CUNY restores playwright’s honorary degree, but questions linger over boundaries of acceptable debate.
One is the child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in the South Bronx. The other is the son of professional musicians who spent most of his childhood in Lake Charles, La.
One started out in law enforcement, working in counter-intelligence for the FBI, and eventually entered politics, becoming an operative for two New York Republicans, U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and Gov. George Pataki. The other became an award-winning playwright, looking with an artist’s sensibility at the experiences of minorities, including Jews, gays and blacks, as well as such themes as human imperfection.
One, now working for a wealth-management firm and living in Great Neck, L.I., speaks in blunt, forceful terms and attends an Orthodox shul mostly to avoid the liberal politics associated with other synagogues. The other may be the epitome of the classic urban intellectual — gifted, intense, voluble and engaged in a permanent wrestling match over what it means to be gay, Jewish and American.
In many ways, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the former political operative, and Tony Kushner, the playwright two years his senior, are polar opposites, sharing little in common outside their passion and Jewishness. And so, too, are the outlooks they represent on Israel — worldviews that collided publicly last week, drawing attention far beyond the Jewish world.
The clash began at a May 2 meeting of the City University of New York’s Board of Trustees, where members were scheduled to consider a slate of 40 honorary-degree candidates nominated by CUNY’s schools and colleges.
The recommendations are normally rubber-stamped by the board, and no one expected anything different at the start of last week’s meeting. But Wiesenfeld, a board member of several Jewish organizations and a well-known activist in conservative circles, launched an attack on Kushner, whose name had been submitted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Wiesenfeld focused on Kushner’s Israel views, quoting comments in which the playwright claimed that Israel’s founding was based on a program of “ethnic cleansing” and branded the creation of a Jewish state a “mistake.” The criticism eventually led to a 10-2 vote by the board to postpone any consideration of the honor — the first time in CUNY’s history that such an action was taken, university officials say, and a move that seemed to effectively kill the degree.
But the board’s action, first reported by The Jewish Week on its website, sparked days of mounting pressure on CUNY officials from the university’s own faculty members, members of the arts community, public figures and the playwright himself. In his own letter to the board, Kushner said that Wiesenfeld’s presentation “grotesquely mischaracterized” his views on Israel and that the quotes he offered were selective and taken out of context. Other letters came from former Mayor Edward Koch, who called for Wiesenfeld’s “resignation or removal,” and from past honorary-degree recipients who wanted to return their awards.
Finally, the board’s executive committee met Monday night in a hastily convened session to approve an honorary degree for Kushner, reversing the action it took a week earlier. The session was called by Benno Schmidt, the board’s chairman, who, in a statement last week, said the trustees had made “a mistake in principle” by failing to divorce politics from the award of an honorary degree.
While the board’s reversal may have mitigated the controversy for CUNY, the whole affair brought into sharp relief two Jewish outlooks on Israel — one fiercely nationalistic and rooted in the Holocaust; the other, fiercely progressive and rooted in the ideals of democracy.
In doing so, it touched off a kind of communal soul-searching over how much dissent on Israel can be tolerated in public, especially at a time when the Jewish state’s standing in the world is seen as particularly vulnerable amid widespread efforts to demonize it.
The soul-searching also extended to the tactics employed by Wiesenfeld, who, along with Assemblyman Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn), launched a similar attack just three months ago on a Brooklyn College instructor whose views on Israel they considered beyond the pale. In a foreshadowing of the CUNY episode, Brooklyn College officials initially fired the adjunct professor, only to rehire him a few days later after an outcry from the academic community.
For some observers, such as Brandeis University’s Jonathan Sarna, the episode is one indication among many that the boundaries of acceptable debate on Israel are changing among American Jews. Some in the community would argue that support for J Street, the Washington-based lobbying group that calls itself pro-Israel and pro-peace, “would put you over the line,” said Sarna, a professor of history and the author of “American Judaism: A History.”
