CUNY Embarrasses Itself over Playwright Tony Kushner (Updated)

by Kevin Jon Heller

I hope readers have been following the backlash against CUNY’s Board of Trustees for its cowardly decision not to award Tony Kushner an honorary degree from John Jay college because one trustee — with no notice, and giving Kushner no opportunity to respond — lied about his political beliefs and accused him of being “anti-Israel.”  Here is a bit of the backstory:

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.

“I think it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things,” Mr. Wiesenfeld said. “Especially when the State of Israel, which is our sole democratic ally in the area, sits in the neighborhood which is almost universally dominated by administrations which are almost universally misogynist, antigay, anti-Christian.”

Mr. Kushner, who had not been alerted that Mr. Wiesenfeld would speak against him, 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.

This has been an incredibly ugly experience,” Mr. Kushner said, “that a great public university would make a decision based on slanderous mischaracterizations without giving the person in question a chance to be heard.”

“I’m sickened,” he added, “that this is happening in New York City. Shocked, really.”

The attack itself is simply business as usual for Israel’s self-appointed right-wing champions.  Unable to win the war of ideas, they simply wage war on ideas, trying to silence anyone who has the temerity to criticize Israel.  What’s surprising is that a traditionally progressive university like CUNY would be swayed by such baseless attacks.  Similar attacks did not prevent Brandeis from awarding Kushner an honorary degree in 2006.

Kushner defended himself in an open letter to the Board of Trustees, and the pushback against its decision was immediate.  CUNY’s faculty union condemned the decision as “perverse” and “craven.”  At least three recipients of honorary degrees from CUNY — Yeshiva historian Ellen Schrecker, and the writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Cunningham — informed the university that they intended to return their honorary degrees.  Even Ed Koch, noted leftist, condemned the decision and said that Wiesenfeld (who doubled down on his criticisms in an algemeiner editorial a couple of days ago that reads like it was written by The Onion) should resign from the Board of Trustees.

It now looks like the Board of Trustees is going to reverse its decision, with individual trustees trying to claim — pathetically — that they voted against Kushner simply because they needed more information about him.  (Conveniently ignoring the fact that they had not planned on getting that information before the graduation ceremony.)  Kushner himself is wavering about accepting the award if it is now offered to him.  Either way, he will come out of this all-too-predictable debacle looking much better than CUNY.

UPDATE: CUNY’s executive committee has reversed the Board of Trustees’ decision, and Kushner has agreed to accept the reward.  That’s the right call.  For the record, though, I would be completely opposed to removing Wiesenfeld from the Board of Trustees over the incident, as some want CUNY to do.  His attack on Kushner was appalling, unfair, and wrong on the merits — but removing him would simply compound CUNY’s original mistake.

16 Responses

  1. At least they didn’t storm Kushner’s villa and dumped his body into the sea.

  2. I don’t at all agree with anything that CUNY or Kushner did or said, but I find it interesting how KJH always pounces on these issues, even though they’re unrelated to anything legal. If you want people to take anything you say seriously about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, at least pretend to be impartial.

  3. KJH, please elaborate on the differences between this and BDS, with particular focus on the inclusion of Israeli universities and scholars in the BDS program.

  4. IHDE,

    As I have said on a number of occasions before, I am opposed to any academic boycott of Israeli universities, with the exception of the one built in the Occupied Territories.  If you don’t understand the difference between individuals exercising their right not to do business with a state whose government systematically oppresses an entire people and a public university denying an honorary degree to someone on the basis of his beliefs, I can’t help you.  I presume that means you were opposed to the divestment movement in South Africa?


    If you don’t understand that standing up for Kushner is different than being “impartial” regarding Israel-Palestine — whatever that means — than I can’t help you, either.  But hey, let’s remember that deliberately targeting Israeli civilians with rockets and using human shields are war crimes on the part of Hamas.

    Look, impartiality!

  5. Any pernicious attempt to encroach on academic freedom is a proper topic of this blog, whether it concerns relatively common things, such as bad faith misrepresentations of specific works or publicists, or more major things, like using such smears to interfere with appointments or terminating someone’s current employment.

    KJH has written multiple times about such issues here, including the Joseph Weiler case, which had absolutely nothing to do with the Israel-Palestine politics.

    Accordingly, it’s rather sad that KJH continues to face such attacks. Allegations of racial prejudice are a very serious thing, and so making such a challenge should be reserved for when there is suitable evidence commensurate with the seriousness of the allegation. Needless to say the bare insinuation of interesting posting patterns concerning a particular hot-button-topics does not constitute such commensurate evidence; indeed, it is pretty poor form to suggest such a thing based on such a thin reed. So, stop trying to work the refs please! I can only suggest that if KJH really does strike you as having an agenda you would make a much more credible case of it if you keep your powder dry for substantive arguments based on specific cases.

  6. Will,

    Thanks for that.  I particularly agree with your “working the refs” statement.  Comments like these are simply an attempt to bully me into not writing about Israel (putting aside the fact that the CUNY issue has little to do with what one thinks of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).  I won’t stop writing about what I’m interested in, whether I’m attacked from the right, as above, or from the left.  I’ve received a number of nasty emails complaining about my belief that killing UBL was perfectly legal; I don’t care about them, either.

