CUNY Embarrasses Itself over Playwright Tony Kushner (Updated)

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.

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Mihai Martoiu Ticu

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

Confused Scholar
Confused Scholar

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.

[insert here] delenda est
[insert here] delenda est

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.


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.

[insert here] delenda est
[insert here] delenda est

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.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

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: HC: 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,… Read more »

Confused Scholar
Confused Scholar

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… Read more »

David Bernstein
David Bernstein

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.


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.

David Bernstein
David Bernstein

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… Read more »



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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.