Other Jews argue that harsh language crosses the line, he added, while still others contend that support for the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions, or BDS, campaign against Israel can’t be accepted. (Kushner says he opposes the BDS campaign, but he’s an adviser to Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that supports boycotting goods and services produced by Jewish settlements in the West Bank. It’s a position that appalls some, including Wiesenfeld, as much as the global BDS campaign, which makes no distinction between Israel and the occupied territories.)
Sarna, however, believes that none of those standards has won a consensus from American Jews, saying that, as a result, “no one knows any longer what the boundaries” of legitimate dissent are. At one point, he noted, the Jewish community followed whatever positions the Israeli government had adopted — the standard established by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “But that rule,” he added, “no longer holds.”
The professor sees three possibilities for a new standard — “anything goes,” on the left side of the spectrum; whatever’s open to debate among Israelis themselves, a middle course; and the Israeli government’s position, on the right side of the spectrum. But until a new consensus develops, he said, we should expect to see additional ad hominem attacks, in which a person’s motives or character are assaulted rather than the position he takes.
Other observers, such as author and Fordham University law professor Thane Rosenbaum, believe that a consensus of sorts still holds in the Jewish community.
“I’m not a pollster, but I think there’s a widespread impulse in the mainstream diaspora not to speak out” on troublesome or contentious issues that are perceived to be in the family, said Rosenbaum, a novelist and essayist who has written extensively on the Holocaust and human rights.
Rosenbaum is a close friend of Kushner and has argued with the playwright over some of his more left-wing views. But he believes that most American Jews would agree with Wiesenfeld on the use of terms like “ethnic cleansing,” which “is like the ‘N’ word in the Jewish community. … We’re all the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Holocaust,” he said, “and when you use the term ‘ethnic cleansing,’ you’re conflating Israel with the worst tragedy in Jewish history.”
For his part, Kushner has argued that he’s only followed the lead of Israeli historians, including Benny Morris, who has written about instances during Israel’s War of Independence in which Arabs fled their communities, either of their own volition or because they were pushed out. Morris, however, has since changed his analysis, viewing Arab motives as more sinister and anti-Semitic than he originally concluded.
Blu Greenberg, a prominent writer and Orthodox feminist, agrees with Rosenbaum that most American Jews who care about Israel would lean more toward Wiesenfeld’s position than to Kushner’s. Kushner, she said, “overlooks the fact that Israel has had to fight for its life every single day of the past 63 years, doing battle in four wars it did not initiate just to keep a finger in the dike.”
Views vary, though, on whether Kushner should or shouldn’t receive an honorary degree.
For several right-wing publications and organizations, fiercely anti-Israel views are legitimate grounds for barring someone from an honorary degree. The Zionist Organization of America unsuccessfully opposed an honorary degree to Kushner five years ago at Brandeis University.
Others, including some for whom Kushner’s views on Israel are anathema, strongly objected to that way of thinking. Greenberg, for instance, said that as sorry as she was to learn that Kushner was nominated for a degree, she hopes that, had she been a CUNY board member, “I would have had the balanced wisdom to make the central point others are now making — that we live, thank God, in a society where free speech and differing opinions are subjects of debate, not punishment.”
“I think Jeff stirred up a hornet’s nest,” said Gilbert Kahn, a political science professor at Kean University. Wiesenfeld’s statement gave “an incomplete picture” of Kushner’s views, at the very minimum, Kahn said, and it’s probably diminished his role on CUNY’s board “to the point that he can no longer contribute [to that body] effectively.”
Meanwhile, like others, Kahn pointed out that, whatever Kushner’s views on Israel, the playwright “is not an unidentified, detached, secular Jew. This is a person who identifies very much as a Jew.”
Speaking of both men involved in last week’s collision, Rosenbaum said that one, Wiesenfeld, “is playing the role of a Jewish patriot,” while the other, Kushner, “is a Jewish artist.”
In effect, Rosenbaum said, Wiesenfeld is asking, “What are you doing airing our dirty laundry? Why are you shining a light only on Jews and not Muslims?” But Kushner is engaged in “essentially a Jewish struggle. He’s writing about his and his own people’s imperfection. He doesn’t know Muslims; he only knows Jews.”
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