  7. KJH, if I do wish you wrote less about Israel and Palestine it is because I get much more out of your writing about, eg, the ICC.

    As it happens I consider BDS to be an abomination, insofar as bad ideas go.

    I didn’t think this of the divestment of interests in South Africa but I don’t actually see the logical link, unless it is to highlight the absurdity of choosing Israel for ‘BDS’.

    But I am reassured to hear that you do oppose any boycott of Israeli academics or their institutions.

  8. I trust those who speak about BDS above have read Omar Barghouti’s book, BDS: Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions–The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights (2011), which Archbishop Desmond Tutu described as “lucid and morally compelling,” “perfectly timed to make a major contribution to this urgently needed global campaign for justice, freedom, and peace.”

    From a recent interview with Barghouti at Middle East Monitor conducted by Dr. Hanan Chehata:

    In February, the Israeli Knesset voted to approve a bill that essentially criminalizes actions that support boycotts against Israel. If passed, citizens of Israel considered to be supporting BDS could face fines of around (the equivalent of) $8,200; while non-citizens involved in BDS activities in Israel could be banned from entry into Israel for at least 10 years. Surely, this demonstrates the depth of Israel’s fear over the impact of the BDS. How would you respond to Israel’s reaction to the BDS movement?
    OB: Israel and its well-oiled lobby groups in the West have tried every trick in their book of vilification, intimidation, bullying and intellectual terror to deter or smear BDS activists and leaders everywhere. So far, they have miserably failed, however, as they themselves sometimes admit. Given its morally consistent, non-violent, human rights based agenda that upholds the rule of international law, full equality for all humans and a categorical rejection of all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, the global BDS movement has dragged Israel into a “battlefield,” where we maintain decisive ethical superiority and neutralize Israel’s daunting arsenal of weapons, including nuclear weapons.
    Having lost the battle for hearts and minds in several key Western states, they have resorted to their ultimate weapon, criminalizing dissent and entirely muzzling debate. This is the logic of this new draconian measure that the far-right Israeli government hopes to pass in the no less fanatic Israeli parliament. Their only problem is pragmatic. If this anti-BDS measure passes into law, Israel will have dropped one of its last veneers or masks of “democracy,” fully exposing itself as an irreparable system of colonial and racist oppression that requires much of the same treatment used against South African apartheid: BDS. Far from deterring BDS or checking its impressive growth, this anti-BDS law may in fact backfire and give a strong boost to BDS around the world. Monitoring the Israeli establishment’s habit of late of shooting itself in the foot, one cannot put it beyond them to pass this law irrespective of the above compelling pragmatic consideration.
    Israel and its lobbies are repeatedly saying that BDS, with its emphasis on the three basic Palestinian rights, “de-legitimizes” and seeks the “destruction” of Israel. Specifically, they refer to the second right, the right to full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. One can only wonder, if equality “destroys” Israel, what does that say about Israel? Did equality “destroy” South Africa? Did it “delegitimize” whites in the Southern states of the U.S. after segregation was outlawed? The only thing that equality, human rights and justice really destroy is a system of injustice, inequality and racial discrimination. We in the BDS movement are open and quite proud to target Israel’s occupation, apartheid and denial of our UN-sanctioned refugee rights and to pursue the slogans of our movement: Freedom, Justice and Equality.
    HC: How do you respond to the criticism that an academic boycott restricts the freedom of speech and scuppers opportunity to debate serious issues in an academic forum?
    OB: The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel is a key part of the BDS campaign, due to the entrenched and persistent collusion of Israel’s academic and cultural institutions in maintaining and whitewashing Israel’s occupation and apartheid. It is important to emphasize that our campaign targets Israel’s academic and cultural institutions, not individuals, so the claim that our boycott would prevent Israeli academics or artists from interacting with their counterparts worldwide is simply false and intentionally misleading. Regardless, those who oppose the boycott because they erroneously think it infringes Israelis’ freedom of speech seem to forget that Palestinians, too, deserve that right. The fact that Israel’s decades-long system of colonial oppression denies Palestinians all our fundamental rights, including the right to free speech and often the right to education, appears to be less worthy of those critics’ interest. When Israel criminalized Palestinian education and shut down all Palestinian universities (some for four consecutive years), schools and even kindergartens during the first intifada, which was overwhelmingly peaceful, we did not hear much protest from many of those who are currently attacking the academic boycott because of its alleged impact on Israeli academic freedom. It is this hypocrisy that makes us wonder whether those people truly believe that all humans deserve equal rights, regardless of their identity.

  9. Omar Barghotui studies in Israeli universities. Quite an embarrassment.

    Yet again, this is not about free speech. You should all take note of Stanley Fish’s wise words:

    “The uproar  surrounding the tabling of Kushner’s nominations suggests that something remarkable and untoward had been done, but my experience indicates that there was nothing exceptional about the board’s action, which, while it may have been unwise, is pretty much business as usual.”

