuser chooses to ‘play the antisemitism card’ rather than to relate seriously to, or to refute, the criticisms of Israel.”
West and the HTR board members and their supporters may want to sever Judaism from Zionism and loathe and attack the latter while claiming to respect the former, but it is not up to anti-Semites to define their own bigotry. The IHRA definition helps in the effort to identify and denounce anti-Semitism where and when it shows itself, and while those who hate Jews, Zionism, and Israel will still be free to express their enmities, but others can, and should, be able to call them out for being the bigots that they are.
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