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May 11, 2011 11:09 am

An Open Letter to Tony Kushner

avatar by Dovid Efune

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Playwright Tony Kushner. Photo: Justin Ide/Harvard News Office.

I have yet to study your literary work, although I have long had a keen interest, so when news broke last week of the ‘CUNY episode’ it immediately caught my attention, as it did many other young Jews around the country and the world. Eager to participate in the dialogue over this matter, the Algemeiner Journal, under my direction, published the first written response by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld to your letter published by the Jewish Week.

It was of such great interest, not so much because of the particulars, but rather the broader significance of the many compelling issues that this incident brought to light, and their ongoing contemporary relevance.

  1. There was the matter of university boards, and their significance, powers and limitations as highlighted by Kristofer Petersen-Overton writing for the Guardian of London, albeit influenced by his own vendetta.
  2. The scrappy and ill-conceived exploration of the ‘Friend of Israel’ mindset by Andrew Sullivan for the Daily Beast.
  3. The question of whether a legitimate distinction can be made between a man and his work or achievements in another field as brought to light by Ed Koch in his weekly column.
  4. The Wall Street Journal concluded its opinion piece by pointing out that ‘hostility to Israel has become such a deeply embedded principle of the modern academy,’ bringing to bear another widespread concern that gives cause for intense public scrutiny.
  5. Peter Beinart, also writing for the Daily Beast, refers to your situation as ‘cutting edge’ seeing the debate over your honorary degree as a renewed airing of the age old discussion regarding the compatibility of Zionism with Western Democratic values.

Although each of the above points could be expounded on at great length, my purpose in listing them is merely to illustrate the far reaching impact and importance of your situation and its outcome. Therefore, in arriving at my own conclusion I thought it imperative not to rely on the reporting and hearsay of others, but to study the original transcripts of the trustee’s meeting, and your written response.

Upon scrutiny, I discovered that your statements and claims are so riddled with hypocrisy, contradictions and prejudicial assumptions that I felt it imperative to publically request an explanation.

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Throughout your letter you refer to Mr. Wiesenfeld’s comments as a ‘grotesque caricature’ of your political beliefs ‘slander,’ ‘diatribe’ and a ‘vicious attack.’ You Label Mr. Wiesenfeld as a ‘bully’ and ‘lacking the ability to tolerate disagreement’ and you imply that he is untruthful, unscholarly and lacks integrity. I am sure that you are aware that in Mr. Wiesenfeld’s comments at the board meeting, he used no such derogatory adjectives, and was careful to assert his objection only to the positions that he believed you to have espoused, steering clear of personal attacks and character assassination.

Despite the inferences gleaned from others, it is clear that your objection to Mr. Wiesenfeld’s comments were his perceived misrepresentations of your political positions. As you yourself write “It would have taken very little effort to learn that my politics regarding the state of Israel do not resemble Mr. Weisenfeld’s account.” Yet of the subjects that were brought up by Mr. Wiesenfeld, you yourself reaffirm your positions on each and every one in your letter effectively corroborating his testimony.

Wiesenfeld quotes an Israeli reporter who asked you, “Are you saying then that the very creation of the State of Israel as a Jewish state was not a good idea?” and you answered “it was a mistake.”

You write: “My questions and reservations regarding the founding of the state of Israel are connected to my conviction, drawn from my reading of American history, that democratic government must be free of ethnic or religious affiliation,” thus reaffirming your critique of the founding of the State of Israel.

Wiesenfeld quotes: “Israel was founded in a program that if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing.”

You write: “I believe that the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the state of Israel was ethnic cleansing, a conclusion I reached mainly by reading the work of Benny Morris, an acclaimed and conservative Israeli historian whose political opinions are much more in accord with Mr. Weisenfeld’s than with mine”

In making his case against you, you accuse Wiesenfeld of using “carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews,” yet you neglect to mention the context of Benny Morris’s statements. Namely that his politics have evolved, (his politics leaned strongly to the left when he wrote the statements that you refer to) and that he has stipulated that any Jewish eviction of Arabs in 1948 was necessary to prevent ‘genocide’ against the Jewish people.

Although you claim to never have supported divestment from Israel, it is fair to say that there is a case to be made that by allowing your name to be associated with an organization that is actively involved in such activities without publically repudiating them, constitutes passive if not active support.

In your letter you reprimand the board of trustees saying: “Did any of you feel that your responsibilities as trustees of an august institution of higher learning included even briefly discussing the appropriateness of Mr. Weisenfeld’s using a public board meeting as a platform for deriding the political opinions of someone with whom he disagrees?

If you are so in favor of the separation of politics and art, so how is it that last September you so readily signed a public letter of support for artists in Israel refusing to perform in Ariel on political grounds?

So where exactly was Wiesenfeld off the mark? Was it because he neglected to mention that you like to preface your criticisms with a “strong statement of support for Israel’s right to exist?” This statement is in itself offensive to many due to its implications and condescending tone.

As the decision to deny your recognition has been overturned it is clearly a triumph of brawn over fair reason, of wholesale bullying over due process and consensus based decision making. But this matter may not be over, if Mr. Wiesenfeld loses his position as a result of your efforts, it will be a sad day for America and for proponents of free expression around the world.

Sincerely

Dovid Efune

The Author is the director of the Algemeiner Journal and the GJCF and can be e-mailed at defune@gjcf.com. Please visit www.algemeiner.com for more information.

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  • Degel

    Rachel!
    You can do whatever you like, but as an outsider I should tell you boxing is not for women taking part in. And if somebody got his hit reached you can only blow to the bruise or bring some ice, it can help more than your good-for-nothing, long presumptions.

  • Rachel

    You characterize the overturning of the decision to deny Kushner’s recognition as “clearly a triumph of brawn over fair reason” and “wholesale bullying over due process and consensus based decision making.”

    Peter Pantaleo, who is of the CUNY trustees who participated in this “consensus based decision making,” is cited in the New York Times as saying that he felt confused by the proceedings that resulted in a denial of Kushner’s recognition, and, “assumed there would be discussion immediately after the motion to award the degree had been tabled,” as the NYT paraphrases what he told them.

    In the same article, (“Pressure Grows for Trustee to Leave Board of CUNY,” May 10, 2011), we are told that “Some trustees later said they were caught off guard by Mr. Wiesenfeld’s last minute objections to honoring Mr. Kushner.”

    Having listened to the audio podcast of the meeting in question, I did not get the impression that Wiesenfeld’s objections were delivered in the spirit of “fair reason,” and based on the NYT report, Wiesenfeld’s objections may not have been received in that spirit by those trustees who were inspired by them to vote against Kushner being awarded the degree. In actually listening to the podcast, I got the impression that Wiesenfeld was not trying to appeal to other trustee’s ability to reason but was instead trying (probably unwittingly) to create an emotionally charged atmosphere where his listeners would essentially feel bullied into voting the way Wiesenfeld thought they should vote.

    It was only after the fact that we began to see inklings of actual reasoning applied to the matter, though of course not everyone who commented on the matter appealed to reason. But what you say about a triumph of brawn and reason and wholesale bullying is just spin. It’s the kind of rhetoric I would expect to hear from spinmeisters like Paul Begala, Bill O’Reilly, James Carville, and Sean Hannity. You’re obviously super bright and don’t need to resort to that.

  • Maureen Gavin

    Succinct to the point and well put Dovid

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