On not going to one’s 60th reunion at Yale

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This month, Joel Kovel published a new memoir, The Lost Traveller’s Dream, about which we will have more soon, and had initially planned to attend his 60th reunion at Yale. What follows is his meditation on those plans.  

Joel Kovel, speaking at Cork conference

In 1953 I entered Yale as a Brooklyn-born Jewish boy who loved learning and was excellent at my studies in both science and the humanities. I was aware of but not preoccupied by the fact that the school I was about to attend stood on the heights of our educational system and opened upon paths toward wealth and power scarcely dreamed of by my Ashkenazi ancestors. I thrived at Yale and when the necessity arose of finding the next step on the ladder, chose rather passively to build a career in medicine, and later, psychiatry, training at the newly founded Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and eventually becoming Director of Training, a full professor and a psychoanalyst.

So far, so good . . . but then came the storms—storms from without as the United States tore into Vietnam with imperial violence, and storms from within as my growing awareness broke down the right-wing assumptions transmitted by my family. It came to a head during a tour of military duty as a psychiatrist in Seattle in 1965-67. Wracked by guilt over my service to the monster, I tossed about and questioned everything. I almost broke down; until reaching bottom and bouncing upward, I came to a radical reassessment of my life and found another identity as a writer and antagonist to Empire.

A series of wrenching crises ensued, moving me sharply leftward and redefining what I wanted to do with my life. I became–I do not use the phrase casually– a Marxist revolutionary even as I was engaged in the very sedate career as a Freudian psychoanalyst. An impossible contradiction, you might say—and you would be right. Indeed, my career came to a halt early in the 1980’s as I was fired from my professorship at the Einstein medical school. Soon afterward I folded up my psychoanalytic couch and brought my “Psy” days to an end.

Cracks in my Jewish identity widened with the growing power of the Zionist State of Israel and its sweeping along of the American Jewish population. In 2007 I expressed my growing anti-Zionism with a book, “Overcoming Zionism,” which denied the legitimacy of the state of Israel and thereby called for a One State resolution to the Question of Palestine. It was withdrawn from circulation by its distributor, the University of Michigan Press, because of Zionist pressure. Two years later, I was sacked from another prestigious professorship, at Bard College.

By 2009, the boy of whom my mother, now dead 16 years, would bitterly lament that he was “such a kopf!”, had become a nobody and a pariah in the academic world where I had once shown so much promise.

In response I wrote my memoir, which after eight years has been released under the title of “The Lost Traveller’s Dream.” (Autonomedia). All of the above is covered in its pages, and needless to say, much more, including the transformation of my spiritual and religious life, which began at my matriculation into Yale in September, 1953, along with some 1100 others.

The late professor of English Richard B. Sewall, from the Yale Bulletin and Calendar

We were addressed (I remember sitting at the edge of the balcony to his right) by Professor Richard B. Sewall, who was to become a prize-winning biographer of Emily Dickinson and told us on this occasion that fulfillment of life comes through an ascending sequence of three qualities: to live by faith, by hope, and by the “greatest of these, Love”.

I had no idea that Sewall was paraphrasing Chapter 13 of Paul’s First letter to the Corinthians; in fact, I had no idea that a person named Saint Paul had once lived, much less what he stood for, just as I had no idea that there was a word for the surge of rapture that flowed through me for some time after Sewall uttered the word, Love– to wit, that I was undergoing a mystical epiphany of Grace.

A fuller understanding didn’t take hold for many years in the course of many feelings of this kind and the many circumstances that triggered them along with the many experiences I had and choices I made that entered into the process. These led up to and have continued since my Baptism on Easter Sunday in 2012 at St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem. They comprise in sum the narrative and substantive logic of The Lost Traveller’s Dream, which is the Dream itself, in the sense given by William Blake from whom it is a quotation.

Yale has been a center of American Protestantism stemming from its beginnings in 1701 (for example, Richard Sewall’s maternal grandfather was John D. Rockefeller’s personal Pastor). All this passed me by during my undergraduate years as my mystical encounter with Paul was presumably working its way into my unconscious mind.

