CUNY Board Nixes Honorary Degree For Playwright Tony Kushner

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s Israel views presumably behind rare move.

05/03/11
Special To The Jewish Week
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Updated Wednesday, May 4, 5 p.m.: Today playwright Tony Kushner responded to the CUNY board of trustees. Read his letter here.

In what is believed to be a rare move, the City University of New York has turned down a request by one of its colleges to honor Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner at its commencement ceremony this spring, The Jewish Week has learned.

The action was taken presumably because of the author's critical comments concerning the State of Israel.

The move took place at a meeting of CUNY's board of trustees Monday night after one of its members, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, raised objections to plans to honor Kushner by John Jay College, one of the system's schools.

The outcome may have been the first time in CUNY's history that its board of trustees vetoed an honorary-degree candidate proposed by one of its schools, according to a source with knowledge of the university.

Each college within CUNY chooses its own honorary-degree candidates and sends those names to the CUNY board, which then normally approves the entire list of candidates, from all the system's schools, as a package.

This year, that list included former Mayor Edward Koch and Bernard Spitzer, the father of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, both of whom will receive Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from the City College of New York; Joel Klein, the city's former schools chancellor, who will receive the same honorary degree from CUNY; and Judith S. Kaye, the state's former chief judge and John Jay College's other honorary-degree candidate.

But Wiesenfeld, a board member of several Jewish organizations and an activist in conservative circles, spoke out against plans to honor Kushner, who, like others receiving honorary degrees, may have spoken at the graduation ceremony.

Wiesenfeld cited what he believed were some of Kushner's anti-Israel statements, all of which he said he found on the website of Norman Finkelstein, another figure known for his vehemently anti-Israel views.

When people identify themselves with "these types of viewpoints," Wiesenfeld told his fellow trustees, "it's up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things," especially when Israel sits in such a hostile neighborhood. "There's a lot of disingenuousness and non-intellectual activity directed against the State of Israel on campuses across the country," he said, adding that CUNY has had its share of such activity, although it's far better than most universities.

Following Wiesenfeld's comments, a majority of CUNY board members voted to remove Kushner's name from the list of this year's honorees, and then voted unanimously to table, or put off, the honor to the playwright, according to CUNY spokesman Michael Arena. The move, though, effectively kills the honor, because the next scheduled board meeting is at the end of June, after John Jay's June 3 commencement ceremony.

Kushner, who won the Pulitzer for his epic play about AIDS, "Angels in America," has written that Israel was "founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing." He has also said that "it would have been better" had the State of Israel never been created and that Israel is involved in the "deliberate destruction" of Palestinian culture and identity.

He has also been active with organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace, that have endorsed the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

Kushner told The Jewish Week Wednesday, "There's never been a moment in my entire life when I haven't expressed complete and full support of the State of Israel."

In a 2007 interview with The Jewish Independent, a Canadian newspaper serving British Columbia, he is quoted as saying, "I want the State of Israel to continue to exist.  I have always said that. I've never said anything else. My positions have been lied about and misrepresented in so many ways. People claim that I'm for a one-state solution, which is not true." In the same interview he said, "In terms of the Palestinian situation, as I've always said, I'm in favor of a two-state solution."

Kushner also attacked Wiesenfeld as a right-wing extremist.

Brandeis University granted Kushner an honorary degree in 2006, over opposition from the Jewish right.

Contacted by The Jewish Week Tuesday night, Wiesenfeld said the board's action demonstrates that those who don't necessarily "go with the flow" can make a difference. "Boycotters can also be boycotted."

Earlier this year, Wiesenfeld and Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind tried to force Brooklyn College to fire an adjunct professor they believed held strongly anti-Israel views. The university initially fired the professor, Kristopher Peterson-Overton, but soon rehired him, saying it believed the criticism by Wiesenfeld and Hikind was politically motivated.

