CUNY Reverses Course On Tony Kushner Honor

Board chairman calls for executive committee meeting, acknowledging a “mistake of principle.”

05/05/11
Jewish Week Correspondent
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Following an avalanche of protest against its decision Monday night to block an honorary degree for playwright Tony Kushner, the City University of New York board of trustees will reconsider its action in an executive committee meeting on Monday, May 9.

CUNY officials scheduled the meeting after receiving a statement from the board’s chairman, Benno Schmidt, saying that the body had made “a mistake of principal, and not merely of policy,” in voting to table the honorary degree.

The controversy, first reported by The Jewish Week, began after a trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, spoke out against Kushner during the board’s consideration of honorary degrees, including the one for Kushner recommended by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Wiesenfeld, a lay leader in several Jewish organizations and an activist in right-wing circles, claimed that Kushner holds views that are harshly anti-Israel, leading the board to block plans to honor the playwright.

His comments came with no advance notice, catching most of those at the meeting by surprise, and no other trustee spoke on the matter, either for or against the honorary degree.

Referring to those proceedings, Schmidt suggested that Wiesenfeld had every right to make his remarks and said his own views about Israel might, in fact, be close to Wiesenfeld’s. But his statement added that “it’s not right for the Board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases.” The honorary degree recommended for Kushner wouldn’t reflect approval or disapproval of his politics, Schmidt said, but a recognition of “his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater.”

The board’s executive committee, consisting of seven members, is expected to approve the degree for Kushner, a source close to CUNY told The Jewish Week. The source also said that CUNY officials had been in touch with Kushner, who, in a letter of protest to the board earlier this week, said he wouldn’t accept an honorary degree even if the board reversed its decision. Kushner couldn’t be reached Friday afternoon by The Jewish Week for comment Friday.

John Jay College’s commencement ceremonies are scheduled for June 3, where Kushner would speak if the executive committee approves the honor and the playwright decides to accept it.

In response to Wiesenfeld's actions, former Mayor Edward Koch called for his“resignation or removal” from the board of trustees. Wiesenfeld is a former official in Koch’s administration.

Wiesenfeld's attack focused on Kushner’s views on Israel, which Wiesenfeld has called “extreme” and “anti-Semitic.” But the playwright defended himself in a letter to the CUNY board, branding the trustee’s comments “a grotesque caricature” of his views, taken, in part, from quotes he said were selective and distorted. Meanwhile, other critics of the board’s action, including many who disagree with Kushner’s politics, said his views on Israel should have nothing to do with the awarding of an honorary degree.

Koch joined those critics Thursday, speaking of his “considerable distress” as he read the news. In a letter to CUNY board chairman Benno Schmidt, Koch wrote that he couldn’t think of a “dumber academic action” and urged the board to reverse it.

On Friday, four liberal groups -- Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Jews Say No!, and Jews Against Islamophobia -- announced the launching of a petition drive designed to overturn the trustees' decision and to open debate on American campuses regarding Israel's policies. They promised to present the petition to the trustees early next week.

"In this case, luckily, many people are coming to the defense of Tony Kushner and raising their concerns about blacklisting at CUNY," Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said in a statement. "But what about the incidents of silencing, censorship and punishment of less well-known figures who are brave enough to speak out about Israeli violations of human rights? Self-appointed guardians of Israel like Jeffrey Wiesenfeld should no longer be allowed to bully and intimidate us from having free and open discussions about Israel's policies and expressing our opinions."

The statement also quoted Naomi Klein, the Canadian author and social activist, as saying that at "far too many academic and cultural institutions, critics of Israel find themselves on an invisible blacklist. With this shameful incident, the blacklist has been made momentarily visible. But it is not enough to simply give Tony Kushner the honor he so richly deserves. All the quiet and invisible blacklisting has to stop, replaced with a free and open debate about Israeli policies."