I was also unaware of more sordid worldly matters that were brewing during my “Bright College Years” at the great university. For Yale played a special role in the building of the National Security State by Righteous Christians, and was especially known for its very close relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency, for which purpose President A. Whitney Griswold turned over his office to the Cold Warriors. (See Robin Winks, Cloak and Gown. Yale University Press, 1996.) It took years to realize that my Alma Mater was not just a place where rich gentiles sent their offspring to be groomed for their class destiny, but also a breeding ground for imperial intrigue and violence.

And the demographics were changing as well. As time went on Yale was no longer a largely gentile preserve (I entered under a strictly preserved 10% Jewish quota) but shared as well in the remarkable growth of Jewish power in state and civil society. A Jewish President of the university would have been unthinkable in my time; yet the last two leaders of Yale, Rick Levin (1993-2013), and Peter Salovey (2013-Present), have broken the mold.

I was grateful to Yale for opening so much of the world to me, but also disinclined to stay attached through the long period that followed my graduation in which I was preparing the way for and entering upon a life of resistance. I pretty much confined myself to reading the class notes in the alumni magazine (called in the old days, the Yale Aluminum Manganese) to see how the cohort of 1957 was navigating the seas of life.

The years went by and appeared as the magic number of 2007, a half-century after graduation. The Alumni Office made an offer for participating the 50th reunion which in my case I didn’t want to refuse: to be one of four presenters in a debate of social significance; and, a dream come true: the chance to have one’s own books on display (five of them) in the Sterling Library, site of innumerable youthful browsings, and pretty much Holy Ground for a world class browser as me. There were lots of other events, and the chance to meet up with quite a few classmates I hadn’t seen since forever.

So I took the bait, traveled with Dee Dee Halleck to New Haven for the first time in a long while, and had as good an experience as I could have expected. Everything went as planned, communication and esprit flourished. It was touching to see the septuagenarians who had once been my classmates and read what time had written on our countenances. Kudos to President Levin for providing the atmosphere wherein this could flourish.

Aftermath: the road to 2017

At the time of the 2007 reunion Overcoming Zionism was something to be proud of, in a glass case at the Sterling Library. Three months later it had been effectively banned by pressure from the Zionist Thought Police on the University of Michigan Press, its distributor. My legal team (Committee for Open Discussion of Zionism) got this reversed (it was, after all a violation of contract); but a process had been set into motion, with a likelihood bordering on certitude that my academic career was finished. You can read the story in Chapter 13 of The Lost Traveller’s Dream, “Free at Last,” describing the downfall of my career at Bard College, an institution that prated fidelity to freedom of speech the authenticity of which can be measured against the response of Bard’s president, Leon Botstein when I asked why he did not defend my right to publish a book that displeased the Zionist Thought Police, he airily replied that “we thought you could take care of yourself.”

Some years later, Botstein said the following to the Chronicle of Higher Education in explaining his opposition to boycotts of Israel:

As an active member of the Jewish community, I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education. For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.

He might as well have been talking of the need to invest in proper lighting in libraries. The matter of fact candor of this is astonishing– no less so, the fact that the leading journal of “Higher Education” can permit something so low, so coarse and frankly mercenary to be printed in its pages, with nary a blink. Truly, American academia had by 2014 become territory deeply corrupted by Zionism. Nor is it simply impecunious small colleges who crave the generosity of the American Jewish establishment. Even mighty Yale with its $20+ billion endowment has fallen under the spell of the Zionist Thought Police. I learned of this, not when the story broke, in September 2014, but just this year in the course of applying to read from my memoir at my class’s 60th reunion toward the end of May.

It was, so I thought, a lovely idea. Why not share with the surviving fraction of octogenarians from the class of 1957 my account of an event from 1953 that I had placed at the very beginning of Chapter 1 of the memoir of my life, because it had shaped my deepest sense of self? I found it fascinating that the great majority of our 1957 alumni would have shared the same experience of Sewall’s talk; and who knows, some may even have also felt inspired? Others may have had a lesser spiritual reaction to the event; and even if they had not it could have generated a highly interesting discussion. That is what I hoped for and what I had in mind when I prepared a set of readings mainly drawn from Chapter 1 and submitted them through two classmates, Merrell Clark and Bernard Kosto.

