Saturday, May 28th | 27 Iyyar 5782

May 5, 2011 5:39 pm

Tony Kushner, a Divisive Choice For CUNY

avatar by Maxine Dovere

When a college awards a degree honoris causa (Latin: “for the sake of the honor”) it eliminates ordinary academic requirements, choosing to recognize the recipient’s achievements or his contributions to society in general. The university selects to benefit from its association with the person to be honored.   The honor is given at the discretion of that university’s Board of Directors, which can give or deny the degree.

Is a university obligated to honor those whose statements many have questioned the validity of a member state of the United Nations, or at the least, demanded basic change in its democratic albeit national, character? 

The Board of Directors of the CUNY, in a virtually unanimous vote, selected not to award an honorary degree to Tony Kushner.  Why?  “Kushner is an extremist and a liar,” said Board Member Jeffrey Wiesenfeld. Honorary Degrees should be given to consensus individuals, not to create divisiveness.  Tony Kushner creates divisiveness.”

Kushner, a well-known critic of the State of Israel – even to the existential concept of its existence – was being considered for an honorary degree from the John Jay College of CUNY.  The action has engendered sharp response both from left and right leaning commentators.  “the Left is well organized,: said Wiesenfeld, “better than supporters of Israel.”

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Wiesenfeld describes Kushner as someone who gratuitously and specifically attacks Israel.  His positions, he says, are racist and bigoted.  After consideration, the Board voted to overwhelmingly to deny him the degree. Could the board be pressured to change its position?  Wiesenfeld acknowledges that the question could be raised again.  In 2011, it will not happen.

In a letter addressed to the Board, Kushner said a “grotesque caricature” of his political beliefs regarding the state of Israel had been stated, claiming he, the playwright, had been unable to speak in his own defense.  Naming Wiesenfeld as his main critic, Kushner also questioned the “silence of the other eleven board members asking about the “appropriateness” of the actions taken in a public forum of a public university. 

Despite his claim to have been misrepresented, Kushner says “I don’t intend to mount a full defense of myself or my opinions” although he says he has been “publicly defamed.” He seems to want to take multiple positions in a package, saying he is “proud of being Jewish” but retaining questions about “the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state (nb:  he is, in fact, against the formation of the State of Israel).  He says he makes a “strong statement of support for Israel’s right to exist,” yet claims there was a “forced removal of Palestinians” that “was ethnic cleansing.”

Kushner speaks of “outrage, my grief, my terror, my moments of despair”…kept in check by my ongoing belief in and commitment to a negotiated conclusion to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis,” and claims to “have never supported a boycott of the state of Israel though acknowledges being “on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace” an organization that does support the boycott.  (Kushner claims to differ from its positions.)

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.

Attempts to secure comments from the office of CUNY Chairman Mathhew Goldstein continue.

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