I write this with no pleasure, and not to trash Cornel West, but because of concern about the judgment of UCLA Studies Department Director Todd Presner at a time when Jewish students at UCLA face what has recently sometimes come perilously close to "a hostile learning environment" (to use the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education's term of art).
As to West, I like him personally, am sure he is not an anti-Semite, and even owe him a debt dating back to the early 1990s when for a for a short while he joined with me to combat African American anti-Semitism by including a long extract from an article he wrote forTikkun in my refutation of the Farrakhanites' The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews published by the Wiesenthal Center.
West deems himself, maybe sometimes rightly, the last personification of the tradition of black prophetic preaching and teaching. I think I know his heart is in the right place, which I cannot say of the equally flamboyant Al Sharpton. The problem with West is that he mistakes intemperate political language for prophetic utterance. I suppose he might retort that many if not most of the Hebrew Prophets did the same. There may be some truth in this, which may be why God chose to make Moses, the first of them, a stutterer, who had to speak through his brother Aaron. The difference is that West seems to have hiked up some mountain in the Sinai (or is it Saudi Arabia?) and come back with BDS graffiti which he mistakes for holy writ.
Had West merely been chosen as a panelist to speak about Rabbi Heschel in relation to "moral sublimity" (or some such), I would have had no objections. West has been lecturing and writing about Heschel for 30 years, though his pronouncements probably reveal more about his own quest for prophetic confirmation than about Heschel's theological praxis.
The problem is with Presner's choice of West as an honored keynote at a time when the status if not the safety of UCLA Jewish students, primarily but not exclusively those who support Israel's right to life, is under insidious assault. Having read Presner's defense in the Journal, I am not impressed. He seems unable to distinguish between accepting West's right to speak at UCLA, and even facilitating it, and giving him a forum that implicitly validates his incendiary criticisms of Israel as within the bounds of the moral and appropriate for feature at a Jewish Studies forum.
If Presner is such a true believer in untrammeled free speech, why did he not also choose one or several counterbalancing panelists in the tradition of David Novak or even Norman Podhoretz whose book on the prophetic tradition up through Rabbi Heschel I find at least as convincing as West's musings? I think that Presner has an ideological agenda, also revealed in his own intemperate support for Professor Steven Salaita's absolute right without academic consequences to all but advocate murder of Israelis on his Facebook page. What is Presner's agenda? I would call it epatering the Jewish or "Zionist" bourgeois.
In fact, I wonder—given the decision of the Jewish Studies Department at UC Davis to sponsor a performance of The Death of Klinghoffer—whether this sort of bad taste and bad judgment are spreading among West Coast Jewish Studies Departments.
By the way, why isn't Klinghoffer composer John Adams doing a sequel on the deaths of the 12 African Christian refugee seekers, thrown into the sea by Muslim fellow passengers off the coast of Italy? After all, the ISIS fans who did it no doubt also have their own grievances against "Zionists" he could set to music.