CUNY Embarrasses Itself over Playwright Tony Kushner (Updated)
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.