Last Update:

05/09/2011 - 21:09

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I wonder how many of the people here expressing their approval of CUNY's actions are actually familiar with Mr. Kushner's views outside of the way they're protrayed in this article, which is basically a regurgitation of the ridiculously edited and out-of context "evidence" presented by Weisenfeld to the CUNY Board. Mr. Kushner's views are certainly not rabidly pro-Israel, but a real investigation of his standpoint shows that he is a very outspokenly pro-Jewish public figure whose views on Israel, while at times critical, are not mindlessly condemning or hateful.

All of this is beside the point. Those trying to paint Weisenfeld as a noble David standing up for justice in the face of the CUNY Goliath are way off base. He is a bigwig who allowed his personal emotions about Israel to push the Board of Trustees into interfering in a campus decision and squelching thoughtful debate, which is a complete betrayal of his duties and of the mission of any academic institution. Regardless of his - or anyone's - position on Israel, his actions were unconscionable.

Shame on you, Mr. Weisenfeld.

As a current doctoral student at CUNY (and future adjunct), I take great pride in academic freedom--an ideal that saturates our diverse intellectual community. To have the presumptuous equation of anti-Zionist=anti-Jewish=anti-CUNY imposed on this complex community undermines all that we strive for.

Let Mr Weisenfeld and his supporters reflect on this:

The Net Result of Attacking Kushner:

1. CUNY's reputation for academic freedom withers on the vine
2. Israel receives yet more criticism for its intolerance
3. The other CUNY honorees are humiliated by receiving a now worthless award, tainted as it is by political interference
4. The whole of New York's university system attracts mud by association
5. Academics throughout the world become ever more alert to Israeli repression of ideas
6. Kushner becomes a martyr to free speech
7. CUNY trustees are demonstrated as weak willed
8. And Israel becomes yet more firmly identified in the public mind as a rogue state where truth and openness and human rights are concerned.

Nicely played, Mr Weisenfeld. CUNY, shame on you.

What, he should be upset about not receiving an honorary degree? Why should he care about any university's imprimatur? Regardless of what we think about his comments on Israel, I hope we can all agree on the uselessness of honorary degrees.

I assume the recommendation from the faculty and the administration of John Jay College to honor Mr. Kushner was for his contributions to the American theater. The CUNY Board should have concurred with that recommendation. If Wiesenfeld had legitimate concerns--which in terms of the tradition of the American higher education he does not--the CUNY Board should have discussed it with the appropriate staff members at John Jay before acting. As I understand it, a surprise objection to the Kushner recommendation occurred at the Board meeting and the Board rolled over like meek weaklings to irrelevant concerns. Shame on the CUNY Board of Trustees!

So, no free speech in so far as Israel is concerned? Where does that leave us?

About time that somebody stood up to the bully known as Tony Kushner, a mediocre writer. He is unworthy of any honor from a university that accepts public funding. Now I can contribute to CUNY with a clear conscience!

I'll bet if Tony Kushner made aliyah and swore his undying loyalty to Israel above all other countries you would think him to be a great writer and would never say that he is a bully. You would think him one of the most outstanding writers or our time. Israel has surely warped the minds of many Americans, especially American Jews. I am thankful that I did not fall into that category. I am proud of being Jewish but not a Zionist and that is my right has an American, as a Jew and as a human being.
I will not be making my usual contribution to CUNY.

Kushner is a blow hard and a hater. I am a graduate of Brooklyn College and now I will make a donation to CUNY. Kushner is not a "critic of Israel" - he is a hater who has called for a boycott. Now, we can boycott him! Turnaround is fair play. The Far Leftists' control of the universities is beginning to subside - it is about time! I say congratulations to the CUNY Trustees and ti Wiesenfeld.

Actually, Kushner himself has clarified that he is not pro-boycott. This is an opinion incorrectly attributed to him by Weisenfeld.

