Cornel West Tells Haaretz: Israel's Travel Ban Shows BDS Is Getting Stronger

The American philosopher and BDS supporter wonders if the occupation is 'devouring' Israel's democratic soul and calls it 'a sad moment when an Einstein would not be able' to enter the country. But he remains optimistic.

Dr. Cornel West speaks at a demonstration in December 2016 against a planned Dakota Access pipeline.
Dr. Cornel West speaks at a demonstration in December 2016 against a planned Dakota Access pipeline. LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

NEW YORK - A new law denying entry to foreigners who call for a boycott of Israel or the settlements has sent shock waves through liberal Jewish communities in the United States for potentially closing Israel’s borders to prominent public figures.

A prominent voice for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in recent years has been philosopher Cornel West, one of America’s leading intellectuals.

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In a conversation with Haaretz in the aftermath of the measure's approval by the Knesset on Monday, West voices concern for the future of democracy in the country. 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.

“lt’s a sign of panic, a sign of hysteria, a very sad response to an intense situation,” says 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.

"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."

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 says. "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”.

West also expresses concern for the future of Israeli democracy, in light of the legislation.

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 says.

"What about the people inside the country?," he asks. "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.”

“One of the most important, precious things is that there have always been some democratic practices alongside the ugly occupation” he adds.

“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.”

West also offers an optimistic prediction of the effect he sees the ban having on Israeli society. He suggests that it may mobilize the opposition.

“I think this kind of law will actually bring out all the best in Israelis, We will really see who is committed to democracy, who is committed to human rights," he says. 

“Because what we are seeing in the States, with the International Women’s strike, with the demonstrations in airports and town halls: Trump is actually bringing out the best of America, those who want to oppose these neo fascist laws. The kinds of laws passed by the Knesset are going to bring out the best In Israelis. They may not be able to win in the moment, but there is going to be a round two.”