Kosto came back with the news: the suggestion was rejected, abruptly and unceremoniously. Couldn’t do it; we’re too busy. It seemed to me, rather, that there was actually not enough to do. This was odd. Life rarely presents us with a clear cut way forward. That’s where “discernment” comes in, as Ignatius Loyola taught The Society of Jesus. So what could be discerned about Yale and its octogenarian alumnae?

Plainly, the schedule and events appear to be much less demanding—and interesting—in 2017 than 2007. I mean, really, do we need to speak worshipfully once more to Yale’s genius investment officer? And meet some callow undergraduates and their adviser. What about our lives? Does being 80 shut this down? At least it hasn’t for me. But then I think again: was this rejection part of the lifetime banning I have earned by my unfriendly attitude toward Zionist Israel and its invasion of our society? Fair enough; one is after all known by his enemies.

And that stance also creates bonds of solidarity with one’s friends, even those I hadn’t met.

The ordeal of Bruce Shipman

Bruce Shipman was the Episcopal Chaplain at Yale who fell afoul of the University—and the Connecticut Diocese—through his righteous criticism of the genocidal degrees of violence used by Israel against Gaza in the summer of 2014. Doing so required challenging the reigning orthodoxy of Deborah Lipstadt whose academic Raison d’etre has been to essentialize anti-Semitism as an all purpose-justification for Zionist violence. As Shipman put this in a very sober and restrained letter that was judged fit to print by the New York Times in late August 2014,

Bruce Shipman, Chaplain - Episcopal Church at Yale
Bruce Shipman, Chaplain – Episcopal Church at Yale

“Lipstadt makes far too little of the relationship between Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.”

Shockingly, this polite letter triggered a wildly hysterical reaction at Yale, of the sort that I could not have previously imagined, and is to my way of thinking prima facie evidence of a deeply Zionist corruption of the Yale community.

In the event, Shipman resigned because he was about to be summarily dismissed; though he has now rebuilt his pastoral life in Mexico.

It is a difficult matter and beyond my scope to dissect the role of President Peter Salovey in all this. He was evidently quite active during the Shipman affair, though he claimed that the jurisdiction was that of the Connecticut Diocese and not the university. It is hard to avoid thinking that his administration differs significantly from that of Yale’s first Jewish president, Rick Levin.


Of one thing we can be quite certain: that the relationship between the United States and Israel is the most bizarre in history between a larger state and its smaller client, and affects all aspects of our life despite the thick cloud of suppression. One fact has come my way recently, and that is the resolution signed by all 100 US Senators—that’s right, every last one of them— pledging fealty to Israel and warning the incoming Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres of Portugal, to make sure that Israel is treated with due consideration else unspecified financial measures will be taken. (Thanks to Richard Falk for this information.)

Bernie Sanders signed it, so did Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, and any number of so-called progressives who are said to be lining up to rescue the Democratic party and America.
To me it represents an ultimate betrayal of politics; and in its light what to do about benighted Yale is extinguished.

Say Farewell to Yale, Joel; there are far more important things to worry about.

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Dear Joel,

Thank you for sharing something so deeply personal, and so eloquently. I believe your suspicions are correct.

Doctor Kovel is among the fortunate people capable of a personal overhaul upon perceiving a false start in their lives. A very painful pursuit in escaping the sunk costs that bog most people down. The momentum of the Zionist enthusiasm assures a bad ending for all concerned, there being too many who think that we are winning, while losing our souls, and the liberties of our Nation. “Faith, Hope, and Charity” don’t count in Materialism.… Read more »

At least the deliberate destruction of people (or of their professional lives) for not following party lines does not, in the USA, or not yet, result in firing squads and long imprisonment in the gulag. Something to be thankful for. And, to concur with Kovel’s fears for progressivism in the USA, it appears that (and not only w.r.t. Israel) the so-called progressives are more interested in preserving the democratic party (pretty much as it was)… Read more »