May 10, 2011
The Tony Kushner flap: What does it say about the discourse on Israel in America?
It was the latest dustup over what constitutes acceptable discourse in the American Jewish community when it comes to Israel.
Except this time the battle wasn’t contained within the community, but began at a university board meeting and spilled over onto the front page of The New York Times.
When the dust had settled, the City University of New York had reversed its decision to withhold an honorary degree from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner over his views on Israel.
What was less clear was what the victory for Kushner and his supporters meant for the pro-Israel wars in America.
“We do not shy away from the difficult, the unpopular, the mysterious,” Matthew Goldstein, CUNY’s chancellor, said at the meeting Monday night that reversed the earlier decision to deny Kushner the degree. “Rather, these are the areas that most deserve our careful scholarly attention and our deepest humanity.”
The university’s original decision to drop the honorary degree for Kushner from its John Jay College came at the behest of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a CUNY trustee who served as an aide to Republican George Pataki when he was the governor of New York. Wiesenfeld argued at a CUNY board meeting that Kushner’s harsh views on Israel placed him out of the bounds of acceptable discourse.
After this week’s reversal, Kushner and his supporters said it was a victory showing that one can criticize Israel and still accrue mainstream recognition—like honorary degrees.
“We’re in a different place in this country on our understanding of the crisis in the Middle East,” Kushner said in a talk at the Public Theater on Sunday evening after reports surfaced that he was being restored to the list of honorary degree recipients at CUNY.
What Wiesenfeld “wanted to happen, which was a rally to this ring of a bell, didn’t happen—quite the contrary,” Kushner said.
Kushner’s critics said it was par for the course for American universities tainted by anti-Israel bias.
In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal said the episode showed how bias against Israel is endemic among some in the academic world.
“Mr. Wiesenfeld’s ‘mistake’ was not appreciating that hostility to Israel has become such a deeply embedded principle of the modern academy that objecting to it earns you denunciation as a censor and philistine,” the newspaper’s editorialists wrote.
Wiesenfeld said in subsequent interviews that at the CUNY board meeting, he merely wanted to note his dissent from awarding Kushner the honor, and that he was surprised when his speech persuaded the board to table the degree.
In a recording of the May 2 meeting available on CUNY’s website, Wiesenfeld said he was making his views known “even if I am the lone dissenter.” At that meeting, Wiesenfeld said Kushner was associated with a group, Jewish Voice for Peace, that advocates boycotting Israel, and that Kushner said that “ethnic cleansing” was used in the founding of Israel and Israel’s founding was a disaster.
In a letter to the CUNY board two days later, Kushner demanded an apology and said he should have been given the right to defend himself.
While he has “questions and reservations regarding the founding of the state of Israel,” Kushner wrote in the letter, “My opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel’s right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr. Wiesenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks.”
Kushner wrote that his view that ethnic cleansing was used in creating the State of Israel were based largely on the work of Israeli historian Benny Morris. However, Morris also has said that the policy of removing local Arabs from their homes was not a national one, but one instigated by some military commanders on an ad hoc basis and rejected by others.
Finally, although he is indeed affiliated with Jewish Voice for Peace, Kushner said, he is on the record rejecting its boycott strategy. However, Kushner has expressed his support for the Israeli artists who boycotted the theater in the Jewish West Bank city of Ariel, saying he and others “stand with them.”
“I believe I am owed an apology for the careless way in which my name and reputation were handled at your meeting,” Kushner wrote.
But Alex Safian, the deputy director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which for years has tracked Kushner’s statements on Israel, said it was fair game to revoke the honorary degree to Kushner based on his record.
“He’s free to hold those opinions, but he shouldn’t be surprised if they’re held against him,” Safian told JTA.
But some supporters of Israel said picking through Kushner’s past statements was besides the point: As a celebrated playwright, he deserves an honorary degree.
Ed Koch, the former New York City mayor and himself an honorary CUNY laureate this year, went so far as to advise the institution to boot Wiesenfeld.
“I can’t think of a dumber academic action,” Koch wrote in a letter to the chairman of CUNY’s board of trustees, Benno Schmidt. “What does Kushner receiving an award have to do with criticism of the State of Israel? I am a well-known supporter of that nation. What if I were denied an honorary degree because of my strong support for that state? That would make as much sense as denying Mr. Kushner a degree.”
Other past CUNY honorees said they would return their degrees if the university did not reverse its decision revoking Kushner for the honoree list.
Matters became further inflamed when Wiesenfeld told a New York Times columnist that Kushner’s sin was to equate Israelis and Palestinians.
“People who worship death for their children are not human,” he said.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, who founded J Street, a group that advocates pressure on Israel to work toward a two-state solution, said the lesson here for the Jewish community is that Wiesenfeld’s tactics, which may have a measure of success in Jewish circles, make no sense in the wider world.
“This same guy doing this kind of stuff in a Jewish institution would have succeeded,” he said, noting successful efforts across the country to limit the plays or movies that Jewish community centers may stage. “You try to do this in the real world and people will think you’re nuts.”
Wiesenfeld, who has two years left on his term on CUNY’s board, has resisted calls for his resignation.