The rights of gays and lesbians in the Middle East is not the issue here. The issue is how a worthy recipient was denied an honor because of his political views. For Jeffrey Wiesenfeld to use his position as a CUNY Trustee to forward his own personal political agenda is a breach of his responsibility. He should step down or be removed. Academic institutions like CUNY--especially those that are supported primarily with public funds-- should welcome and nurture diversity of opinion. It is remarkable that the other CUNY Trustees would so easily succumb to Wiesenfeld's narrow perspective. For one, why would the question of Israel become centrally relevant at an institution that educates people of all nationalities and faiths? Do Wiesenfeld and the other Board members scrutinize the record of their Honorary Degree candidates in respect to African, European, and South American politics too, or is it just Israel over which the Trustees feel they need to make a statement. The whole thing is bizarre and out of line.

The faculty at John Jay who folded before critics of Tony Kushner and accepted the reversal of the decision to award him an honorary degree is simply a cowardly disgrace. Whatever his opinions of the State iof Israel may or may not be he is a distinguished playwright and to deny him a degree bec. of his opinions on contentions issue is absurd. A university is the open marketplace for ideas.

CUNY's actions will hurt CUNY more than they will hurt Mr. Kushner. It will be interesting to see what the responses of the other honorees will be to this action. On the whole, I think it would have been better for the school if the trustees who disagreed with this action had refused to approve any of the honorary degrees rather withhold only Mr. Kushner's.

I also think that this sad incident needs to be viewed in the context of other recent events. I think, for example, of the recent attacks by one right-wing ideologue against the JCC on the Upper West Side because of its "Other Israel" film festival. (Fortunately, the JCC's board seems to have a stiffer spine than CUNY's.) Also, the Massachusetts synagogue shul that withdrew its invitation to J Street's Jeremy Ben Ami after pressure from right-wing members. My own views about Israel are definitely to the right of Tony Kushner but I am a great fan of his writing and feel that in a democratic country like the United States, he is entitled to speak and write his mind about Israel. This recent effort by the right wing to muzzle voices that are at all critical about the current Israeli government's policies, particularly with regard to settlements on the West Bank, have even extended to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the incoming head of the Reform Movement, a man with an apartment in Jerusalem, who has spent every summer for many years studying in Jerusalem with the Shalom Hartman Institute. This attempt to "blacklist" (an apt if ironic word in view of Tony Kushner's magnificent play, Angels in America) an artist or a rabbi because of their criticism of the current Israeli government's policies is much scarier to me (a shul-going Zionist) than any of Kushner's allegedly anti-Zionist words. What's next: loyalty oaths?

Re "Kushner told The Jewish Week Wednesday, "There's never been a moment in my entire life when I haven't expressed complete and full support of the State of Israel.""

So it's now established that he is also a liar, as well as a hater.

David D,

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Visit Tel Aviv and you will notice an astonishing diversity in every respect. If you are aware of Arabs, Africans or others in Israel being persecuted for exercising sexual freedoms, please let us know.

When you speak about countries "with LBGT rights", are you talking about Iran, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan? I doubt it--gays in such countries are about as safe as Jews, Kurds, and other minorities.

I am astonished by this. Even if Kushner's beliefs actually were radical, as long as he is not advocating something like retribution or unnecessary violence toward anyone an honorary degree should not be withheld. It is unclear exactly how radical his views would have to be to withhold such an honor. He was going to be recognized for his art but was rejected for his politics. At any rate this was an unambiguous case since his views are clearly not radical, whether he ever criticized the State of Israel or not.

Is "anti-Zionist" the same as being anti-Jewish?

I don't think so.

I'm Jewish and proud of it. I grew up an avid Zionist. Today, I repudiate Zionism. It's racist, pure and simple.

What's the difference between being "anti-Israel" and being against Israeli policies?

A big difference, to me. Not so, to Chandler.

"Wiesenfeld cited what he believed were some of Kushner's anti-Israel statements, all of which he said he found on the website of Norman Finkelstein, another figure known for his vehemently anti-Israel views."

How embarrassing for CUNY and how sad that so many hard right supporters of Israel have become so intolerant and incapable of honest disagreements. The trustee who villainized Kushner and used his trusteeship megaphone to make political arguments is obviously a hack with little interest in the image of CUNY or advancing intellectual and artistic talent and independence. It sounds as if his sole focus as a CUNY trustee has been targeting critics of Israel. CUNY deserves much, much better. And Kushner deserves as apology. Is this political appointee serving for a specific legnth of time? Who appointed him and how do we do we replace hacks like him?

