Solidarity with Cornel West

Gage Skidmore

Cornel West

According to a statement from the Office of the Vice President, Harris and Netanyahu "noted their respective governments’ opposition to the International Criminal Court’s attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel." The State Department said Wednesday that it is opposed to the investigation, saying that the ICC had no jurisdiction.

Now you might ask why the Biden Administration has taken such a step to reassure Israel that international standards of human rights will be blocked by the United States which otherwise is complaining about human rights violations in Russia, China, and the list goes on.

And the answer is that this has been happening thru almost every presidency, for the past 50 years. If you think that this is simply to appeal to Jewish voters, think again. Most polls of Jews indicate that a very large percentage of Jews do not support Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. But there is an elite, both of Jews and non-Jews, the richest and most influential elites of capitalist society, that have determined that blind support for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is almost as important as that elite’s blind support for capitalism. That elite works thru both the Republican and the “moderate” wing Democratic Party, and it shapes most aspects of foreign policy and shapes the way media operates, particularly when touching issues connected to the Middle East and Israel. It is particularly startling when coming from the Biden Administration, since Netanyahu was the most outspoken extreme supporter of Trump, had signs all over Israel picturing himself with Trump, and encouraging religious Jews and right wing Jews in the U.S. to support Trump.  But in regard to their vital interests, Biden will pay most attention to the elites.

That elite was mostly trained at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, U of Chicago, and Stanford. So it was no surprise that they would have been particularly perturbed when the African American studies program at Harvard hired and gave tenure to Cornel West in the 1990s, and sent a message to the number one practitioner of neoliberalism and former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Sommers, who had become President of Harvard, the message to make Harvard free of this kind of a trouble-maker. Despite West having tenure, Sommers told Cornel West, the best known and most popular African American academic and public intellectual, whose national bestseller “Race Matters” had given African Americans a national intellectual figure, that he was spending too much of his time advancing a political agenda (Black liberation). West went to Princeton, and then to the Union Theological Seminary, in both places refining his critique of American racism and capitalism. But after Sommers left Harvard and West was yearning to teach the kind of intellectually curious students who he had taught at Harvard, he returned to Harvard on a non-tenure track job, but the faculty of Harvard appointed a committee to explore how to give respect to someone of West’s intellectual stature who had previously received tenure. That faculty committee recommended to the university that West be allowed to go thru the same kind of tenure review that other younger scholars have to go thru to achieve tenure. Given that recommendation, it was certain that he would be granted tenure. It was then that the Harvard administration intervened and decided to prevent that process for tenure to continue.

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What exactly were they afraid of? There were other faculty at Harvard who were radical (many of them denied tenure), but Cornel was not only challenging capitalism, he was also challenging Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, giving greater attention to the complaints of Palestinians living within Israel who had been demoted from equal citizens to a lower status in 2018 when the Knesset passed a new set of rules saying that Israel would no longer be a state of both Jews and non-Jews, but rather only THE JEWISH STATE. Facing the horrors of Trumpism in the U.S., many American Jews remained silent at this transformation and the commitment of the Netanyahu government to make much of the West Bank officially part of Israel, in the process inevitably displacing tens of thousands of Palestinians who lived there. But Cornel joined us at Tikkun and many other progressive organizations and publications challenging these moves by Israel. And given the strong showing by right wing forces in the Israeli election on March 23rd,  the direction of Israeli policies is likely to grow even more extreme.

Well, the ruling elites didn’t pay much attention to all of us progressive Jews, but it could not avoid the voice of Cornel West. He was teaching their children at Harvard, he was constantly on national tv and was being heard. It was no surprise then that acting thru the Administration of Harvard, they made their “concerns” known. Of course, many of us who lost our posts at universities or rabbinic jobs already know that this process is often implemented by good liberals who themselves know that if they don’t act to ease the problems created by those who speak too loudly or too frequently about Palestinian rights, they would lose their funding, or their synagogues would lose their funding. This, like critiquing capitalism itself, is an unsafe path.

Though this issue should concern anyone who cares about human rights, it is of particular concern to the Jewish world, and not only because Cornel West has been our ally, challenging anti-Semitism and joining us in our struggles for a more humane politics in the U.S. (and often ahead of us in challenging injustice all around the world). But the issue is our issue for Jews and non-Jews alike because our Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) repeatedly enjoins us to love and care for the stranger/other/geyr. It explicitly says, “when you come into your land, do not oppress the stranger—remember that you were the other/stranger in the land of Egypt".

Standing in solidarity with Cornel West is an important act of solidarity. Personally West will do fine. He is one of the most respected prophetic public intellectuals and will be going back to the Union Theological Seminary. He could have stayed at Harvard (but with no assurance that he wouldn’t be let go in a few years when the Harvard administration thought it the right moment to let him go0. The easy path would have been to let it all go and just quietly leave Harvard. But that would have left other less famous critics of racism and/or capitalism to face the powerful without the attention to these illegitimate processes that often endanger their careers in education. And then there was also the racial dimension. West explains that he could not let a proud black intellectual be treated with disrespect and pretend it didn’t happen. If he did, other universities around the country would likely follow suit with anyone who seemed to be a threat to the world of the powerful.

So we have to ask our friends in politics and academia to make public statements in solidarity with West and insisting that other academic institutions stop using political criteria to silence those who speak for the powerless. And that brings us back to a demand we should be making to the Biden/Harris  Administration. We should be urging them to use all the levers of power they have to push Israel to end to the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in one of two ways—either to help Palestinians create their own state or to give everyone living under Israeli military rule to be given equal rights with all other Israelis (including the rights given to Jewish citizens now living in the West Bank). Nothing happening in the Knesset election that just concluded will change any of those policies. So it is incumbent upon us to use our Passover seder tables, Easter celebrations, Ramadan, and/or other opportunities to renew our commitment for liberation for all people on the planet and to speak out in favor of a solution that preserves Israel while also treating the Palestinian people with the caring that all created in the image of God deserve as their birthright!


Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine www.tikkun.org, chair of the interfaith (and secular humanist and atheist-welcoming) Network of Spiritual Progressives, and author of 12 books including most recently Revolutionary Love: a Manifesto to Heal and Transform the World. His last national best-seller is called The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. Join the Network of Spiritual Progressives at www.spiritualprogressives.org.

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2 thoughts on “Solidarity with Cornel West

  1. I have often wondered why the Palestinians in the occupied territories were not accepted as Israeli citizens. I am not well versed or have any special interest in Israel only what has rubbed off on being a US citizen since birth in 1957. A friend said the reason they were kept separate was it would interfere with Israel’s status as a Jewish state because there are so many Palestinians, Jews would become a minority. As I understand the history when Israel started Palestinians were offered to stay but Arab countries told them they would be driven into the sea along with Israel so many left only to be kept in refugee areas in those same Arab countries. Then in 1968 Yom Kipper War territory was taken and not returned. The people in the territories were not automatically assimilated into Israel creating the current problem.
    Is this the basic story and in addition there have been attempts to make peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

  2. Thank you for this excellent article about Cornel West, and please note that Larry Summers spells his surname with an anglicized ‘u’, not to be confused with Sommer, my immigrant family name.

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