And Eve Ensler, the American playwright and activist, was quoted as expressing the wish that "this attempted censoring and dishonoring of one of our great playwrights may be a call for the end of blacklisting and muting of voices who have differing views on the policies of Israel." She added that she hoped also that this incident "opens dialogue and discourse without shaming, bullying or anti-Semitic accusations."

But what stands out in Koch's letter is his description of the role played by Wiesenfeld, who spent four years in the Koch administration as chief of staff to the mayor’s traffic commissioner.

“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,” the mayor wrote at the end of his letter.

Reached at his office at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Global Wealth Management Thursday, where he is an asset manager, Wiesenfeld said he continued to “love Ed Koch,” despite the letter, and that he’s “not going anywhere. You can only be removed for misconduct or malfeasance.” He added that the letter would have “no bearing” on his situation.

Discussing his role at Monday's board meeting, Wiesenfeld said he had no idea his comments on Kushner would lead to this outcome.

"I thought I'd be making a lone dissent," he said, and he had no expectation that other board members -- "righteous gentiles," he called them -- would join him and block Kushner's degree.

Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor and secretary to the board, noted that Koch’s letter was addressed to Schmidt, not the board as a whole, implying that the response would be in Schmidt’s hands. He said he would reserve any comment “on matters that are left to the appointing authorities” — namely, the mayor and governor, who name CUNY trustees.

Meanwhile, CUNY issued a statement saying the board of trustees "is an independent board, and acted independently in exercising its judgment and authority. Mr. Kushner has indicated in published reports that even if the Board were to reconsider and approve the honorary degree, he would not accept it. The board’s actions, however, should not be interpreted as reflecting on Mr. Kushner’s accomplishments and we regret any such misunderstanding."

Wiesenfeld, a board member of several Jewish organizations and an activist in right-wing circles, worked as an aide to New York Republian Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and, later, Gov. George Pataki after his years with the Koch administration.

It was Pataki who appointed Wiesenfeld to the CUNY board in 1999 and, at the end of his first seven-year term, reappointed him in 2006. His current term ends in June 2013, Hershenson said.

Last Update:

05/12/2011 - 21:36

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Tony Kushner has ATTACKED ISRAEL FOR THE [the IDF's] SO CALLED illegal and brutal tactics" against the Palestinians; argued that Israel is engaged in "a deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people"; and stated that Israel's founding "was a mistake. AS A 2G I SUPPORT YOU JEFF. DO NOT BACK DOWN . RABBI DR. BERNHARD ROSENBERG

I know, like and respect Jeff. Over the years we sometimes agree to disagree; our politics sometimes differ as sometimes our choices of who merit positions in public office. He merits his appointment to the CUNY Board and remains an important voice there. Those calling for his resignation in many way engage in just what they argue he did -- injecting unwarranted politics. Jeff, to his credit and courageously in sometimes too "politically correct" times, shared his concerns about Mr. Kushner. That he persuaded some of his fellow trustees to also oppose the honorary degree evidences the need for CUNY staff to perhaps re-think any reviews they perform on those proposed for honorary degrees and other honors that require the approval of its trustees.
The facts remain that some truly gifted in another discipline or profession and rather intelligent as well may not be as careful or thoughtful in how they come to make political decisions or the consequences of being a public figure and speaking out. I know not Mr. Kushner and I read a few news articles about his views before the issue of the honorary degree came forward; I reacted in much the way I do to a certain actor whose movies I used to watch and know shun despite past enjoyment.
As a general rule, I find no compelling reason to promote artists or professionals where they advocate views I find abhorrent and, importantly, unsupported by any record. No record supports the outrageous quotes attributed to Mr. Kushner. The facts remain that recognizing someone's art often gives support to the bad things they do or say. I hope a healthy discussion on what recognition means -- that it goes beyond artistry or professional expertise and accomplishment, continues beyond the two recent CUNY votes.
Jeff's action at the first CUNY trustees meeting started an important conversation that must continue and not in regard to Kushner but in what it means to impart recognition on folks.

