Cornel West is Blaming His Problems on Israel — Again

Cornel West is Blaming His Problems on Israel — Again
Craig Matthews/The Press of Atlantic City via AP
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One defining characteristic of a conspiracy theory is that it requires no actual proof. Once the premise has been accepted, even the absence of evidence reinforces the underlying belief: “See, the conspirators are so powerful that they leave no trace of their existence.” It is easy enough to ridicule QAnon followers who parade in horned helmets and shaman garb, but what is there to say about a renowned academic who attributes professional setbacks to unseen Zionists who, though never identified, must surely be operating behind the scenes?

Regrettably, I’m speaking here of Cornel West – theologian, activist, philosopher, and social critic – who recently went public in a dispute with Harvard over his status on the faculty.

In 2016, West accepted a non-tenure-eligible position in Harvard’s divinity school and African-American Studies department. Following the standard five-year review, Harvard offered West a ten-year contract renewal as the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, as well as a significant pay raise. But West wanted more, demanding that he be switched to a tenured position. Harvard declined. West, having previously been tenured at Yale, Princeton, the Union Theological Seminary, and in an earlier appointment at Harvard, considered the denial disrespectful and loudly complained. The refusal was inconceivable, he said, unless something sinister was afoot. And he knew just whom to blame.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, West charged that Harvard’s decision was political payback in a very specific way:

In my case, my controversial and outspoken views about and critiques of empire, capitalism, white supremacy, male supremacy, and homophobia are tolerated, but any serious engagement around the issues of the Israeli occupation are rendered highly suspect and reduced to anti-Jewish hatred or prejudice.

Referencing certain unnamed “powers that be at Harvard,” West explained,

So, I surmise it must be my deep Christian witness based on the idea that an ugly Israeli occupation of precious Palestinians is as wrong as any ugly Palestinian occupation of precious Jews.

And he added,

[T]wo brilliant scholars critical of the U.S. empire and Israeli occupation – a Black Dominican woman and a Jewish Israeli woman – have been denied tenure. I see a pattern here.

The interviewer for the Chronicle of Higher Education did not bother asking West if there was any factual basis for his suspicions. That’s the beauty of an anti-Israel conspiracy theory. The power of the inner circle is deemed self-evident, and the accusation, therefore, proves itself.

At least one other well-known academic has taken West’s claim seriously. Juan Cole, a History Department chair holder at the University of Michigan and former president of the Middle East Studies Association, found it plausible that West’s strong language in support of Palestine led to the tenure denial “because many pro-Israel professors and administrators (as well as those hoping for big donations from pro-Israel donors) are corrupt, and are entirely willing to misuse their positions to silence voices that are inconvenient for Israeli propaganda.”

If there is such a surreptitious pro-Israel cabal, it has been mysteriously selective and fine-tuned. West’s argument for tenure at Harvard is premised on his previous tenured positions at several other celebrated universities, including Princeton and Yale, which must somehow be immune to the so-called corruption and greed of the Israel backers.

And it would take an oddly focused conspiracy to be just fine with offering West a ten-year appointment, at age 67, to a prestigious endowed chair, while inexplicably drawing the line at tenure. What real or imagined harm to Israel could be done by the words of tenured-professor Cornel West that would not be equally damaging coming from the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy? Tenure means a great deal to academics, such as West, Cole, and me. But to the general public – the people to whom West claims to speak – well, not so much.

West has convinced himself that his many other radical positions are fully acceptable to Harvard, including his outright rejection of capitalism, which ought to be most troubling to the university’s wealthy donors. He is likewise certain that his “joyful support” of Bernie Sanders would never be held against him. But with nothing even resembling evidence, West has no doubt that shadowy friends of Israel just had to be responsible for his rebuff by the Harvard administration. That might make sense only to someone intensely committed to West’s worldview; his conclusion would otherwise be recognized as an unsupported non-sequitur.

I have admired some of West’s books, and conspiracy theories aside, I share his alarm at the current political situation in Israel and Palestine. I must note, however, that West had an equally public quarrel during his first stint at Harvard, which led to his departure for Princeton in 2002. Though the spat had absolutely nothing to do with Israel, West pointedly denounced Harvard’s then-president Lawrence Summers as “the Ariel Sharon of American higher education.”

To paraphrase Professor West: there just might be a pattern here.

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