Cornel West on Israel’s failing democracy

“I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain – especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state.”

Albert Einstein, Our Debt to Zionism 1938

In early March in  Israel’s conscience newspaper Haaretz, theologian Cornel West voiced concern for the future of democracy in Israel. Earlier in the month the Knesset adopted a new law denying entry to foreigners who call for a boycott of Israel or the settlements The legislation, he suggests, is a betrayal of a tradition of Jewish philosophers committed to human rights, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish theologian who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.

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Dr.West’s comments were not reported in North America.

“lt’s a sign of panic, a sign of hysteria, a very sad response to an intense situation,” said West. “Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would turn in his grave thinking about the spiritual blackout that is occurring in Israel. Einstein turns over in his grave, too.” Both Rabbi Heschel and Einstein, he says, “had deep commitment to Jewish self-determination, Jewish self-respect, but always had a universal vision, and embraced Arabs, Palestinians and others.

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“With this particular act, Einstein could not go to Israel. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, if he were alive, and had a critique of the occupation, or said people have a right to boycott, he could not go. Does this mean that Israel actually is ready to turn its back on some of its prophetic figures, who themselves were Jewish?… it’s a sad moment when an Einstein would not be able to get into the country of his own people.”

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West has publicly supported BDS for years, and as such, is one of the prominent public figures who could be denied entry under the new law. “BDS is not a homogenous movement,” he said. “There are a lot of different voices, but it is the only non-violent response I can see to the very ugly occupation, and I would do exactly the same if there was a Palestinian occupation of Jews. It’s a moral issue, a spiritual issue”.

 

Asked whether he would consider visiting Israel to speak about BDS and the occupation, in spite of his support for a boycott, West says he would have, before the ban. “I could not get in now. But I consider Israelis my brothers and sisters, whether they are Jewish or Arab, just as I consider Palestinians, who are wrestling with the Israeli occupation”. The law “shows that BDS is getting stronger but it also shows that any critique of the settlements, any critique of the ugly occupation is grounds for excluding people from the country,” he said.

 

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Abraham Joshua Heschel

“What about the people inside the country?,” he asked. “Are you going to have internal aliens? Critics of the occupation, people who live right there, in Tel Aviv, are you going to say they don’t have the right to be inside their own country? That is what authoritarian regimes do. It’s just sad to see Israel move more and more in that authoritarian direction…Is the occupation now devouring the very democratic soul of Israel itself? That is the kind of question that Albert Einstein would raise, that Rabbi Heschel would raise, that Gertrude Stein would raise, that Susan Sontag would raise, these are questions inside the context of Jewish life.”

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