Very glad to hear CUNY admin. had the courage to stand up against this scumbag. This is a public institution and we the people are finally saying ENOUGH!. It's about time.

mazel tov to the cuny board,and especially to mr weissenfeld. it takes courage to speak the truth. too many americans have forgotton. take a trip to isreal,and see first hand what they have accomplished,then try some of the others in the middle east. THAT TAKES COURAGE!!@!!!

Mr. Wiesenfield is correct that there is a lot of disengenuousness and anti-intellectual activity directed toward the State of Israel. But there's also a lot of legitimate criticism leveled by Israel's ardent supporters.
What's difficult to reconcile is Wiesenfeld's call for honesty and intellectual activity with muzzling of Israel's critics. Let Tony Kushner air his views. If he's so wrong, correct him through debate, not suppression.

Since when did absolute, uncritical loyalty to the state of Israel become a criteria for an award from an American school of higher learning? Denying Tony Kushner this award is a travesty of justice. For CUNY to genuflect and bow down to this Jeffrey Wiesenfeld is more than disgusting. It is obvious that Weisenfeld and CUNY object to free speech and free thought when it comes to Israel - the only country in the world whose diehard backers believe should be above all criticism.

It is interesting that people like Howard above keep bringing up how gays are "an obvious and integral part" of Tel Aviv's open culture without once acknowledging that this tolerance extends (tourists aside) to exactly one racial/cultural group living in Israel, and no other. This is not the case in other countries with LGBT rights.

How embarrassing for CUNY. One of the most influential playwrights of the 20th Century dishonored because Mr. Wiesenfeld is a bit fascist about his political beliefs.

Where ever you stand on the State of Israel, universities should encourage dialogue and difference of opinion. Tony Kushner appears stands on the side of peace.

I think I will take my yearly donation to as a CUNY alumni and go see Mr. Kushner's fantastic looking new play instead.

Punishing a man for his political views is a peculiar example of moral courage. Criticizing another country's policies is not "evil," and needlessly casting a shadow over a man who speaks his mind is not "good." Mr. Kushner is a great artist, well deserving of recognition, and I feel deep pity for the City University, where I have worked loyally for more than a decade. It is also a pity that the University has seen fit to substitute its judgment for that of one of its constituent colleges. John Jay vets its honorary degree recipients very thoroughly. The process is run by the Faculty Senate, whose president, Karen Kaplowitz, is neither a "campus radical" nor an anti-zionist. This action by the University is both a lamentable blunder and an abuse of its power.

Those familiar with Dr. Finkelstein's website know that many are uncomfortable with hearing painful truths about Isreal. Those standing for justice in the IP conflict often face retribution, particularly those with high profiles (as was the case with Dr. Finkelstein himself).

Israel is gradually losing the ability to enforce their "official narrative" but are still able to bully some into submission.

ideologues that frame entire cultures as evil or good do a disservice to the world. Critical thinking and free speech are the only paths towards peace and solidarity with the human race.

I just returned from Tel Aviv, where gays are an obvious and integral part of the city's open culture. How ironic that this man, who has fought so hard for gay rights, seeks to boycott the only nation along a 9,000-mile line from Morocco to Malaysia where homosexual rights are not only guaranteed by law, but also embraced by a clear majority of the country's citizens.

One might think it would be more appropriate for Mr. Kushner to boycott Syria for its recent atrocities against political activists, or Malaysia, Egypt and other Muslim nations for widespread crimes against tens of millions of women, gays and Christians.

Mr. Kushner's focus on Israel--where minority rights are safeguarded, and free debate exists on other political issues, such as territorial concessions and security--suggests that the problem lies not with the object of his obsession, but rather Mr. Kushner himself.

In a world where academics across Europe have embraced a boycott of Israeli scholars even as Hamas advocates a new Final Solution, we must all stand together against such small-mindedness and bigotry.

Bravo to CUNY!

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