Acclaimed author denied honorary degree because critic of Occupation


May 6, 2011
Sarah Benton
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Animus in America
Lincoln Z. Shlenskyv
Thursday, May 5, 2011

In an unprecedented and crassly politicized decision, City University of New York board members have voted to deny an honorary academic degree to Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, who was nominated for the award by CUNY’s John Jay College campus this year. Kushner is author of the acclaimed “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” “An Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” and many other plays, and he is a co-author of the film screenplay for “Munich.”

The CUNY board’s decision came after board member Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld objected to Kushner’s statements about Israel, excerpts of which Wiesenfeld claims to have gleaned from various websites (Wiesenfeld’s citations have been described by blogger Mitchell Plitnick as having been sourced from the notoriously reactionary pro-Israel propaganda purveyer, Camera.org). Wiesenfeld does not claim to have sought out the original sources of the statements he cites, lending credence to the objection that he willfully has taken Kushner’s comments out of context. Wiesenfeld has since argued, in an unrepentent op-ed posted on the Jewish newspaper site Algemeiner.com, that Kushner’s views should be labeled anti-Semitic.

What are Kushner’s views? As he states in his letter responding to the CUNY rejection — in which he demands an apology from the board for publicly airing criticism of him without offering him any opportunity to respond — he is a critic of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians; he rejects Israel’s self-definition as a “Jewish” state (rather than as a state of all of its citizens, including the 20% who are Arabs); and he is a proud board member of the anti-Occupation membership organization Jewish Voice for Peace (jvp.org). Kushner, who is Jewish, has said that he does not agree with all of JVP’s positions or strategies, but welcomes such disagreements as part of a healthy political debate. He has clearly stated his support for Israel’s continued existence (according to The New York Observer), although he evidently advocates a more formally inclusive relation to its religious/cultural minorities and an end to its occupation of Palestinian territories. He sides with right-leaning Israeli historian Benny Morris’s views that Israel’s founding in 1948 relied on “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinian civilians. He rejects the thrust of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against Israel and its occupation, which he regards as counter-productive and mistaken in its historical analogies.

These are hardly radical views. Calling such views anti-Semitic, or even anti-Israel, as Wiesenfeld does, is not only a gross distortion but is also a thuggish form of defamation (predictable though such knee-jerk denunciations by established American Jewish institutions such as the ADL have become). The CUNY board’s decision to judge Kushner’s views on Israel as falling outside of legitimate and thoughtful discourse — and as outweighing his artistic accomplishments, the presumable reason for his nomination for the honorary award in the first place — is deeply dismaying, especially as it issues from an academic institution supposedly committed to the promotion of free expression.

The CUNY board has already come under sharp fire for its decision. According to Salon.com, noted historian Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University is now seeking to return the honorary degree she was awarded previously by CUNY, and CUNY’s own faculty union has strenuously objected to the board’s decision, calling it “perverse.”

Here is a link to Kushner’s response letter to CUNY, excoriating its board for presenting caricatured and one-sided criticisms of him in a forum that precluded his offering a response.

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