Hurricane West: Cornel West and American Radicalism
This academic impostor symbolizes the decline in America's intellectual and moral standards.


But even this worthy effort came with caveats, the first being that the problem shouldn’t be made too important (“You’ve got to acknowledge anti-Semitism, but not make it seem that you think that it is the major moral problem facing our community”), and second that even its most virulent exponents — Farrakhan being the obvious example — should get a pass: “I wouldn’t call the brother a racist . . . but a xenophobic spokesperson when it comes to dealing with Jewish humanity — but who in his own way loves black folk deeply, and that love is what we see first.”As The New Republics literary editor was shortly to say of West, “Nothing of his own is alien to him. He finds human truths in inhuman lies.”

Finding a partner for his ecumenical gestures, West joined forces with Michael Lerner, a sixties radical who had founded the “Seattle Liberation Front,” a violent “guerrilla” group that emulated the Communist Vietcong. Subsequently a reconstructionist rabbi and the editor of Tikkun magazine, Lerner presented himself as a “pro-Israel” Jew but condemned Israel’s “occupation” of Arab lands and called on Jews “to atone for the pain we have inflicted on the Palestinian people” — a piece of historical illiteracy on a par with West’s ramblings, since Israel was created out of the ruins of the Turkish empire, which was not Arab, and the Arabs had waged five aggressive wars against Israel and still refused to accept Israel’s existence, which explained the so-called “occupation.”

As part of a campaign to build bridges, Lerner and West co-authored a book of conversations between them on the subject, called Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin. The “significant thinkers,” as Sen. Bill Bradley called West and Lerner in a blurb for the book, also embarked on a year-long lecture tour to address the issue. “I loved the black-Christian, white-Jewish connection,” wrote West of the experience of becoming progressively kosher. “In prophetic Judaism, as in Amos and Isaiah, justice is already universal. As a Jewish brother, Jesus is confirming this concept. Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, is already on board the love train.”

But even the West-Lerner love train could not avoid the poisonous currents roiling the Left and still washing up on our political shores in a renewed left anti-Semitism today. When West and Lerner showed up at a black bookstore in Oakland, members of the Nation of Islam were there for a reprise of the incident at Harvard 20 years before. “At first the discussion went reasonably well,” recalls West. “Then Michael said the words. ‘Louis Farrakhan is a dog.’” The visitors responded, “You’re a dog,” and it “went downhill from there.” West intervened and was able to get the Nation members to back off, while he berated Lerner: “Rabbi, I’m not sure you want to go around calling someone’s spiritual leader and my dear brother a dog.”

There was another incident at Howard University, when Lerner referred to Farrakhan as an anti-Semite. Someone in the audience objected and Lerner responded: “If you had read more books about the history of anti-Semitism, you wouldn’t ask such an inane question.” West jumped in: “That’s the kind of arrogance that trumps any kind of conversation. Many black people associate that kind of arrogance with Jewish brothers and sisters who claim to be concerned about them. That’s the stereotype. We’re on tour trying to shatter the stereotype that, ironically, you’re reinforcing here.”

Despite West’s regard for the leading promoter of anti-Semitic hatred as his “dear brother” and “friend,” Lerner continued to embrace West as an ally and more: “I not only came to respect Cornel West’s incredible intellect,” Lerner writes in their joint book, “but to love him.”