February 15, 2019

UCLA Jewish Studies head stands behind keynote invitation to Cornel West for Heschel conference

Amidst objections from some leading Jewish voices at UCLA to an invitation to Cornel West—an author, academic and an outspoken critic of Israel—to serve as the keynote speaker at an upcoming UCLA conference to honor the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Todd Presner, director of UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, said Tuesday he does not plan to rescind the invitation.

West is set to speak at UCLA at the May 3 conference titled “Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity” organized by the Jewish Studies department. He’s then scheduled to be on a panel—moderated by Presner—with Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. and Heschel’s daughter, Susannah. West is an admirer and reader of Heschel and, according to an article in The Jewish Week in 2013, has described the rabbi as “a soul mate, part of my heart, mind, soul and witness.”

West has also in recent months spoken out in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and is a fierce critic of Israel, drawing the ire of pro-Israel supporters. In July, during the middle of Israel’s war with Hamas, he posted on Facebook, “The Israeli massacre of innocent Palestinians, especially the precious children, is a crime against humanity!”

In a February interview at Stanford University, published in Salon, West characterized the Gaza Strip as “not just a ‘kind of’ concentration camp—it is the hood on steroids.”

Judea Pearl, president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation and a UCLA professor, wrote an ” target=”_blank”>wrote on their blog, The Wide Angle, “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.”

On Tuesday, the leadership of Hillel at UCLA released a statement extolling the conference but condemning West:

“It is with dismay that we have been confronted by the outrageous pronouncements of Cornel West, a keynote speaker at the Heschel Conference,” the statement read in part. “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.”

In an interview Tuesday with the Journal, Presner said that while he doesn’t “excuse, justify, or apologize” for West’s positions on Israel, his invitation to West remains in place.

“We may have pressure to rescind the invitation but that’s not the plan,” Presner said. “We didn’t ask him to come to UCLA to espouse a particular political position or platform—we asked him to talk about Heschel and the relationship to the civil rights movement.”

“West is one of 26 people that we asked to come to UCLA to speak about Heschel,” Presner said. “I think it’s important to realize we have 25 other [speakers].”

Presner was also in the news in late March, when he informed officials at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that he was canceling his planned speech there on the Holocaust on April 27, saying he would not speak at the school until its chancellor, Phyllis Wise, is no longer in charge. 

Presner’s decision came in response to the school's