    “Refusing to hire or firing instructors because of their political views is against the law; anyone who could show in a court of law that he or she had been a victim of such treatment would get both a job and a large settlement in the bargain. Refusing to award an honorary degree even for political reasons involves no penalties — the disappointed non-honoree doesn’t have a case — except for the penalty of looking small-minded, biased and  stupid. (More about that later.) And besides, no honorary degree recipient has been censored. To claim that Kushner has been censored is to say that getting an honorary degree is a right like the right of free expression and that not getting one is a First Amendment cause of action. The only aggrieved parties here are the faculty and administration of John Jay and they haven’t been censored either; they have been overridden.”

    As I said, this is just more proof of KJH’s inability to discern what’s legal and what’s not in the context of Israel. Everything related to Israel, to you, KJH, seems to implicate a violation of sorts; is that because you are desperately trying to make anything that Israel or its supporters do that you don’t like relevant to this blog?

    You have a lot more explaining to do.

  10. Kushner once said that “The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community.” KJH adds his own vituperative remarks about Israel’s “self-appointed right-wing champions.”

    Maybe if Kushner (and Kevin) want to be treated with more civility, they should exhibit some themselves.

  11. I would respond to DB’s comment about civility, but I can’t stop laughing long enough.  Here’s just a random sentence from his most recent post about Israel:

    The hostility emanating to Israel emanating from these sources is not, primarily, a result of anti-Semitism or other Jewcentric mental maladies. Rather, it is a natural result of a cauldron of ideologies–pacifism, anti-liberalism, Third Worldism, hostility to the West, warmed-over Marxism, and so on, combined with a dash of naive human rights idealism–that dominates certain intellectual circles.

    Civility indeed.

  12. As for CS, there is no point in defending an argument I didn’t make.  I never claimed that what CUNY did was illegal, nor did I claim that it was censorship.  (After all, Stanley Fish was my mentor in grad school and was the person who convinced me to go to law school.)  I said it was part of a much larger effort on by Israel’s far-right champions to silence opposing views — which it is, and which CS has never questioned.

  13. Yeah, the article is strangely fixated on the legal aspect of this despite the fact that Fish expressly acknowledges that the decision was “dumb” “small-minded, biased and stupid” — which is all you really need to justify a blog post about it. For that reason I don’t particularly like the contrarian  tone, as if the only defective decisions worth discussing are those with a legal remedy.

    Also, there’s a bit of a difference between the position of someone who is just part of a field of potential candidates to receive a honorary degree, and someone who has already been elevated to the favourite candidate and is about to be confirmed. That difference is especially acute here given CUNY’s apparently long history dating back over 50 years of deferential treatment of such nominations. But for the intervention of one Trustee, the confirmation would be made – so it’s perfectly natural to inquire as to whether the Trustee’s argument actually hold up under scrutiny and whether they comport with the best traditions and values of the university.

  14. Does KJH deny that these ideologies dominate certain (far left) intellectual circles, and that people who are in these circles also tend to be very hostile to Israel?  Of course not, because it’s obviously true.  So why is it uncivil?  Of course, I find these ideologies to be wrong, foolish, or dangerous, but I didn’t claim that these individuals are motivated by evil intent, or are even bad people, or even, in that particular post, that they are wrong (though I obviously think they are).  That’s a rather far cry from Kushner’s claim that his ideological adversaries are “repulsive,” or even KJH’s somewhat less obnoxious but still aggressive comments about Israel’s “right-wing champions.” 

    If KJH (or someone else) were to write that Israel’s “right-wing champions” are motivated not by hatred of Arabs like some allege, but by warmed over Revisionist Zionism, nationalism, a Eurocentric worldview, neoliberalism, and a hostility to Third World liberation movements, one could disagree (or agree) with that sentiment, but there would be nothing “uncivil” about it. Uncharitable, arguably, but not uncivil.

    So, I’ll  conclude my contribution to this thread with the sort of direct questions KJH always ignores: (1) Was Kushner’s remark highly uncivil? (2) What exactly is uncivil about what I wrote.

    (I predict that if KJH chooses to respond to number 2, instead of defending what he wrote, he will try to find some other alleged example of my uncivility).

  15. So, describing people who attacks anyone who dares criticize Israel’s policies as “Israel’s right-wing champions” is uncivil, but describing people who criticize Israel as being blinded by “pacifism, anti-liberalism, Third Worldism, hostility to the West, warmed-over Marxism, and so on, combined with a dash of naive human rights idealism” is civil.

    Got it.

  16. Response…

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    I had not visited Opinion Juris for some time until recently, when I was dismayed to see that eminent guest bloggers whose contributions I had followed seem to be absent. One regular blogger’s posts have descended into politicized blogging and even the cesspool of race politics that are increasingly familiar in much of the blogosphere about the Jewish state. It is hard to see how the Tony Kushner affair otherwise relates to international law. It is sad evidence of how a communal project can decay through neglectful management of petty hatreds.

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