The decision by the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Board of Trustees to block famous playwright Tony Kushner’s honorary degree at John Jay College is rightly being met with outrage. But there’s also an important upshot to the controversy: the racism that right-wing supporters of Israel deploy against Palestinians is getting an airing, as is the unrelenting attempts by powerful pro-Israel types to shut down debate on Palestine. It’s a tiny airing, but it’s a start.
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the far-right supporter of Israel behind the decision to block Kushner’s degree, is being pilloried in the press. For instance, while Jeffrey Goldberg minces words and refuses to call him a racist, he did write three blog posts criticizing Wiesenfeld.
The narrative that Wiesenfeld wanted to disseminate–that Kushner is an extremist and an anti-Semite–has backfired, and has turned into a story about Wiesenfeld’s politics and how one powerful supporter of the State of Israel successfully managed to block debate and smear a prominent American artist.
Wiesenfeld’s racism against Palestinians, and the shameful way Kushner was treated, was cataloged in an interview published today by the New York Times’ Jim Dwyer:
Mr. Wiesenfeld is the City University of New York trustee who rose this week at a board meeting to block an honorary degree to the playwright Tony Kushner, declaring him an “extremist” opponent and critic of Israel.
It was a startling development for a board that appeared to be on the verge of rubber-stamping a bundle of honorary degrees proposed by the colleges within the university, including one for Mr. Kushner from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Mr. Kushner was not present, and fragments of his views — which are complicated, passionate, critical — were balled up into a few pellets by Mr. Wiesenfeld, who gave a 900-word speech that was mostly devoted to other figures who he felt were radically hostile to Israel. He quoted about 75 words that he said showed that Mr. Kushner’s thinking was beyond the pale.
The trustees pulled the playwright’s name from the motion and moved on to wholesale rubber-stamping of the remaining honorary degrees.
Was this any way for one of the great public universities of the world to discuss the views of one of the leading dramatists of modern times, author of the epic “Angels in America”?
I tried to ask a question about the damage done by a short, one-sided discussion of vigorously debated aspects of Middle East politics, like the survival of Israel and the rights of the Palestinians, and which side was more callous toward human life, and who was most protective of it.
But Mr. Wiesenfeld interrupted and said the question was offensive because “the comparison sets up a moral equivalence.”
Equivalence between what and what? “Between the Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “People who worship death for their children are not human.”
Did he mean the Palestinians were not human? “They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history,” he said.
A separate New York Times article notes that this was not the first time Zionists attempted to nix an award for Kushner:
In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Kushner has received 15 honorary degrees. In 2006, some pro-Zionist groups tried to block him from getting an honorary degree at Brandeis University, but the university decided to go ahead with the honor.
In response to the current episode, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a vehement supporter of Israel, has called on CUNY to fire Wiesenfeld:
Ed Koch call for the City University of New York to terminate its relationship with a trustee who engineered the denial of an honorary degree to Tony Kushner because of the playwright’s criticism of Israel…
Neither Kushner nor anyone else was invited to speak in his defense.
“Mr. Wiesenfeld and the trustees who followed his request should immediately reverse their action and urge Mr. Kushner to forgive them,” Koch wrote. “I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld’s action so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees.”
This was probably not what Wiesenfeld was expecting. CUNY is already backpedaling. Former Mayor Koch is airing his outrage over Wiesenfeld’s actions. The New York Times and Jeffrey Goldberg are calling him out for his repugnant views. Some discussion of the history of these attempts to shut down dissent over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is being heard. What needs to happen next, as Phil Weiss notes, is an honest discussion about the facts concerning the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians–the facts that Kushner has bravely sought to expose which so outraged Wiesenfeld.