Swans Commentary » swans.com April 20, 2009  



Cornel West And The Ethics Of Faithful Equivocation


by Steven Salaita





(Swans - April 20, 2009)   Cornel West is one of a handful of modern American intellectuals who have come to symbolize academic radicalism among popular commentators without ever actually having proposed any truly radical ideas (Rashid Khalidi, Michael Bérubé, and Patricia Williams are a few others). West did not develop his broad public appeal by espousing dangerous ideas. Yet his appeal as a straw man for curmudgeonly culture warriors chafed by the supposed decay of timeless Western values indicates that West is nevertheless mildly threatening, even if he isn't really taken to task for being radical but for not being quite patriotic enough. There is one area in particular in which West's writing fails to achieve either analytical or ethical distinctiveness, thereby acting as a metonym for West's political timidity in general: the Israel-Palestine conflict, something West assesses outside of its own history by emphasizing multicultural American paradigms rather than revolutionary decolonial advocacy.

In speaking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, West often employs the liberal American vocabulary of tolerance and coexistence, an anomalous approach that reduces Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs to irrationally competing factions who merely need more open-minded dialogue rather than a significant redistribution of land ownership, natural resources, economic capital, political power, and military strength. Also to be overcome are serious restrictions on Palestinian freedom of movement, upward mobility, urban development, and access to farmland, family, education, and employment. The Israel-Palestine conflict is not the result of poor communication, religious acrimony, or cultural intolerance. These phenomena are the outcomes of foreign settlement and ethnic cleansing, not its progenitors. By emphasizing those phenomena rather than Jewish ethnonationalism, West decontextualizes the Israel-Palestine conflict from its proper origin in Zionist colonization.

West is a nuanced and intelligent version of his pal and ostensible sparring partner, Michael Lerner, the Tikkun Magazine editor whose tepid support of Palestinians and ardent patronage of Zionism has displeased numerous writers, myself among them. I have criticized Lerner in two of my books, Anti-Arab Racism in the USA and The Uncultured Wars, in the latter devoting an essay to his considerable ethical and rhetorical shortcomings. Now I feel like that criticism is incomplete because it omits analysis of Cornel West's more complex but similarly troublesome point of view; we might rightly expect idiocy from Lerner, but West, a dexterous intellectual, should certainly know better. The main problem with West's point of view is his insistence, like Lerner's, that there is an equivalence between Israel's violent actions and all forms of Palestinian resistance that in some way use physical violence. Yet the very presence of Israel is an unmistakably continual violence; it is foolish to limit our conception of the term to actions that result in palpable harm or destruction. I wish West would cancel his Tikkun subscription and dust off his copy of The Wretched of the Earth.

West discusses the Israel-Palestine conflict at length in Democracy Matters, noting correctly that "[t]he roots of the conflict go back to the shadows cast by the British empire." He attributes the persistence of the conflict to a variety of factors, among them American irresponsibility, extremist Arab and Israeli leaders, oil politics, diplomatic myopia, citizen apathy, historical ignorance, arrogant Republicans, and tribalism and parochialism (whose advocates West never reveals). Nowhere does he identify the conflict's most vexing problem: Zionism. I am aware that Zionism is not consistent philosophically, temporally, and politically. I deploy the term here to denote its most basic feature, the notion, in whatever form, that Israel should exist as a Jewish nation-state culturally and demographically, an entity to which Jews anywhere in the world have access (a privilege withheld from the native Palestinians). This unifying attribute of Zionist thought reinforces the ethnocentric outlook that inspired settler colonization in Palestine, without which there would have been no conflict, and without whose continuation the conflict would have long ago ceased. West is not merely negligent by ignoring the turpitude of Zionism; in so doing, he becomes complicit in the suffering that it produces.

West's emphasis on moral equivalency arises in the framework of such negligence. West condemns "zealously driven power players, be they in the U.S. government, Islamic states, or Israel" (p. 109). Accordingly, "[a]t the moment both Israel and the Arab world are currently under the thrall of extremist thinkers and power players" (p. 111). Regarding the Israelis and Palestinians specifically, he decries their "arrogant and stubborn leaders" (p. 115) and mourns the "paranoia [that] has been used by the nihilistic xenophobes on both sides" (p. 115). Reading Democracy Matters, one gets the impression that the Israel-Palestine conflict is an inexplicable misunderstanding nourished by a proportional number of autocrats, nihilists, and extremists in Israel and the Arab World. West's understanding of settler colonization is subordinate to his insistence that the conflict can be resolved through earnest multicultural dialogue. This argument imposes a liberal American paradigm of tolerance on a decidedly intolerable situation and it fails to properly acknowledge the tremendous power differential between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews.

