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Remembering Joel Kovel, a restless explorer

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Joel Kovel died on April 30. He was a dear friend of this site and an inspiration for me and others, as a restless seeker after uncomfortable truth.

Joel lived 81 years and it is hard to imagine a life of greater breadth and freedom. His brilliance gave him a passport to several professions and worlds. He was a doctor, a psychiatrist, an environmentalist, a political activist who ran for Senate and even president (Ralph Nader stomped him in the Greens), a professor at Bard, and also a visionary. He wrote several vital books, including groundbreaking works on white racism, the human spirit, and socialism as the answer to climate change.

His brilliant mind gained him employment at prestige institutions; and his big soul ended that employment. Joel always wound up challenging institutional terms. He hated neoliberalism, materialism, and status-grubbing. It was inevitable that he would bomb out of Bard, where he taught for many years. He was too radical and independent for conventional liberal life. He was enraged by the massacre at Waco under Clinton. He was an outspoken anti-Zionist.

Joel Kovel and his wife DeeDee Halleck

It was through anti-Zionism that Joel and I became friends. He was born into the myths of Israel and the Jewish people, and accepted them up through the ’67 War. But when Israel triumphed so easily after all the talk that he’d believed about being pushed into the sea, he realized he’d been manipulated. He was held back for a time by his own mother’s attachment to Israel, but in 2007 he published an important book, Overcoming Zionism, which described the awful psychic claims that Zionism was making on Jews. The book brought him into inevitable conflict with Leon Botstein, the president of Bard who had recruited him in the first place, and before long he was cleaning out his office.

A year ago Joel published a memoir, The Lost Traveller’s Dream, that was explicit about the role of pro-Israel donors and advocates in academia and policy-making. He loved uncomfortable truths and that memoir is filled with them. The title is from William Blake. Joel had a highly-developed religious/mystical side. He experienced a religious epiphany in a church in college, and late in life he became involved with St. Mary’s Church in Manhattan (where the first of what I expect will be several memorials is to be held on Saturday). He was baptized as a Christian a few years back, and I was so intrigued by his conversion that I published a long interview with him in 2012 (part 1, and part 2).

A lot of that interview involved the claims of Jewish life that Kovel found obnoxious: clannish and selfish actions that motivated him to follow Jesus. There were mean incidents in his family, and there was Zionism as a miasma and ongoing disaster, blinding the Jewish community to apartheid and massacres. He rebelled against the soulless pride of neoconservatism and the new Jewish establishment. He was a leader in these investigations; he granted me greater freedom to say what I saw about my community.

Joel’s ultimate endeavors seem to me to be spiritual ones. He was not afraid to be lost. He was always trying to learn how to carry his anger and intellect in the world, how to work against capitalism and injustice without losing his sense of reality, how to maintain simple human connections in the face of the structures that break them down. He’s left us many gifts, chiefly his values of exploration and humility.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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15 Responses

  1. eljay on May 3, 2018, 10:28 am

    Mr. Kovel sounds like an interesting man and a decent human being. Your words seem a fitting tribute to him.

  2. Jackdaw on May 3, 2018, 10:40 am

    Phil and Joel prove that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

    • eljay on May 3, 2018, 11:23 am

      || Jackdaw: Phil and Joel prove that even a broken clock is right twice a day. ||

      That’s twice more than the broken, blank-faced digital clocks of Zionism.

  3. Maghlawatan on May 3, 2018, 11:37 am

    A lovely tribute. Its a pity he wont be around for the Götterdämmerung of neoliberalism. Everything will be up for discussion.

    It’s interesting to see how what was virtually unspeakable in 2007-criticism of Zionism- has now become mainstream. In 2007 the bots could defend Israel against the writings of Walt, Carter and Mearsheimer. Now apartheid is blatantly obvious. And Israel is far deeper into psychosis.

    Mr Kovel wIll also miss that collapse. But he enlightened many who will be around to see it.

  4. annie on May 3, 2018, 1:14 pm

    that was so beautiful phil. when i ran across a tweet a few days ago that joel had passed, i felt this pang of sadness because i really adored what i knew of him, his voice, thoughts, stream of thoughts, through your 2012 interviews with him about his conversion (i will fix/edit that year in your text). i just adored him and thought, what a terrific loss for his wife.

    anyway, i read both the interviews slowly. then for some reason i read his wiki page, and was rather astounded there was no mention of his conversion, no mention of it at all or his spiritual path which seemed so vital to who he was and his whole outlook on life, and the times he spent in nicaragua and his long talks with his friend and guide Earl Kooperkamp.

    anyway, i registered on wiki just to add that but not being techie enough and a tad bashful. but anyone reading this, if you know how to edit his page, i hope someone at least makes mention of his spirituality, because once you’re aware of it, it makes sense of everything about who he was.

    thanks phil. beautiful.

    • Lillian Rosengarten on May 4, 2018, 12:35 pm

      I am so sad. Thank you Phil for your lovely remembrances. He was an extraordinary, tireless and brilliant anti-zionist. He will be missed by those who knew him.

