view counter
Welcome To The CUNY Bin
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 20:00

On the surface, the incident that grew into a major story — first reported on our website, by the way — pitting Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels In America”) vs. the trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) who first denied and later granted him an honorary doctorate was about freedom of speech.

According to that version, Kushner is a great talent, his views on Israel may be offensive to many supporters of the Jewish state but he is being honored for his body of artistic work, not his politics. End of story.

But the stubborn fact is that Kushner’s art and politics are deeply entwined and difficult to separate. One prime example is his script for the Steven Spielberg film, “Munich,” which was suffused with moral equivalence in portraying Arab terrorists being pursued by Israeli agents of the Mossad following the 1972 Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli team members.

In the mainstream media coverage of this past week’s controversy, Kushner was the innocent victim of narrow ideology. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the trustee who sought to deny Kushner the degree, was the single-minded bully, a role he seemed to relish, insulting a New York Times reporter interviewing him and the Palestinians as a whole in stating that “people who worship death for their children are not human.”

But evidence of Kushner’s harsh views of the Jewish state is as prevalent as it is damning. It includes calling Israel’s 1948 victory a case of “ethnic cleansing,” asserting that Israel was a mistake that should never have happened and insisting that the world is in peril because of Israel’s existence and its treatment of Palestinians, etc.

Though he denies favoring boycotts of Israel, Kushner is on the advisory board of the Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports targeted boycotts and divestment campaigns against Israel.

Perhaps it takes the verbal dexterity of such a talented wordsmith to still insist, as Kushner does, that he “maintains a passionate support for the continuous existence of the State of Israel.”

Whether or not Kushner deserves an honorary degree, despite his views on Israel, merits a full discussion. But the shamefully sloppy process of the CUNY board of directors in seeking to rush through 40 nominations for honorary degrees at the end of a long meeting did not allow for it.

In the future, the review process should be deliberate and thorough, allowing for internal debate. It should also explore the intersection of politics, art, political correctness and personality. (One wonders, for example, if Mel Gibson would be honored these days for his artistic talent.)

And beyond the Israel-Palestinian conflict, would there be second thoughts about Kushner if his comments nine months after 9/11 — suggesting that the U.S. brought the tragedy on itself — were taken into account?

What we do know is that, in the end, Jeff Wiesenfeld inadvertently helped make Tony Kushner into a liberal martyr and that Israel’s cause was not well served from this very public controversy.

Jerusalem’s case is best made from, and to, the center of our society, not from the extreme.

Let’s hope that next time, and there surely will be a next time in the battle over the acceptable limits of criticizing Israel, Zionism’s advocates will shed more light than heat in making their case.

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


This essay is deeply troubling to me, and should be to any American who reads it.

Tony Kushner was not given an honorary degree "as" a Jew or as a supporter (or opponent) of Israel, and he made his public remarks about Israel and Palestinians as an American citizen exercising his right (and, I'd add, his duty) to participate in the American political process.

Jews and others may express their opinions praising Israel or (as I read you to suggest, in your opinion, Kushner did) damning it, and no-one should criticize such democratic exercise. Democracy allows and perhaps requires people to say what they think. It allows this website to exist and flourish.

As to facts, if Kushner said that Israel "ethnically cleansed" Palestinians in 1948, he was merely using a reasonable phrase to describe efforts that Israeli armed forces took to expel Palestinians in 1948 and the action of the government of Israel since then and until today to deny those exiles (and now their children) their rights (as the Universal Declaration of Human rights sees it, and as the UNGA saw it already in 1948) for peaceably inclined refugees to return (across an international border) to their own homeland. They had and many today have no other homeland. They are stateless, undocumented, refugees. in limbo. A limbo of Israel's making.

Wikipedia: Ethnic cleansing "is a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas. (Commission of Experts Established Pursuant to United Nations Security Council Resolution 780)".

What do you find troubling about Kushner's use of "ethnically cleansing" other than the facts which stand behind the use of the phrase -- which are enough to trouble any decent person -- and the anti-Israel feeling that might be generated by use of it?

