The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Cornel West, a celebrity academic, asked Harvard, where he had once been tenured before decamping to Princeton, to offer him a tenured position. Harvard declined, and instead offered the 67-year-old West a ten-year contract.
This may be an example of (rational but illegal) age discrimination, as Harvard may not want to tenure someone whose most productive years may be behind him. It may be a product of West having left Harvard last time under less-than-pleasant circumstances following a dispute with then-President Lawrence Summers. And it may be the result of the fact that West hasn't published academic scholarship in years, so tenuring him would make a sham of the process and lead to litigation when Harvard denies other people tenure for not meeting appropriate standards for scholarship. (It's one thing to keep a celebrity academic who no longer publishes academic scholarship in their field like Alan Dershowitz or Noam Chomsky on payroll; it's quite another to tenure them from the outside.)
What it does not seem to have anything to do with is Israelis, Palestinians, Jews, or any combination thereof.
Nevertheless, West tweeted, "Is Harvard a place for a free Black man like myself whose Christian faith & witness put equal value on Palestinian & Jewish babies- like all babies- & reject all occupations as immoral? After being tenured at Yale, Harvard, Princeton & Union Theological Seminary, the recent Harvard denial of a tenure process strikes me as a political decision I reject. Nothing stands in the way of my profound love for & solidarity with oppressed peoples wherever they are!!"
I don't see how to read this other than as a claim that a Zionist faction controlling Harvard is denying him tenure because as a Christian he supports Palestinian rights and opposes Israel's "occupation." And I don't see how that can be read as suggesting something other than Jews controlling Harvard are preventing his tenure–it's not like there is a big evangelical Christian pro-Israel faction in the Harvard administration, and it hardly seems incidental that Harvard's president, Lawrence Bacow, is Jewish–and because he's a good Christian, no less. The victim of perfidious Jews [update: though, in fairness, West may be among those extremely harsh critics of Israel who has grown so used to harsh criticisms of "Zionists" or "the Israel lobby" that he distinguishes in his mind from "Jews" that he may not realize the extent to which the average person wouldn't draw this tenuous distinction in these circumstances.]
Meanwhile, Saturday Night Live's weekend update anchor announced that Israel has vaccinated half of its population, "and I'm going to guess it's the Jewish half." This joke badly misfired. It may be an allusion, as one friend suggested, to people who are half-Jewish by descent joking about their "Jewish half." More likely, it's an oblique reference to the controversy over Israel vaccinating its own (Arab and Jewish) population, but not Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza who are not Israeli citizens and who have their own Palestinian health authorities who are in charge of their medical care.
Beyond being ambiguous and not funny, though, the joke is problematic because to the average listener, it might suggest a classic antisemitic trope, that Jews "take care of their own" and don't care about the welfare of others. This goes back until at least the Black Plague, when Christians blamed Jews, who were for unknown reasons less susceptible to plague, for purportedly poisoning the Christians' wells.
Well, jokes are occasionally insensitive or prejudiced or misfire or get misinterpreted, so no biggie. But in response to the SNL joke, one Tweeter wrote, "Saturday Night Live just took a dig at Israeli apartheid."
Jamil Dakwar, who runs the ACLU's "humans rights program," responded, "Watch how Israel's apologists will now accuse SNL of anti-Semitism." I retorted, "Since the 'joke' is actually false, and Israel is in fact vaccinating the entire Israeli population, Arab and Jew alike, shouldn't the head of a 'human rights program' be on the 'I'm against antisemitic insinuations" side of this debate?'"
So we have Cornel West engaging in classic Jew-baiting, promoting his side of a contractual dispute by suggesting a Jewish plot against him, disguised as moral righteousness about Israel. And we have an ACLU "human rights" poobah dismissing, in advance, quite reasonable concerns about the antisemitic implications of a joke, because apparently he believes only "Israel apologists" oppose blood libels. (And please note that this is not your grandpa's liberal/civil libertarian ACLU, the organization has taken a hard turn to the far left.) I can see where this is going, and it's nowhere good.