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Harvard Hillel Executive Director Accuses Cornel West, Supporters of Furthering ‘Anti-Jewish Conspiracy Theory’ In Tenure Controversy

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Responding to vigorous campus support for Professor Cornel R. West ’74 — who said last month Harvard declined to consider him for tenure in part due to his outspoken criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg, executive director of Harvard Hillel, criticized West for having “egged students on” in “scapegoating and demonizing” Jewish people.

In an email to Hillel affiliates Friday, Steinberg wrote he believes a student petition condemning Harvard’s alleged decision to not consider West for tenure is based on “an anti-Jewish conspiracy theory.”

The petition cites West’s belief that he was denied tenure consideration due to his opposition to “the settler colonial violence of Israel’s occupation of Palestine” and references Zionism in a list of ideologies it says West has critiqued, alongside “white supremacy, racial capitalism,” and “the military-industrial complex.”

As of Wednesday night, the petition had amassed the support of more than 90 student organizations and more than 1,800 individual signatories.

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“It is painful to see representatives of so many student organizations maneuvered into signing a petition that attaches itself to a long chain of demonizing anti-Jewish libels through the centuries,” Steinberg wrote in the email. “Student leaders who have signed the petition likely do not realize how the words ‘Israel’s occupation of Palestine’ are used to suggest that the entire country of Israel is illegitimate, and perhaps they are not sensible of how eliding ‘white supremacy, racial capitalism, Zionism, and the military-industrial complex,’ as the petition does, is a dangerous ethnic slander.”

Steinberg also wrote West’s claim that politics played a role in the denial of his tenure consideration is “absurd on its face.”

In a Tuesday interview with The Crimson, West defended and elaborated on his belief that Harvard denied his request to be considered for tenure because of his vocal criticism of Israel.

Pondering Harvard’s decision, West — who was tenured and held Harvard’s highest faculty rank, University Professor, during his first stint at the University — explained that he ruled out his academic merit and age as “grounds” for tenure denial, leaving politics as the only other explanation.

“I don’t think my support of brother Bernie Sanders would have been that controversial. I don’t think my support of Black Lives Matter would have been that controversial,” he said. “I do think the support of this critique of Israeli occupation is a plausible hypothesis, given what I know about earlier candidates who have been denied.”

“It’s not as if I’m just grabbing this out of the sky and saying, ‘Well, there’s 191 countries in the world, and I’m gonna accent this one country because I’m having trouble trying to undergo a tenure process,’” West said.

West said he “appreciate[s]” Steinberg’s concerns about “anti-Jewish prejudice.”

“I share that concern,” he said. “But I will not allow charges of anti-Semitism to somehow trump a serious discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.”

West also pushed back on Steinberg’s assertion that he has “egged students on,” noting he was not involved in the writing of the petitions.

“People are responding in their own ways,” West said. “I don’t have to agree with every formulation they have, but I appreciate their support.”

Jeremy Stepansky ’21 — a member of a student coalition that drafted the petition — wrote in an emailed statement that the group rejected Steinberg’s claim that their petition perpetuated anti-Semitic tropes, writing that they “vehemently reject the conflation of the Zionist state of Israel with the Jewish people.”

Stepansky also wrote that the coalition believes Steinberg’s critique obfuscates what they understand to be the underlying issue at play: Harvard’s treatment of Black scholars and academics who are critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

West said on Tuesday he welcomes having a conversation with Steinberg.

“If he wants to have a public discussion about Israeli politics, Israeli occupation, let’s have it — respectful,” West said. “The students at Harvard deserve to be exposed to a variety of different views.”

—Staff writer Alex M. Koller can be reached at alex.koller@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexmkoller.

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at taylor.peterman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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