Equally alarming is West's distorted historical perspective, one that has achieved the status of authentic in most American intellectual communities. Like Lerner, he saves his harshest language for Arabs:

The barbarity of the terrorism launched against Jews in Israel first by the Arab states and now by the suicide bombers is real and should never be explained away -- as the zealots on the Palestinian side do -- but the dominant Jewish stance has become so hardened by the pain of this suffering, and by the feeling of being so reviled by enemies, that the Jewish community has been losing touch with its own rich prophetic tradition. (p. 113)

West forgot to add that in the 1950s southern whites in the United States turned fire hoses onto black children because they felt so besieged by African American demands for civil liberties; that white South Africans were terrified for their safety during the Soweto riots; and that French cynicism arises from the fact that they suffered Algerian resistance to their dream of an all-white African colony.

Beyond his utterly stupid and ethically loathsome argument, West is also recycling mythologies that are empirically untrue. Jewish settlers, not Arabs, introduced terrorism to Palestine. In 1945, Menachem Begin, future prime minister of Israel, led a campaign of bombings at British police stations and tax and immigration offices. In 1946, the British embassy in Rome was bombed by members of the Stern Gang, the same outfit that assassinated Lord Moyne in Cairo and, later, UN peacemaker Folke Bernadotte. The Moyne assassination was carried out under the auspices of another future Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. In 1948, members of Irgun and the Stern Gang slaughtered nearly 200 civilians in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, a massacre the supposedly moderate Haganah militia encouraged. Such massacres occurred throughout Galilée during the years 1947-49, ultimately resulting in the expulsion of approximately 700,000 Palestinians, who have never been granted any form of reentry. In 1947, Irgun members exploded a bomb from a taxi at Jerusalem's Damascus Gate, killing two British officers and eleven Palestinian civilians. A year earlier, Jewish terrorists blew up Jerusalem's King David Hotel, killing at least 200 people (another act involving the so-called "good cop," Haganah).

To suggest that Jewish settlers in Palestine were victims of barbarous terrorism, as West does, entails an implicit chauvinism masquerading as learned magnanimity. Again, West ignores the matter of colonization and assesses the conflict in a vacuum, as if European Jews were somehow native to a non-European nation. (He likewise ignores the now-conclusive fact that the Israeli army was far superior to the combined Arab armies in 1948.) More disturbingly, West implies that any type of moral transgression committed by Jews arises not from their own depravity but from the corrupting presence of the Palestinians. Rather than condemning the century-old dispossession of Palestinians, West mourns the decline of the "Jewish prophetic tradition," something apparently instigated by their encounter with Palestinians. In fact, West spends much of his analysis praising Judaic traditions of pacifism and introspection, which certainly exist, but mentions nothing of Palestinian intellectual and spiritual traditions, which also certainly exist (and are indivisible from those of their Jewish brethren). His constant reference to and simplification of Palestinian violence reinforces the implication that it is ultimately up to the Jews, those of a proper innate moral caliber, to liberate the Palestinians by saving them from barbarity.

The title of the chapter in which this analysis appears, "Forging New Jewish and Islamic Democratic Identities," illuminates West's poor understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict (or his conscious misrepresentation of it). Forging democratic identities is not a bad idea, but the lack of such identities among certain communities of Jews and Muslims (which West never identifies) has little to do with the origin and endurance of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Indeed, were the legitimate democratic will of Arab peoples to be implemented Israel would cease to exist as a racist and imperialist state bisecting the Arab World; it would instead evolve into a space with equal rights for all of its citizens. Israel's own Judeocentric democratic tradition has ensured the continued displacement of Palestinians; the responsibility for ensuring justice, after all, belongs to the perpetrator of injustice. It is one of the fascinating qualities of colonization that throughout the centuries the colonized have always been quite more generous to their enemies and far more open to genuine coexistence than the colonizers who exhaust their tongues preaching humanistic values to their subordinates, the same values they ceremoniously ignore.

