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Op Eds

Cornel West is Shirking Discussion and Sowing Division

By Owen A. Berger
By Jonah C. Steinberg, Contributing Opinion Writer
Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg is the Executive Director of Harvard Hillel and a Harvard Chaplain.

In The Crimson's article on my criticism of Professor Cornel R. West ’74 promoting a contention that Harvard declined to consider him for tenure because of his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Professor West is quoted as saying, "If [Steinberg] wants to have a public discussion about Israeli politics, Israeli occupation, let’s have it — respectful."

At Harvard Hillel, where I am executive director, students and staff do not shy away from difficult conversations about Israel — quite the opposite. Recent Harvard Hillel programs in Israel have included time with the non-Jewish community in East Jerusalem, have traveled to the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to hear directly from Palestinian leadership, and have included visits with Arab members of Israeli government and society. Even during this pandemic time, our online "Visions for Peace" program on Israel and its geopolitics this past winter break was facilitated by both an Israeli and a Palestinian tour guide. We consider it vital for students to encounter Israel's wonders and its challenges. Respectfully, we can and do engage with expert and knowledgeable partners in such discussion.

The discussion I would like to have with Professor West has to do with where he chooses to cast suspicion and place blame for his own situation. To be clear, my issue with Professor West at this moment is not his personal view on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, although some have used his allegation as an occasion to make a popular student petition on his behalf a vehicle for broadly demonizing rhetoric about Israel.

Missing from The Crimson’s coverage of the issue was a direct question to Professor West as to whether he had any evidence for his claim that Israel was at the root of his circumstances here at Harvard. Professor West called his speculation that the University declined to consider him for tenure for that reason "a plausible hypothesis," dismissing all other possible reasons, including the non-tenure-eligible position he accepted in returning to Harvard five years ago.

From blood libels to the fictitious “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” Jewish communities throughout the ages have borne the brunt of prejudices promoted as being plausible hypotheses.

As I said in my communication to the Harvard Hillel community regarding Professor West's allegations and the student petition on his behalf, it would have been possible to make a robust case for Professor West without scapegoating Israel and those who care about her. Professor West, however, has seemed bent on substituting an argument about Israel for any discussion about his own choices. Activism is best and most capable of uniting us all when it is specific. It becomes sloppy and divisive when one issue becomes an omnibus for every other grievance and contention. Had Professor West and students urging his case only argued that his not having tenure was out of keeping with his distinguished career in the academy and discouraging to many in our Harvard community, I would not have disagreed.

Last week, I reached out to Professor West by email, asking him if we might visit together individually, as I’d hoped to discuss the effects on students of his centering Israel in his accusations about Harvard's leadership. I suggested a pandemic-safe visit with one another in the garden of a local Cambridge restaurant. Professor West seems to have an easier time responding to the newspapers than to me. Days later, he was quoted in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz as saying, “I told the rabbi, ‘It’s clear you don’t understand me. Let’s have a jam session. You bring your ax, I’ll bring my ax, and we’ll have a serious exchange. It’s going to be intense, we’re talking about life-and-death issues here. But we can still understand each other, and we can have drinks together and talk about our disagreements.'"

Professor West does not seem as willing to engage in conversation with me as he claims — trivial in this context, but indicative of how he undermines himself and invents parts of this story. Professor West is entitled to his own views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as I may disagree with the incendiary ways in which he has practiced his politics in that regard on our campus. Professor West misappropriates the indignities of Palestinians and their mantle by suggesting himself as a martyr to their cause in his own alleged victimization by Harvard. He further weaponizes a dangerous conflict by using it for his own purpose. He confuses and divides students in suggesting that anyone who obstructs him must be insensible or opposed to the national aspirations and human rights of the Palestinian people.

The Israeli and Palestinian peoples have difficult work to do. Courageous people have attempted that work several times through the past decades in heroic ways, and many are still working at it, without having yet solved an ages-old conflict. Nobody in that situation is helped at all by Professor West's unfounded and prejudiced accusations and untruths about people here at Harvard. Professor West leaves in the wake of his departure from Harvard divisions and suspicions of his making, which we who remain in this precious place now must work to heal.

Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg is the Executive Director of Harvard Hillel and a Harvard Chaplain.

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