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.
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.