Like other shortsighted commentators on the Israel-Palestine conflict, West delimits the history of Israeli brutality, noting that "the ugly thirty-seven-year Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and subjugation of Palestinian peoples violate international law and any code of humanitarian ethics" (p. 110). This claim is entirely demonstrable and West is to be commended for owning a viewpoint that is controversial despite its basis in reality. He is to be condemned, however, for forgetting (or disregarding) the ethnic cleansing that accompanied Israel's 1948 founding, as well as the malicious intentions (now well documented) of Zionist leaders during British rule. The Nazi Holocaust in Europe seems like a direct antecedent to Israel's founding, but such a perception is actually more convenient than veracious: there was knowledge among the earliest Zionists that Palestine was widely inhabited, and plans from the outset of Zionism to rid the Promised Land of its indigenous population.

West's criticism of Israel's behavior assumes that Israel was always a geopolitical entity in the image of a modern nation-state and that it has inherent value as a consciously ethnocentric (and thus exclusive) society. Both assumptions are morally dubious and intellectually pusillanimous. There is no rationale for Israel's existence as a timeless Jewish-majority state free of deeply sectarian presuppositions. When transported to the Middle East, West's multicultural humanism unwittingly reveals its own illiberal anatomy, one that emphasizes abstruse idealism more than structures of injustice.

Perhaps it is this emphasis on abstruse idealism -- one that manages to sound profound while performing spectacularly conventional political work -- that leads West to speak in truisms and platitudes. A few passages from "Forging New Jewish and Islamic Democratic Identities" suffice to illuminate the worthlessness of West's analysis: "The recent history of prophetic American Jews questioning the myopic viewpoint and Manichean framework of this conflict is appalling" (p. 120); "...prophetic Jews are up against formidable Jewish establishmentarian forces" (p. 122); "To erase the modern West is to ignore the dark predicament of the Islamic present" (p. 132); "The delicate dialogue between the modern West and the Islamic world...should be a Socratic process of examining a rich past of cultural cross-fertilization" (p. 132); "Needless to say, the fall of any nihilistic gangster who rules with an iron hand is salutary" (p. 142).

I suppose it is possible that West actually wants to sound like a fortune-cookie writer with a Ph.D. He does have a propensity for liberal bromides no matter what the topic, but in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict this style appears especially disquieting. The metaphorical campfire he wants Jews and Palestinians to sit around might be appropriate for diversity workshops, but it is inadequate for a conflict whose main feature has been cultural genocide. I would argue, in fact, that West's purported evenhandedness is little more than a bid to ingratiate himself to liberal Zionists; he appears to believe that he can satisfy the fundamentally racist assumptions of the conflict's most powerful demographic but still retain his exalted position as a public intellectual of uncommon probity. It is no coincidence that liberal Zionists have decided that the height of intellectual and ethical responsibility happens to coincide with one's commitment to retaining Israel's identity as a Jewish state.

West is merely a famous purveyor of a widespread problem: the tacit belief that Jews must be normatively associated with the outcome of their colonial policies rather than being held responsible for those policies according to international law. In other words, just because most Jews dislike the idea of a truly democratic state in Israel/Palestine -- i.e., one in which Jews don't hold the vast majority of power -- it doesn't mean that such a state is inherently a bad idea. It simply means that most Jews will either need to be coerced or forced to accept a reality much fairer and ethically superior to the one they created. The Palestinians are not asking for anything other than what is already theirs and what they are entitled to according to international law. Yet these basic demands are treated by West and other responsible intellectuals as untenable and irrational. Bodies of scholarly and documentary evidence supporting Palestinian claims must be ignored in order to employ such an approach.

I watch West every now and again on programs like HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher (a man who makes even the most abhorrent of his guests seem likeable). West is clearly intelligent and inarguably passionate. He does important work by bringing to wide audiences knowledge of the harshness of Palestinian life in the Occupied Territories. These positive qualities are not reason enough to absolve him of a dumbed-down perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict, however. Ultimately, West's responsibility, like that of any writer, is to the truth, no matter what it leads him to conclude, and not to the banalities of a supposedly tasteful ideology. One of these days Palestine will be liberated and West's assessment of the conflict will rightly be mocked, but that won't be the worst of it: his true punishment is having written an analysis so awesomely asinine that he will forever be associated with Michael Lerner.


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About the Author

Steven Salaita, an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech, is the author of four books, most recently The Uncultured Wars: Arabs, Muslims, and the Poverty of Liberal Thought, an essay collection that examines the failures of liberal commentators vis-à-vis American imperialism. He is currently working on two books, one an analysis of Indigenous Studies and the other an exploration of moral discourse in the Israel-Palestine conflict.



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Published April 20, 2009