Why did we invite Cornel West?

Based on twenty-five years of scholarly engagement with Heschel, we asked [Cornel] 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.
April 22, 2015

The UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, together with Hillel at UCLA, the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion, and the UCLA departments of History and English, invited Dr. Cornel West (Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice, Union Theological Seminary and Professor Emeritus, Princeton University) to give a keynote address at our upcoming conference honoring the life, thought, and legacies of Abraham Joshua Heschel. 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 conference organizers decided to put his keynote address in conversation with Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr., one of the leaders of nonviolent protest during the Student Movement and Freedom Rides who was deeply influenced by Heschel, and Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth. You can find the whole conference program, with all 24 speakers, here. 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. At the same time, the Center does not apply a political litmus test to potential speakers, faculty, students, or members of the general public.  At a university committed to academic freedom, we do not insist that our speaker’s views be aligned with our own.  We don’t censor or suppress speech, nor do we irresponsibly trumpet one side. Debate, dialogue, difference, and dissent are as central to Jewish values as they are to a thriving democracy. They are the core values that the Center upholds.

Permit me to take a longer look at some of West’s speech. As one of America’s most public intellectuals and outspoken civil rights activists, West has been engaging seriously with Heschel for more than two decades. In 1992, twenty years after the death of Heschel, West commemorated Heschel’s prophetic voice in a profound and moving conversation with Ismar Schorsch, then the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. West notes how hard it is to hear Heschel’s prophetic voice because of his bold call for “empathy and sympathy” with the humanity of other people, with the suffering and grief of others.  In 2004, West spoke of Heschel as “the towering prophetic figure of the 20th century” and described the willingness of the prophet to listen to the cry of all of God’s people. He pointed out the internationalism of Heschel’s critiques of injustice, including his indictment of America in the Vietnam War. As recently as 2014, West has argued that the Black prophetic tradition – from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King, Jr, Ella Baker, and Ida B. Wells – is infused with the fire of the Hebrew prophets. The Black prophetic tradition is “a message for the country and the world,” one which “has tried to redeem the soul of our fragile democratic experiment” through its commitment to the poor, to working class people, to the weak, and to “the plight of the wretched of the earth” (West, Black Prophetic Fire, 2014). For many Jews and non-Jews, Heschel remains an abiding inspiration.

Recalling Heschel and the history of civil rights activism, I am reminded of the famous photograph taken on March 21, 1965, at the start of the Selma-Montgomery Civil Rights March. In it, Martin Luther King, Jr. is linked hand-in-hand with Ralph Abernathy, Ralph Bunche, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — a testament to the reality of the interfaith, interracial alliances fighting for civil rights in America. For Heschel, the march was not only a pivotal political protest (which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act); he considered the very act of marching in solidarity to be imbued with religious prophecy from the activist Judaic tradition.  As always, Heschel’s guidance came from the prophets in the Hebrew Bible who fought for justice and sought out righteousness and kindness through a burning compassion for the oppressed. When King wrote about the Hebrew prophets the following year, he said that they “were needed today because we need their flaming courage. We need them because the thunder of their fearless voices is the only sound stronger than the blasts of bombs and the clamor of war hysteria” (King, “My Jewish Brother!”). Heschel knew that King’s dream was about decency and dignity for all people, a dream of fighting against the persistence of “racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism” (King, “A Testament of Hope”). In fact, as West reminds us many times over, Heschel thought that “the whole future of America will depend upon the impact and influence of Dr. King.” 

In a recent anthology edited and introduced by West on some of King’s writings, West writes that “the radical King looked at Jews through the lens of precious peoples terrorized, traumatized, and stigmatized for more than two thousand years. … There is no doubt that King supported Zionism—the Jewish quest for self-determination—yet he did not live long enough to witness a vicious Israeli occupation that terrorizes, traumatizes, and stigmatizes precious Palestinians. King’s commitment to the security of Israel was absolute—and rightly so. If he had lived, his commitment to the dignity of and justice for the Palestinians would be absolute—and rightly so. He would condemn Israeli state terrorism and Palestinian terrorism, and reject both anti-Arab racism and anti-Jewish racism” (West, The Radical King, 2015). How are we to hear this message and voice?  It is West, reflecting on King, reflecting on Heschel, reflecting on the Hebrew prophets today. For many, it is a profoundly uncomfortable reflection because it imagines a world of justice and peace beyond the absolute dichotomies of friend and foe, self and other, Jew and Palestinian. 

It is also true that West has said much more inflammatory things about the Israeli occupation and the leadership of the United States and of Israel. Some of his harshest language is pointed toward the United States (the prison industrial complex, police violence, racial and class segregation), while also recalling the global dimensions of oppression and anti-colonial movements. Unlike many BDS advocates, West does not have an exclusive focus on Israel and has been critical of the human rights records of other countries, including the occupation of the Tibetan people by China and the occupation of Kashmir by India, as well as the treatment of the poor in Mexico and the United States.  He has also been a vocal critic of speech against the Israeli occupation degenerating into anti-Semitism. 

But some of West’s language is not always precise and, indeed, is downright incendiary.  In an interview with Salon, for example, West said: “Gaza is not just a ‘kind of’ concentration camp, it is the hood on steroids.” As a scholar of the Holocaust and historian of German Jewry, I take grave exception with this facile equation of Gaza with a concentration camp and condemn such a thoughtless remark that would diminish the significance and horror of the Holocaust.

Another example, which has gone viral, is a recent statement attributed to West at Princeton University: the Israelis “are killing hundreds daily – but where are the voices?” If true, West needs to be held accountable for the baselessness of this claim. But to the best of my knowledge, the claim appears to be invented by Kevin Cheng, a reporter who covered West’s participation in the April 8, 2015, event. In a video of the speech he gave, 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.  What has happened to our capacity to empathize with suffering and sympathize with all families who have lost children, Palestinian and Jewish?  Heschel provides us with guidance to answer these questions with honesty. 

I don’t know what West is going to say when he comes to UCLA on May 3rd. Perhaps his words will infuse me with inspiration, perhaps they will infuse me with indignation, or perhaps with both. In any case, I am going to listen attentively. I will, then, engage him respectfully and honestly, and I hope that he will do the same with me, with Professor Susannah Heschel and with Reverend James Lawson.

Heschel gives us the moral direction to think and act beyond war, to engage with Judaism through the urgency of justice for all victims of oppression.  The Hebrew prophets provide the moral compass through the “thunder of their fearless voices.” How do we attune ourselves to their voices by seeking justice and relieving the oppressed (to echo Isaiah)?  It was Heschel who hauntingly said: “Judaism without a soul is as viable as a man without a heart.”  Perhaps it’s time to reckon with this truth again.


Todd Samuel Presner is Director of the Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies and Professor of Germanic Languages and Comparative Literature, UCLA

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