I predict that The City University of New York will rescind its decision not to honor playwright Tony Kushner with an honorary degree at its commencement.
Based on the objection of a single board member, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, CUNY withdrew its offer to KUshner, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Angeles in America. Wiesenfeld singled out Kushner for a handful of critical statements Kushner has made about Israel over the years.
According to The New York Times:
Amid calls from CUNY faculty and staff members for the board to reverse its decision, Mr. Kushner said in an interview that he believed the trustees had slandered him and owed him an apology. Even if the board was to reconsider and approve the degree, Mr. Kushner said, he would not accept it.
According to a podcast of the Monday meeting and accounts from two CUNY officials who attended it, one of the 12 trustees present, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, objected to John Jay College’s submission of Mr. Kushner for an honorary degree. Mr. Wiesenfeld described viewpoints and comments, which he ascribed to Mr. Kushner, that he had found on the Web site of Norman Finkelstein, a political scientist and critic of Israel.
Mr. Wiesenfeld, an investment adviser and onetime aide to former Gov. George E. Pataki and former Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, said that Mr. Kushner had tied the founding of Israel to a policy of ethnic cleansing, criticized the Israel Defense Forces and supported a boycott of Israel.
Let’s put aside the idea that a university bases its decision and stakes its academic image on the whims of one opinionated, ill-informed, non-expert board member. That’s embarrassing enough. TWhat CUNY needs to do is issue a statement saying that after a deeper review of the evidence, the university finds that Mr. Kushner’s views on Israel are complicated, nuanced, provocative, and within the bounds of civilized debate.
Exhibit A is what Kushner told me at an onstage talk I had with him at AMERICAN JEWISH UNIVERSITY in November 2007. (Fascinating that the conservative American Jewish University would invite Kushner to discuss his views, while CUNY balks):
...Kushner embraces uncertainty. “I have very mixed and complicated feelings about the state of Israel as a Jewish American,” he said on Monday evening, “and I’m furious at being represented as this kind of marginal crazy who’s plotting to destroy the state of Israel. I think everybody harbors their own secret doubts, or at least most of us do, and everybody’s afraid to say them, because the orthodoxy is policed with such violence and vituperation.”
Kushner and director Steven Spielberg endured a wave of criticism from some within the Jewish community who felt their film “Munich” stretched too far in trying to humanize Palestinian terrorists, or in trying to insert moral quandary into the minds of Israelis assigned to kill those terrorists.
I asked Kushner why Mamet, among others, finds his position so unpalatable. “It’s because they’re trying to defend the indefensible,” Kushner said. “It’s trying to uphold the reality you can’t uphold. It’s a cartoon version of Middle Eastern politics that almost no one in the state of Israel recognizes. There’s easily 50 percent of the Israeli population that’s progressive.”
I’m not sure of that number, especially in the wake of the Hamas takeover of Gaza, but Kushner was clearly still feeling the sting of “Munich.”
“I can’t feel neutral about the state of Israel because I’m a Jew,” Kushner said, “and I would like to see Israel survive and prosper. I absolutely don’t believe in single-state solution. I believe in a two-state solution. I’ve never anywhere on earth said I believe Israel should be forced to give up its identity as a Jewish state ... that obviously wouldn’t work. It would be the end of Israel.” But Kushner attacked those who disagree with what he considers his more thoughtful approach to Israel’s conflict.
“[David Mamet’s] view really almost goes to neighborhood street gang turf war, the people on the hill and the people in the valley. It’s like that Billy Jack anthem. You can’t talk in those terms.”
Let me reiterate for Mr. Wiesenfeld: “I’ve never anywhere on earth said I believe Israel should be forced to give up its identity as a Jewish state ... that obviously wouldn’t work. It would be the end of Israel,” Kushner said.
Not that a man being honored for his superb playwrighting needs to pass a Likud litmus test, but if that’s not kosher enough for CUNY, what is?
This trend to punish Jewish artists for holding views on Israel that do not comport with the right-leaning pro-Israel crowd has got t stop. CUNY can take a brave and necessary stand here, recognizing that Jewish history is full of courageous thinkers whose once radical views were eventually seen as correct. They’re called prophets.
As I wrote in a column about yet another artistic boycott last year, “Should we really be saying, in the center of America’s creative community, such formidable artists are beyond the pale of the Jewish communal support? Kushner’s ideas and writings are of more lasting value to the Jews and the world than any number of JCRCs, and Theodore Bikel does more for Jewish life and culture in a year than most Jewish organizations do in their lifetimes. When the big tent of Jewish life gets too small to cover those two, I’d rather stand outside.”
You can read the whole story here.
You can hear Kushner speak about his feelings on Israel here.