One must challenge the enemies of Israel where ever they might be. When good people accept misplaced criticism of Israel, they seem to ignore the fact that anti-Israel is a code word for anti-semitism is the vast majority of cases.

If someone with more tact than Wiesenfeld handled this, the pro-Kushner forces would have had a hard time fighting back but his temper and lack of a dignified approach doomed this. That said, he was right. The others who voted with him had no problem throwing him under the bus because of his background ("fixer" for D'Amato and Pataki, etc.) as a loudmouth pol. Let's just say, for example, Kenneth Bialkin was the one who made the case, Kushner and his pals would be spinning mad but unable to make an headway.
Finally, all the others who were convinced by Wiesenfeld and reversed themselves due to pressure should really resign. They demonstrate to the CUNY students what "followers" with no backbone do when questioned about the positions they take. Hopefully, CUNY students on the left and right will have a better approach than those clowns.

Lets replace Islam with Israel in the Kushner context why you ask do i say Islam instead of a specific Islamic country? The answer is name me a Muslim Country that has not been ethnically cleansed of Jews.Yes you may find a couple of muslim countries with more then 30.000 Jews but just one or two.And in one of those 2 countries they occasionally picked up for supposedly spying for Israel.Just a few months ago 56 yr old Armenian Christian man and his 54yr old Jewish Iranian wife were hung in Iran after being tortured after being charged with spying for Israel.Hey Tony Kushner write an op ed about it.

Once again the tyranny of the anti-Israel forces on our campuses attempts to distort and then silence one lone voice challenging anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias. Muslim student groups and their generally knee-jerk, under-knowledgeable, supposedly "progressive" Jewish allies consistently use physical violence and intimidation to shut down honest debate on the existential threat facing seven million diverse, democratic and overwhelmingly progressive Jewish, Muslim and Christian citizens of Israel. Speaking out against the award of an "honorary" degree is hardly a challenge to "free speech".
Pilar Rojas/ Andrew Upton, Co-Chairs
Liberals for Israel
Liberals for Israel is a group of work-based, overwhelmingly progressive colleagues including Christians, Jews and Hindus(unfortunately no Muslims), Caucasians, Hispanics, African-Americans and Caribbean Blacks, who, since 9/11( all of us worked at or near the World Trade Center) have attempted to become better informed on issues in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Academic freedom uber alles. The rest is commentary

If we substitute the word "North Korea", say, for "Israel", would any person to whom Mr Cone's remarks amended thus apply also be barred from an honorary degree, in his view? How about "Belgium", or "Lithuania"?

"Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out for me."

Let's see... four liberal groups want an open debate concerning Israeli policies. Israel has a more than 100% legitimate right to exist. Israel is not the one to be examined concerning ethnic cleansing it is Moslem countries where there are no Jews in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, and the list goes on and on. Read a Dershowitz book on the subject matter. Kudos to Wiesenfeld!!!!

To: Norm Cone

Clearly you have not read Kushner's letter to the Board of Trustees.

I love Ed Koch, but in regard of Kushner Jeffrey Wiesenfeld is right.
Kushner is not just one of the many Jewish "critics of Israel" but an
outright enemy of Israel. Kushner is an outspoken supporter of boycotts
of Israel and of delegitimization of the Jewish state, which - according to
Kushner - should not have been created. No, Mr.Kushner should not be
given any award, any honorary degree and Mr. Wiesenfeld deserves
our thanks for his intervention.

Apparently Norm Cone did not read Mr. Kushner's letter to Chairperson Benno Schmidt and the Board of Trustees. In it he states that he has never supported boycotts of Israel. He supports the right of the Jewish state to exist and hopes very much that it continues. To banish Mr. Kushner for his left views makes as much sense as having Mr. Wiesenfeld resign from the board because of his right wing views.
CUNY's letter stating "...we regret any such misunderstanding." indicates the board's decision is not in step with the college where the actual teaching and learning takes place. Labeling someone as an "enemy" because of differing political views is complete hyperbole. If and when the decision is reversed, an apology from the board is due Mr. Kushner.

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