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Tony Kushner Blocked from Honorary Doctorate at CUNY for Supporting Palestinian Justice – Updated

The Jewish Week broke the story on Tuesday that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner was tabled rejected from receiving an honorary doctorate from City University of New York’s John Jay College, upon the baseless accusations of one of CUNY’s board of trustees members, investment banker Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld:

Wiesenfeld, a board member of several Jewish organizations and an activist in conservative circles, spoke out against plans to honor Kushner, who, like others receiving honorary degrees, may have spoken at the graduation ceremony.

Wiesenfeld cited what he believed were some of Kushner’s anti-Israel statements, all of which he said he found on the website of Norman Finkelstein, another figure known for his vehemently anti-Israel views.

When people identify themselves with “these types of viewpoints,” Wiesenfeld told his fellow trustees, “it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things,” especially when Israel sits in such a hostile neighborhood. “There’s a lot of disingenuousness and non-intellectual activity directed against the State of Israel on campuses across the country,” he said, adding that CUNY has had its share of such activity, although it’s far better than most universities.

Following Wiesenfeld’s comments, a majority of CUNY board members voted to remove Kushner’s name from the list of this year’s honorees, and then voted unanimously to table, or put off, the honor to the playwright, according to CUNY spokesman Michael Arena. The move, though, effectively kills the honor, because the next scheduled board meeting is at the end of June, after John Jay’s June 3 commencement ceremony.

On Wednesday, the blog Mondoweiss was among the first to pick up this important story, and Kushner responded Wednesday with a letter to the CUNY board.  Here’s an excerpt of his understated communication to this body, which Kushner described yesterday as “indulging in ‘McCarthyite nonsense.'”

I wasn’t told in advance that my willingness to accept an honorary doctorate from John Jay would require my presence at a meeting to defend myself. As far as I know, no one who might have spoken on my behalf was notified in advance. I’m not a difficult person to find, nor am I lacking in articulate colleagues and friends who would have responded. For all his posturing as a street-tough scrapper for causes he believes in, Mr.Weisenfeld, like most bullies, prefers an unfair fight.

But far more dismaying than Mr. Weisenfeld’s diatribe is the silence of the other eleven board members. [emphasis added]

Did any of you feel that your responsibilities as trustees of an august institution of higher learning included even briefly discussing the appropriateness of Mr. Weisenfeld’s using a public board meeting as a platform for deriding the political opinions of someone with whom he disagrees?

Did none of you feel any responsibility towards me, whose name was before you, and hence available as a target for Mr. Weisenfeld’s slander, entirely because I’d been nominated for an honor by the faculty and administration of one of your colleges?

I can’t adequately describe my dismay at thefact that none of you felt stirred enough by ordinary fairness to demand of one of your members that, if he was going to mount a vicious attack, he ought to adhere to standards higher than those of internet gossip. Mr. Weisenfeld declared to you that, rather than turn to “pro-Israel” websites, he’d gleaned his insights into my politics from the website of  Norman Finkelstein. I find it appalling that he failed to consider a third option: familiarizing himself with any of the work I’ve done, my plays, screenplays, essays and speeches, for which, I assume, the faculty and administration of John Jay nominated me for an honor.

Kushner has found predictable defenders from among those who openly espouse justice for Palestinians.  This disturbing action has also pushed some who are just now beginning to question the Zionist expansionist meme.  Here’s UCLA professor for public policy Mark Kleiman yesterday:

[T]oday I learn that Tony Kushner – whose views about Israel seem roughly to track mine – has been denied an honorary degree by a minority of the trustees of the City University of New York, based on a typical cowardly wingnut smear job, launched without warning in a way that gave Kushner no chance to defend himself.

I know most Israelis don’t deserve their worst American defenders, but if the result of having to defend Israel is that Jews start acting like bullies and sounding like Nazis, at some point the price gets to be too high.

Like Beinart, I support the continued existence of a democratic and Jewish Israel within, roughly, its 1967 boundaries; unlike him, I can no longer count myself a Zionist.* In the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn, “Include me out.”

Kushner, who has long battled against prejudicial stereotypes against gays, is going to put up a great fight on this – one that will bear watching closely.  Philip Weiss writes today:

A leading artist is afraid when someone says that he has disparaged a foreign country. I’d point out that back in January, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation organized a bigwigs’ letter that urged Obama to condemn Israeli settlement-building in the U.N. Security Council– a letter that of course failed– and that Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post derided Clemons as an “Israel-basher.”

The comment unnerved Clemons, who is a leading Washington Democrat,and much as Kushner has appealed to CUNY, Clemons called on The Washington Post to retract the charge. He wrote:

Calling someone an Israel-basher is akin to calling them an anti-Semite or a bigot, and that can’t go without response.

And here is Kushner, per the Times:

Kushner… said that he was “dismayed by the vicious attack and wholesale distortion of my beliefs.” He has criticized policies and actions by Israel in the past, and said that he believed — based on research by Israeli historians — that the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of Israel was ethnic cleansing. But he added that he was a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist, that he had never supported a boycott of the country, and that his views were shared by many Jews and supporters of Israel.

Kushner has also found support from Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic:

This is just unconscionably stupid. Where to begin? Actually I can’t begin now, I’m running out to something, but really, denying Tony Kushner an honorary degree because a former aide to George Pataki thinks he is anti-Israel? Kushner is critical of Israel, yes, and I don’t think he actually understands much about the Middle East, but I’m not sure this is the business of the City University of New York. In any case, Kushner is obsessed, in his own way, with the Jewish condition, and he views himself, I’m reasonably sure, as inhabiting the age-old role of the laceratingly self-critical Jewish dissident. He strikes me, from a distance, as one of those sons-of-the-people who wakes up worrying about the Jews, and goes to sleep worrying about the Jews. I think his discomfort with Jewish power is mainly misplaced, but turning him into a free-speech martyr? Is that what a handful of Jews want to do with their political power? In any case, if those Jews on the right are trying to marginalize his opinions, this is certainly not the way to do it.


Goldberg got that right.  Something tells me that CUNY will end up giving Tony his degree, and apologizing for how they’ve treated one of our most important living artists.

Update: Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the CUNY board of trustees member who opposed an honorary doctorate for Tony Kushner was interviewed yesterday for today’s New York Times.  The interview contains a remarkable exchange between Wiesenfeld and NYT reporter Jim Dwyer:

On Thursday afternoon, Mr. Wiesenfeld took a phone call about the events at the board meeting, and said he was surprised to get enough support from other trustees to block the Kushner degree. He had thought, he said, that he was going to register his dissent for the record and move on.

I tried to ask a question about the damage done by a short, one-sided discussion of vigorously debated aspects of Middle East politics, like the survival of Israel and the rights of  the Palestinians, and which side was more callous toward human life, and who was most protective of it.

But Mr. Wiesenfeld interrupted and said the question was offensive because “the comparison sets up a moral equivalence.”

Equivalence between what and what? “Between the Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “People who worship death for their children are not human.”

Did he mean the Palestinians were not human? “They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history,” he said.

I know scores of Palestinians, and they all seem to love their children as dearly as I love mine.  Some might even be willing to give their own life to save Mr. Wiesenfeld’s kids, should such an unlikely situation actually occur.  The guy seems more like a batshit crazy racist every time he’s put in front of a microphone or qwerty keyboard.

In the comments to this diary there are several updates, as supporters for Mr. Kushner have come forward from many universities and from some unlikely places.  Kushner is being supported by ex-NYC mayor Ed Koch, for instance.  Koch wants CUNY to give Wiesenfeld the boot.

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