The expression of moral equivalence that I find troubling is this column's comparison of Tony Kushner to Mel Gibson. Let's not equate expressions of political opinions with which we disagree (or fear may gain traction) with spouting bigoted hatred. If we claim to distinguish criticism of Israel from efforts to de-legitimatize Israel, should we not take pains to be critical of Israel's critics without de-legitimatizing those critics? It is no wonder that the none of the comments in support of this column engage Kushner's viewpoints on the merits, but instead resort to name calling... It is all to easy to dismiss Mr. Kushner as an "enemy" or to propose that he get his degree at Birzeit University in Hebron or the Islamic University of Gaza, but ad hominem attacks and non sequiturs never legitimately advance an argument and are so often fed by fingers-in-the-ears intolerance.

All the happened here is that Kushner, JVP, and the assorted other enemies of Israel won. CUNY folded like Chamberlain at Munich. And Waskow should go the whole nine yards and become an imam

Kushner and the liberals won, but he was not martyred, and their inability to see the "whole picture" is pitiful, particularly during these times when Israel and the US are threatened by the same bigotry and totalitarianism that existed in the 1930s and '40s. This same "intellect" would no doubt award Adolph Hitler for his gift of oration under similar circumstances. I'm proud that there was one righteous, courageous person, Jeff Wiesenfeld, who spoke out when it was necessary. And the others will live with their shame at having "won."

Gary you shed the light of truth on Kushner. This is what Trustee Jeff Wiesenfeld wanted. For the sake of Zion we must not stand quietly by, in the face of those who want to honor its enemies.

Mr. Kushner's honorary degree could be accompanied by a post as artist in residence at, say, Birzeit University in Hebron or the Islamic University of Gaza, where he can engage in as much freedom if speech as he likes for as long as he lasts. I suspect it would not be very long. If he is still alive, he might then spend the rest of the semester in Sderot, with no bomb shelter. Surviving these, I am guessing he would be much more comfortable completing his education at Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion or Hebrew University.

I am surprised and dismayed that while this editorial leaves it an open question whether a great artist who has serious criticisms of israeli government policy but affirms Israel 's right to exist deserves to receive an honorary doctorate from CUNY (he already has from Brandeis), it does not even think to ask whether someone who believes that Palestinians are not human beings deserves to be a Trustee of CUNY. If a CUNY Trustee asserted similar views about the Jewish people or about African-Americans, would the Jewish Week think him qualified to oversee the education of New York's youth? I would not.

Shalom, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director
The Shalom center

Apparently the Rabbi does not know how to read carefully. The Trustee was quoted as saying simply that "“people who worship death for their children are not human” NOT referring to all Palestinians. Perhaps the Rabbi is the one who equated "“people who worship death ” with all Palestinians, or who falsely distorted the words of the Trustee by attributing the stereotype sentiment to the Trustee. Or even worse, I hope the Rabbi would not dispute the lack of humanity in those people who DO "worship death for their children". If he would, then I have pity for him and his followers. (if he has not done so, perhaps the Rabbi should see HBO "Precious Life")

Thank you.

Good editorial...until the end. A Jew, or Christian, defending Israel against the dominant stream of NYC liberalism is an "extremist"? If so, that's only because he or she is outside the NYC liberal "mainstream," and such as the New York Times -- no longer a paper of record but of left-leaning editing, fills its pages with one-sided criticisms of CUNY Trustee Wiesenfeld. Jews who place political liberalism above Israel are extremist. Those who curry Board, cocktail party and banquest invites above self-respect are "useful idiots" of those who would destroy us.

It appears that Wiesenfeld is as much, if not more, of a radical of the far right as Kushner is a radical of the far left. I am a great fan of Kushner's plays but I disagree strongly with his statements about the foundation of Israel and "ethnic cleansing." However, he is not foisting his opinions on people or using his position as a fiduciary to get people fired or get their honorary degrees taken away from them. That's what Wiesenfeld appears to have done in at least two instances. Moreover, his recent statements about the Palestinian people are racist generalizations that bring dishonor to the CUNY board if they are allowed to stand without an apology or a resignation.