During the two weeks leading up to a major conference at UCLA to honor the late rabbi and civil rights leader Abraham Joshua Heschel, controversy swirled around one of the event’s two keynote speakers — Cornel West — an outspoken academic who severely criticized Israel during its war last summer with Hamas.
At the May 3-4 conference titled “Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity” however, celebration of Heschel took precedence over the dispute of the preceding weeks.
The controversy gained steam on April 21, when Hillel at UCLA’s executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, and incoming executive director, Rabbi Aaron Lerner, released a statement sharply condemning West’s statements on Israel, but they stopped short of calling for a revocation of his invitation. Hillel at UCLA was a co-sponsor of the conference and a host for many of its May 3 sessions.
West, a longtime admirer of Heschel — he called the rabbi a “soul mate” during his May 3 keynote — posted on Facebook in July 2014, “The Israeli massacre of innocent Palestinians, especially the precious children, is a crime against humanity!” In February at Stanford University, he called the Gaza Strip “not just a kind of concentration camp — it is the ’hood on steroids.” West also supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
Heschel was a passionate supporter of Israel — his book “Israel: An Echo of Eternity” is widely regarded as a classic.
After Hillel at UCLA’s condemnation of West’s statements, Judea Pearl, president of the Daniel Pearl foundation and a UCLA professor, wrote an op-ed in the Jewish Journal calling on West not to come (but he did not call on event organizers to revoke their invitation), and 23 Jewish and pro-Israel groups wrote an open letter to conference organizer Todd Presner, the director of UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, saying that the invitation to West was an “affront to Jewish students and faculty at UCLA” and a “horrible perversion” of Heschel’s memory.
Nevertheless, on April 21, Presner made clear in an interview with the Journal that he would not revoke West’s invitation, explaining he had invited West to talk not about Israel but about Heschel and his involvement in the civil rights movement. Introducing West at the conference’s keynote on May 3, Presner told the crowd of about 300, “I’ve never quite worked on an event that has gone to this level of international attention, interest and scrutiny.”
In an op-ed in the Journal, Presner also explained his refusal to revoke West’s invitation, saying that his department, along with Hillel at UCLA, UCLA’s departments of African American Studies, history and English, and the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion had jointly invited West to give the keynote.
Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a professor at Dartmouth College and a main attraction at the conference, told the Journal in a telephone interview during the week before the conference that the event had been in the works for two years and that “at the time Cornel West was invited, he was not supporting BDS — this is a recent phenomenon.” Either way, she added, “You can’t disinvite somebody; you can’t do that. What would happen then if I were invited to a university and some anti-Israel faculty would disinvite me because I support Israel? That would be terrible.”
In his speech, West didn’t dwell on the controversy surrounding his position on Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, but said Israel cannot continue to base its security “on occupation.”
“[I’m] concerned about the grandchildren of the precious brothers and sisters in Israel,” West said. “Don’t tell me I’m anti-Israel! I’m critical of injustice anywhere. The same is true of the Palestinian side — you think you can kill innocent civilians in Tel Aviv and somehow come up with a rationalization?”
He also repeated harsh criticisms he’s made many times regarding President Barack Obama, about whom he said — after being asked by Presner on behalf of an audience member — what message he’d send to Obama if he could: “If you are to have our dear brother Martin Luther King Jr.’s face looking at you in the Oval Office, you ought to realize who he is,” West said.
The speech focused primarily on West’s admiration of Heschel’s social activism and religious worldview, and he spoke extensively on what he feels are deep societal ills exemplified in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore; economic inequality; and a host of other societal, economic and political issues of the day.
“It’s a very personal affair for me, any time I say the name Abraham Joshua Heschel,” West said in his characteristic booming and emotional voice. “It makes me shake; it makes me quiver; it makes me shiver — because he unsettles me.”
Seidler-Feller sat in the front row for West’s address. The rabbi had not responded to repeated requests for comment in the days prior to publication with regard to Hillel at UCLA’s statement condemning West’s statements on Israel. At one point during the speech, West directly addressed Seidler-Feller: “Rabbi Seidler-Feller, love you old brother, so good to see you.”
Toward the end of his hourlong address, West described Heschel as part of the “prophetic Judaic tradition,” which champions people with the courage to value their ideals over their fame or fortune — a group that he said also includes Malcolm X, journalist and Catholic convert Dorothy Day, leftist American philosopher and harsh Israel critic Noam Chomsky and Palestinian-American philosopher Edward Said. After West’s remarks, he sat at a long table at the front of the room along with Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, civil rights activist the Rev. James Lawson and Presner.
Aside from the heated debate leading up to West’s appearance, the conference itself was like many others of the same genre, a collection of distinguished Jewish academics, scholars and clergy assembled for roundtables and lectures, which focused on Heschel’s religious and social commentary and activism. In addition to West, Lawson and Heschel, speakers included Rabbis Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, Sharon Brous of IKAR, Elliot Dorff of American Jewish University and Seidler-Feller. Sessions ranged from discussions of Heschel’s signature topics — such as “God in Search of Man” and “The Sabbath as Theological Affirmation and Social Transformation” — to expositions on how, were he still living, he may have responded to certain current events, such as “Heschel on the State of Moral Emergency from Selma to Ferguson.”
The final event of the conference was a keynote by Susannah Heschel in which she described her close relationship with her father and shared many photos of him, including some that are less well known than iconic ones in which he’s pictured with King at marches and press conferences.
After West’s remarks at the UCLA Faculty Center on May 3, attorney and UCLA law alumnus Carol Scott was standing with a friend in the courtyard, where there were refreshments. Sharing her thoughts on the conference and on West’s keynote, she said, “I often don’t agree with West, [but] his remarks tonight, I found, were very measured and were very thoughtful.
“We were more interested because of the controversy,” she said.
For Princess Charlotte, a pretty in pink gift from the Israeli president