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Some Jewish activists don't want Cornel West at UCLA conference

Conference on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel will emphasize social justice; Cornel West is an admirer

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Jewish theologian and civil rights activist close to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Cornel West, the philosopher and African American history scholar who often speaks out on public issues, describes himself as an admirer of Heschel.

But some Jewish organizations and pro-Israel figures say they don’t want West to deliver a keynote address at an upcoming UCLA conference celebrating Heschel’s life and commitment to social justice.

They want West uninvited to the May 3-4 meeting because of what they describe as his offensive criticism of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and his support for universities to divest holdings from companies that do business with the Israeli military. West has called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a war criminal for the civilian deaths in the Gaza conflict last year.

UCLA officials, however, say they are sticking with West, who is a professor emeritus at Princeton, teaches at the Union Theological Seminary in New York and co-hosts the public radio show “Smiley & West.” To drop him would violate free speech, according to administrators at the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies, which is sponsoring the Heschel meeting, “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.”

West could not be reached for comment Friday. He is scheduled to deliver a speech at the UCLA faculty center on May 3 and participate in a panel discussion that includes Heschel’s daughter Susannah, who is a Dartmouth College professor of Jewish Studies.

In a recent letter to conference organizers, several pro-Israel groups said that allowing West to speak at the event “is an affront to Jewish students and faculty at UCLA, as well as to the community members and organizations that support them. It is also a horrible perversion of the memory of Rabbi Heschel.”

Among the letter's signers were the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, the AMCHA Initiative, the American Assn. of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, the Israeli-American Council, StandWithUs and the Zionist Organization of America.

Also, UCLA computer science professor Judea Pearl, whose journalist son Daniel was murdered by Pakistani militants in 2002, called on West not to attend.

In a public letter, Pearl said the UCLA audience would not be able to take West’s speech seriously because of his vocal support for anti-Israel divestment. That would be the case “no matter how eloquent your speech and how crafty your words,” wrote Pearl, who heads the philanthropic Daniel Pearl Foundation.

Todd Presner, director of UCLA’s Jewish Studies Center, could not be reached for comment Friday but he told the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles this week that he will not revoke the invitation even though he does not “excuse, justify or apologize” for West’s positions on Israel.

“We may have pressure to rescind the invitation but that’s not the plan,” Presner said. “We didn’t ask him to come to UCLA to espouse a particular political position or platform — we asked him to talk about Heschel and the relationship to the civil rights movement.” He also noted that the conference has 25 other speakers.

UCLA history department chairman David N. Myers, who is on the roster of conference speakers and is a former director of the Jewish studies center, said in an email to The Times on Friday that “a university should not be in the business of censoring the views of those with whom we disagree.” 

Myers said he opposes the divestment movement and said that he was “taken aback by some of Cornel West's recent pronouncements about Israel, which seem beyond the pale." But West was not invited to speak about Israel or divestment, Myers said.

He added: “The university is an open marketplace of ideas. Sometimes, we encounter views that are discomfiting. We debate rather than boycott them.”

Heschel was born in Poland and escaped the Nazis, arriving in America in 1940. His emphasis on social justice and spirituality made him one of the most beloved modern Jewish philosophers and his teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York influenced many future rabbis. He was a prominent supporter of civil rights for African Americans and joined King in the protest march in Selma. He died in 1972 at age 65.

The debate over West comes two months after another incident at UCLA upset some Jewish activists. In February, several student government leaders questioned a student's eligibility for a campus judicial panel because she is Jewish. Those leaders later apologized and the Jewish student was unanimously approved for the position.

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