Israel critic Cornel West to speak at UCLA Heschel forum, despite protests

Marcy Oster

(JTA) — Academic and author Cornel West, an outspoken critic of Israel, will remain as a speaker at a UCLA conference honoring the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, despite protests from the campus Jewish community.

The May 3 conference, titled “Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity,” is organized by the UCLA Jewish studies department. Among the other speakers and panelists are David Myers, a UCLA professor; Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, a professor at Dartmouth College; and Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum.

West’s participation was first reported by the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

“It is with dismay that we have been confronted by the outrageous pronouncements of Cornel West, a keynote speaker at the Heschel Conference,” the leadership of Hillel at UCLA said in a statement released Tuesday. The statement called West’s recent statements concerning Israel “an affront to Rabbi Heschel’s pursuit of truth.”

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In recent months, West has spoken publicly in support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. During Israel’s operation in Gaza last summer, the former Harvard professor called what he said was the Israeli “massacre” of Palestinians in Gaza “a crime against humanity.”

Todd Presner, director of UCLA’s Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, told the Jewish Journal on Tuesday that he does not plan to rescind the invitation, saying that West was asked to talk about Heschel and his relationship to the civil rights movement, not Israel. He pointed out that there are 25 other speakers coming to the symposium.

In an open letter to West published in the Jewish Journal, in which he referred to recent interviews in which West has slammed Israel, Judea Pearl, a UCLA professor and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, called on West to “excuse yourself from delivering this lecture.”

“No matter how eloquent your speech and how crafty your words, the audience you will face at UCLA will not be able to take them too seriously in light of your recent decision to become a leading propagandist for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,” Pearl wrote.

Last month, Presner canceled a prestigious lecture he was to deliver at the University of Illinois over its withdrawal of a job offer to Steven Salaita, a harsh critic of Israel.