As Dr. Cornel West walked from Cleveland’s main downtown square on Tuesday to a car in a nearby parking lot, he did more good for America’s image in Palestinian eyes than Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump, ever could. And he did it by telling the truth.
After delivering an impassioned speech about love and justice to anti-Trump demonstrators in Public Square, blocks from the Republican National Convention in the Quicken Loans Arena, West, a gaggle of journalists and well wishers walked with him as he fielded questioned and hugged supporters.
“How concerned are you about the direction this country is going?” one reporter asked.
“Oh, we’re in big trouble,” West replied. “That’s why I’m supporting the Green Party, because Hillary Clinton is a neoliberal disaster too.”
Despite the mortal stakes of this election, and the bleak choices Americans have to make, between pay-to-play politics and outright racism, West doesn’t look sad or defeated, wearing a genuine smile and addressing everyone with respect and attention. He hugs people he’s just met as though they’re old friends. It’s a bizarre sight to see happen in politics, especially this year.
I asked my question: “In Israel/Palestine, what can Palestinians hope from Americans in this election?”
West said, “Palestinians need to know that there are Americans in this nation including American Jewish brothers and sisters who love them, who are committed to their struggle against Israeli occupation and are concerned about them being able to live lives of decency and dignity. And there’s a growing number of young people… the Israeli occupation today for the younger generation is what Vietnam was for my generation and what South Africa was for the 80s and that includes precious young Jewish brothers and sisters as well as blacks and others.”
In an election where devaluation of human beings a common currency, West brings the word “precious” when speaking about people. That’s a radical defiance of both Trump and Clinton, who have in their own ways denied the worth of other human beings. Terrorists, broadly defined, don’t rate as humans with rights. Torture is on the table for Trump, drones the preferred weapon for Clinton. But West doesn’t deny anybody their status as precious or as part of seven billion siblings.
“What can Palestinians learn from the Black Lives Matter movement?” I asked.
“Well, we all learn from each other, my brother,” he replied.
While the United States has a reputation for regressive politics, the language of American civil rights movements has echoed in other similar struggles. In Northern Ireland in Derry on Sunday, January 30, 1972, Catholic civil rights marchers protesting the indefinite detention of youth without trial (on suspicion of involvement with the Irish Republican Army) sang the same song that sounded throughout the South just a few years before: “We Shall Overcome.” And then British paratroopers shot and killed 14 of them. None of the marchers were armed, the British government concluded in 2010, almost four decades later. But I digress.
My point here is about public diplomacy, and how Dr. West is doing America all sorts of favors by telling the truth: The tide is turning in the United States towards away from a blind allegiance to the U.S.-Israel alliance into something where an evenhanded approach to peacemaking appeals already to two thirds of Americans. Of course, Clinton condemns such suggestions of evenhandedness as very bad and no good et cetera et cetera.
We crossed onto the sidewalk and West greeted a supporter.
“Give me a hug, my brother,” West said as they embraced.
“It’s good to meet you, man,” the man said.
“We’re going to be on T.V. together. Tell him your name, my brother.”
“My name is Wayne Braxton, I’m from Austin, Texas,” said Braxton.
“My brother I’ve got faith in God for our struggle, for we are in it together. His humanity and my humanity. But when you overlook his humanity, I come out swinging like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald…”
A reporter carrying a camera and microphone from Lebanese Al Madayeen got West’s attention.
“Dr. West, Palestinians are going to see this,” the cameraman exclaimed as West neared his car.
“Oh, Palestinians are going to see this?” West said, with a hint of surprise. “Absolutely,” he said, agreeing to speak on video.
“Palestinians are watching the Black Lives Matter movement and they’re trying to learn from them. What message do you have for the West Bank?”
West replied: “I think our young our precious Palestinian brothers and sisters need to know that there are voices here in the United States of all colors, white and black and red and yellow and brown, some of them are young Jewish voices who are concerned not just about the plight of Palestinians, but know that the day will come when the vicious Israeli occupation will be lifted. Palestinians will be able to live lives of decency and dignity and live lives of self determination.”
“We’re fighting for that day,” he said. “We’re raising voices, we’re changing the climate of atmospheres in that regard. And we’re doing it in the name of Martin King, Edward Said and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of Dorothy Day, all of those in the United States who have always highlighted the plight of oppressed people and the Israeli occupation as well as the second-class citizenship of our Arabs living in the state of Israel is something the world will have to address, but it will be in the name of love and justice and not one iota of anti-Jewish hatred or anti-Jewish prejudice is done in the name of justice, across the board. And I want my Palestinian brothers and sisters to know that, because some of us are going to be faithful unto death for that struggle,” he ended.
My last question for West before he got in his car concerned Jews who support Trump despite some of his followers’ penchant for vile antisemitism. Jews I’ve interviewed here, including one Orthodox man from Brooklyn, denied that that even happens or, if it does, Trump can’t control that.
“Antisemitism in the Trump campaign, what do you make of that?”
“What’s that?” West asked.
“How can Jews support Trump when there are so many Trump supporters online who attack Jewish journalists,” I asked.
“Well politics makes strange bedfellows. You got a lot of Jewish reactionary brothers and sisters who will put up with anti-Jewish prejudice among their own if they’re committed to a certain kind of policy,” he said. “You know what I mean?”
Zing. That policy, as Jewish Republicans here have explained to me, is Trump’s loyalty to Israel and his bona fides are his own daughter’s conversion to Judaism. They do so from their own position of safety as non-Christian Americans in an overwhelmingly Christian country. But people like West are doing the damage control the United States doesn’t know how to do to try to mend the image of Americans in Palestinians eyes. Those eyes are seeing the same disturbing footage of police shooting and killing Americans.
West has been a vocal advocate for Palestinian rights, speaking as a Bernie Sanders surrogate and appointee to the Democratic party’s platform committee. In a surreal interaction in June, West challenged Clinton’s appointees to the committee on the question of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. The Clinton appointees rejected West’s call for evenhandedness for both Palestinians and Israelis, and denied that an occupation even exists. Clearly, these folks have never stood in line at the Qalandia checkpoint.
The occupation is as real to Palestinians as the air they breathe and the water they only have a few hours a day. West, and others like him, know that. But just as crucial as hating injustice instead of hating the people who commit it, and just as important as love and justice, is telling the truth. If you lie to people, they’re going to find out, and they’ll never trust you. The Democratic Party, on Israel/Palestine as on many others, either believes its own lies or forgot it was lying by denying the existence of an Israel’s military occupation, now almost five decades old.
“Do you have faith in the system?” one reporter asked West as we stepped into the parking lot under the midday sun.
“I have faith in God,” West replied. “I don’t have faith in no system, now.”