The City University of New York set off a cultural and political firestorm earlier this week when its Board of Trustees voted to table the awarding of an honorary degree to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner after one member of the board, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, accused Kushner of supposedly “disparaging” Israel. Kushner, author of “Angels in America”, has been critical of some Israeli policies, which, as Foreign Policy blog points out, “hardly makes him unique among human beings, or among Jews, or even among Israelis.” Seeing a public institution, one supposedly committed to freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas, kowtowing to a single extreme right-wing board member caused a tremendous and sustained outcry. Some recipients of honorary degrees from CUNY have returned them in protest, including writers Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Cunningham, and Yeshiva University historian Ellen Schrecker, a scholar of the McCarthy era. Even former mayor Ed Koch, Wiesenfeld’s past employer and a staunch supporter of Israel, accused him of “abuse of power” and called for his resignation.
Even those who don’t like Kushner were forced to speak up. Andrew Sullivan chimed in, saying he was: “embarrassed to be defending Tony Kushner…I was one of very few gay men with HIV who found Angels in America to be pretentious, boring propaganda, and like most propaganda, endless and laden with stereotypes and cartoon figures.” But: “I really despise the way [Kushner] has been used by an extremist who has no business being on any board at CUNY. It’s only about an honorary degree…But it’s also about a mindset and an argument that truly need to be debunked and tackled and refuted. The argument is that any criticism of Israel is extremist and a function of anti-Semitism if you are a goy and self-hatred if you are Jewish.”
Kusher responded Wiesenfeld’s attack in a statement saying:
My questions and reservations regarding the founding of the state of Israel are connected to my conviction, drawn from my reading of American history, that democratic government must be free of ethnic or religious affiliation, and that the solution to the problems of oppressed minorities are to be found in pluralist democracy. I am very proud of being Jewish, and discussing this issue publicly has been hard; but I believe in the absolute good of public debate, and I feel that silence on the part of Jews who have questions is injurious to the life of the Jewish people. 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.
Weisenfeld, for his part, did not back down. In fact, Peter Catapano of the New York Times—in what is the single best piece about this whole controversy—wrote that Wiesenfeld had “a Trump-like response to the limelight” and “continued to heat the rhetoric.” Weisenfeld really scraped bottom when he opined: “My mother would have called Tony Kushner a kapo,” a reference to Jewish prisoners who worked as low-level functionaries in Nazi death camps. It seems especially pathetic that Wiesenfeld has to drag his mommy into his ad hominem…a sure sign his argument was already failing on its merits. Even worse, in a conversation with Jim Dwyer of the Times, Wiesenfeld revealed his own sickeningly bigoted views about Palestinians, labeling them a “culture of death” and saying: “People who worship death for their children are not human.” Well. That explains how Wiesenfeld can ignore the human rights abuses by the Israeli state—he doesn’t believe Palestinians are human. I seem to recall a ranting, psychotic Austrian saying the same of Jews. Funny how that works, huh?
Unfortunately, Wiesenfeld—and his mom–are not the only Jews who think that anything short of blind, unquestioning endorsement of Israel’s government makes you a kapo. But there is increasing pushback against that ideology, and Kusher is a standard-bearer for the Jews who would be conscientious objectors. Sarah Wildman wrote for the Guardian:
Like many American Jews, Kushner is in the midst of a process, and is engaged in a thoughtful, nuanced, painful conversation with his colleagues, his family, his friends about the nature of democracy, the future of Zionism, and the context in which the state of Israel might finally make peace with the Palestinians.
And yet, the very fact that he has had to spell this out is a travesty. Is Jewish heritage and fealty to the Jewish state a monolith? Is there one means of living Jewishly in diaspora? One means of respecting the state of Israel? The idea that one’s relationship to Israel must be uniformly unquestioning is in and of itself the gravest of errors; it is one that will further marginalise and divide a community that is increasingly at war with itself.
To my mind, supporting the increasingly theocratic, divisive, and hostile politics of the Israeli state does not benefit Jewish people—the majority of whom do not live in Israel anyway. Judaism requires only that we pursue social justice and embrace “kol Yisroel”, the Jewish people worldwide. It does not require that we support any state or government. And while Judaism, both theologially and culturally, has always embraced exceptionalism—the result of thousands of years of continual outsiderness and otherizing by dominant cultures—we can not ethically use that sense of being a people apart, or our history of victimization, as a free pass to commit acts of bigotry or injustice when, at long last, we find ourselves empowered…although Jeffrey Weisenfeld and his cronies seem to think we should.
There’s another issue here as well, which is the CUNY board’s utter failure to uphold the school’s core values. CUNY is, by and large, an excellent system of colleges, ethnically and culturally diverse, the great social elevator of New York’s immigrants and working class.* There are many American universities which we would expect to happily roll over for a right-wing loudmouth. CUNY is not one of them, and that makes this whole situation even more unfortunate. If we can’t trust our public, historically non-sectarian institutions to be committed to fairness and open discourse, we’re in serious trouble as a culture.
In an editorial entitled “CUNY Shamed Itself“, the New York Times wrote:
The trustees of the City University of New York got it exactly backward this week. They supported the political agenda of an intolerant board member and shunned one of America’s most important playwrights. They should have embraced the artist and tossed out the board member.
Much has been said about the importance of Tony Kushner. It’s true. His play “Angels in America” was a masterpiece that gave voice to the AIDS crisis. There also has been much talk about his precise words about Israel, and whether the trustee who blackballed him, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, got them right. That is all beside the point.
If Mr. Kushner were a lesser artist, it still would have been outrageous for CUNY to deny his honorary degree for political reasons. And the particulars of what Mr. Kushner said are not so important. (His comments were not all that remarkable, though we disagreed with them.) The point is that a public university is supposed to nurture free speech and free thought, not quash them.
The CUNY chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, should have spoken out forcefully on this issue. And Mr. Wiesenfeld, who told The Times’s Jim Dwyer that some Palestinians are not human, should resign.
The trustees will meet again this weekend to reconsider the issue. There is only one conclusion they can reach, although Tony Kushner has said he would not accept the honorary degree if it’s offered (and who can blame him?). Jeffrey Wiesenfeld has said he will not resign from the board of trustees, and if he chooses to stand on his right to be a bigot and an embarrassment to CUNY and the Jewish community, that’s his prerogative. What won’t be resolved is the continued divide in the Jewish community over blind allegiance to the Israeli government, or the right of Jews to question Israel without being accused of treason or anti-Semitism. No matter how things resolve at CUNY, this conflict is something that progressives—and not just Jewish progressives—will be forced to confront over and over again.
*Full disclosure: Members of my family have attended CUNY schools, and I have been a guest-lecturer there.