Cornel West says Harvard donors establish ‘taboo’ on criticism of Israel (and NYT buries that angle)

You have surely heard the news from late February that Cornel West was denied tenure at Harvard and has attributed the rejection to his support for Palestinian freedom. West, 67, a philosophy professor in the Divinity School who has gotten wide faculty and graduate-student support, made the allegation to scholar Tricia Rose on the Tight Rope podcast two weeks ago. He said that “donors” and “elite” administrators at the school were his enemies for a number of reasons but especially on Palestine.

West also attributed the denial to Jews “in high places” but qualified that charge to say that anti-Palestinian prejudice is widespread in the elite regardless of ethnicity.

The New York Times has now covered the West story and left the Palestinian angle to the last couple of paragraphs, making the controversy entirely about the representation of black scholars at Harvard and other universities. That was a real issue in West’s discussion–“massive forms of disrespecting black folks.” But it was not the crux of the matter; and in suppressing West’s critique the Times is merely reflecting the elite taboo West targets. Middle East Eye also has the story but not in full.

Here’s what West said to Tricia Rose re Palestine on February 23.

Mondoweiss Podcast Episode 10: Building the Palestine solidarity movement with Ahmad Abuznaid

West said generally that donors and elites set the ideological limits at Harvard and other “neoliberal” institutions, because the schools are “so tied to image and cash flow and consumer reputation.” Harvard states, “We believe in a robust conversation.” But not all the time, West said.

“You got a consensus, you got an orthodoxy, you got a certain kind of dogmatism… on certain issues, and it is also I think possibly tied to the donors.”

When West was denied tenure, he looked over his political record and concluded that it was not his support of Bernie Sanders that got him in bad odor. But considering two cases of scholars who he believes were denied tenure for their criticism of U.S. imperial policies led West to decide it was his criticism of the Israeli occupation.

Hmmm— I wonder whether it’s outspokenness for my precious Palestinian brothers and sisters under Israeli occupation. And I’ve said over and over again, if there is a Palestinian occupation of precious Jews I’m with the oppressed group and in that case my precious Jewish brothers– and the Israeli occupation of Palestinians I’m with my precious Palestinians because it’s a moral and spiritual issue.

But the problem is that it is a taboo issue among certain circles in high places. It’s hard to have a robust respectful conversation about Israel, the Israeli occupation, because you’re immediately viewed as an anti-Jewish hater, or you got anti-Jewish prejudices or you’re antisemitic, or what have you.

I said, That’s ridiculous. Yes, we’ve got to fight any hatred against our Jewish brothers, I say, yes we got to fight any attempt to degrade Jewish brothers and sisters, but Palestinians have exactly the same value as Jews.

People say, Well now you’re not just making it political but somehow you are trying to charge these Jewish elites with you not getting tenure. I said, Well, it’s true in this particular instance that you do have Jewish administrators. But that doesn’t mean that somehow– Every Jew doesn’t agree with them! You got a whole wave of Jewish comrades and Jewish brothers and sisters who are very critical of Israeli occupation, but not in high places! Not in high places. Now again, this was my hypothesis. Because given the possibilities of why they would not even be interested in initiating a tenure process, What else could it be?

West returned to the question of money and image later in the discussion and said it’s not just Jews in those high places.

The handbook says these are the procedures and rules, but everyone knows that on the ground a whole host of things is taking place. And when you talk about Israeli occupation you’re not just talking about Jewish donors, at all. We’re not talking first and foremost about Jewish money. You’re talking about the money elite, who are Jewish, non-Jewish, black, white, red, whatever, who do have a certain kind of tilt on that issue. And it’s an issue that cuts across a whole host of different groups in that regard…

The university is most afraid of their money, they’re most afraid about their image and reputation, and they’re most afraid of a legal suit.

The New York Times covered West’s battle with Harvard on March 2. It interviewed West and left the Israel angle to the very end of a long article. It noted that when West left Harvard in 2002 for Princeton, he called Harvard President Larry Summers “a bully and ‘the Ariel Sharon of American higher education,’ a characterization criticized as having anti-Semitic overtones.”

Then having tarred West, the Times barely mentions the Palestinian angle.

He said he is mystified as to why he would not be given a tenure review, but offered some possibilities: a reluctance to grant a coveted position to someone of advancing age, whose best work might be assumed to be behind him, and concerns that his support for the Palestinian cause might offend the prevailing orthodoxy and donors.

“More than anything else, there’s a certain disrespect for Black scholars and taboo issues that don’t allow us to have a robust and respectful dialogue,” he said. “And both of those are very much tied to the way in which the university’s become commodified. It’s a money-driven institution, and it’s sad.”

The taboo subject here is obviously Jewish donors of my generation and older (post 60) who are conservative on Israel. West hedges the charge, saying it’s all administrators regardless of race. I don’t agree. The issue here is Jewish donors who love Israel. I addressed this in an article about Jewish donors to Harvard in 2008. I quoted an anonymous friend: “What are the names on the buildings? Taubman, Rubenstein, Belfer, Weiner. Where do you think the money is coming from in academia?”

When Larry Summers was forced out of the Harvard presidency in 2007, Marty Peretz attributed it to anti-Israel bias, and threatened a donor rebellion at Harvard. “I know of at least three gifts in the $100 million range that were very likely to materialize and now are dicey.” A donor rebellion was also threatened when Harvard Kennedy School dean Stephen Walt published his landmark paper on the power of the Israel lobby with Chicago colleague John Mearsheimer.

The Times itself acknowledged Jewish donors as the “elephant in the room” in a related area of giving, the Democratic Party, in Nathan Thrall’s landmark article on why Palestine continues to be a marginalized issue among Democrats.

In part, some Hill staff members and former White House officials say, this is because of the influence of megadonors: Of the dozens of personal checks greater than $500,000 made out to the largest PAC for Democrats in 2018, the Senate Majority PAC, around three-fourths were written by Jewish donors. This provides fodder for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and for some, it is the elephant in the room. Though the number of Jewish donors known to prioritize pro-Israel policies above all other issues is small, there are few if any pushing in the opposite direction…

Yes I am conflating Harvard donors and Democratic Party donors. Obviously it’s not the same pool. But they’re not unrelated. JJ Goldberg of the Forward and Stephanie Schriock of Emily’s List described the power of Jewish donors as “gigantic” and “shocking” in a 2016 J Street forum. Goldberg said,

You ask a Democratic fundraiser, where do you get the money from? “Well from trial lawyers, from toys, from generic drugs, from Hollywood. From Jews.” Those are all essentially Jewish industries… When you are raising  money, you need to find rich people who are not right wing, and there are not– pardon me for saying this, there are not many rich goyim who are not right wing. Forgive me for saying that.

West is surely right when he says that a new generation of Jews doesn’t buy into the Israel mythology. We champion such Jewish views at our site. But conservative views on Israel are the dead hand of the past when it comes to philanthropy, and still very influential.

Finally, it is interesting to consider that whatever Cornel West’s transgressions at Harvard, he’s not even talking about BDS, the nonviolent campaign for Palestinian human rights. Just the occupation!

Thanks to Linda G. Ford.


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