  5. MHughes976 on May 3, 2018, 4:01 pm

    A great and magnanimous Anglican! I wish the rest of our communion were not so cowardly and thoughtless on the Palestine question.

  6. on May 3, 2018, 5:04 pm

    Wow. I must confess I never heard of Mr. Kovel but look forward to learning more about him and his ideas. How liberating it must be to fully understand the social systems and ideologies that govern us and work to reveal/expose them in the hope of effecting real, meaningful, humane changes.

    Thanks Phil for introducing Mr. Kovel

  7. Keith on May 3, 2018, 5:09 pm

    PHIL- “…in 2007 he published an important book, Overcoming Zionism….”

    Indeed, “Overcoming Zionism” is a very important book which I highly recommend. The book contains many important insights which gain added appeal due to the author’s highly skilled use of language to convey a message. Therefore, what follows are a few of my favorite quotes to convey Kovel’s insights. All quotes are from “Overcoming Zionism.”

    “Yet Zionism’s dynamic was drawn from the most tribal and particularistic stratum of Judaism, and its destiny became the restoration of tribalism in the guise of a modern, highly militarized and aggressive state.” (p33)

    “Zionism is Jewish power – worldly and state power: military, economic and ideological, too. It is the power, which, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, is the capacity to give names and enforce definitions, including the definition which collapses Jewishness into support of Israel….The language of Zionism is a rendering of the dialectic of Judaism into a singular power-form, and with a big army behind it, an army not just military but also a very large apparatus within state and civil society, staffed by new Jews who are not simply Jews, therefore, but power-Jews, Jews whose sincere devotion to Israel is also a sincere attachment to the pillars of empire.” (p133)

    “From a purely instrumental standpoint, the Shoah proved the greatest asset ever acquired by Zionism, one sedulously cultivated over the years.” (p66)

    “The Shoah did not determine the inner drive and logic of Zionism, but it had the highly important result of allowing this to be shown outwardly in a benign light that drew in vast degrees of support for what had hitherto had been considered a marginal and dubious idea.” (P68)

    The burden of antisemitism, which was the perceived stimulus to Zionism, became integrated into Zionism as an essential condition for it. Judaeophobia acquired an ominous kind of necessity: rather than stimulating the drive to transform the social conditions from which Judaeophobia arose, antisemitic persecution was drawn into service, it became a useful, and even necessary, wheel in the machinery of Zionism.” (p35)

  8. JLewisDickerson on May 4, 2018, 4:13 am

    RE: “He [i.e., Kovel] rebelled against the soulless pride of neoconservatism and the new Jewish establishment.” ~ Weiss


    “Turning on Russia”
    By Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould | | April 29, 2018
    In this first of a two-part series, Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould trace the origins of the neoconservative targeting of Russia.
    LINK ➤

    “Turning on Russia”, Part Two
    By Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould | | April 30, 2018
    In the second part of this two-part series, Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould explore how neo-conservatives, behind the scenes, took control of U.S. foreign policy.
    LINK ➤

    • JLewisDickerson on May 4, 2018, 3:42 pm

      P.S. JOEL KOVEL (1-20-13):

      [EXCERPT] . . . As with everyone I know of in official political culture, [Thomas] Friedman assumes that Israel is a rational actor on the international stage who will obey the calculus of reward and punishment that regulates the conduct of normal states.

      The presumption is that if you tell it the truth, and even pull back US support, it will get the message, reflect, and change its ways. But Israel is not a normal state, except superficially. It will make adjustments, pulling back here, co-operating there, making nice when necessary, crafting its message using a powerful propaganda apparatus employing the most up-to-date social science. But this is simply tactical and no more predicts or explains the behavior of the Zionist state than an individual sociopath can be explained by the fact that he obeys traffic signals while driving to the scene of his crime. . .

      SOURCE –

  9. Blake on May 6, 2018, 11:23 pm

    Sad to hear that. May he RIP at least his conscience was clear when he passed away. “Overcoming Zionism” taught me so much.

  10. doctorbri on May 7, 2018, 1:38 am

    Phil…what a beautiful tribute to a great man. I will never forget Joel’s visit to our Honors Class entitled “White Racism: A Psychohistory”, designed and delivered by my colleague, Dr. Alice Eichholz and myself in the early 1970’s. He was gracious, patient, clear, impassioned in this course dedicated to his tour de force book of the same name. He was a profound influence in my life and his multidisciplinary approach to racism served as the inspiration for my career development practice and theories to this day, now the center of my professional life here in China and throughout Asia. Depth and context uber allas. While a career and life design psychologist, I see my work as essentially political, helping people to build the power within themselves to pursue a bigger life in the quest for authenticity and living out one’s potential. Joel was my Gandolf.

    • annie on May 7, 2018, 3:13 am

      wow, thank you for finding us doctorbri, and commenting about kovel’s visit to your honors class. it feels really special getting this first hand view. all your contributions, the few of them, are appreciated (by me).

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