The Trustee vs. the Playwright
May 5th, 2011
The City University has reportedly decided to reverse John Jay College’s decision to give Tony Kushner, the acclaimed author of Angels in America and other lauded plays, an honorary degree. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the former Jewish liaison to Gov. George Pataki and an investment banker who sits on the CUNY board, essentially black-balled Kushner for the playwright’s criticism of Israel.
The contretemps is the latest in a series of disputes — lower profile than this one — where the debate over the Middle East has spilled into the city’s public university. Earlier this year, Brooklyn College http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/nyregion/28prof.html rescinded the appointment of adjunct professor Kristofer Petersen-Overton, when Wiesenfeld and State Assemblymember Dov Hikind questioned his views on Palestinians.
After 1,700 people signed a petition in support of Peterson-Overton, the college reversed its decision.
In September, Brooklyn College’s assignment of the book, How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America by college associate English professor Moustafa Bayoumi prompted criticism because it supposedly presented only one point of view (hint: not the pro Israel one). The book spurred one alumnus to cancel a previously planned “significant bequest” to the college.
As far as Kushner goes, Wiesenfeld apparently cited a web site account of Kushner’s views on Israel (a secondary source in other words) at the trustees meeting and then said, “I think it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things. Especially when the State of Israel, which is our sole democratic ally in the area, sits in the neighborhood which is almost universally dominated by administrations which are almost universally misogynist, antigay, anti-Christian.”
According to the Jewish Week, which first reported on the Kushner decision, A majority of CUNY board members then voted to table Kushner’s award, essentially killing it.
Kushner, by most accounts, has been a harsh critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. However, he also has said, ” “I want the State of Israel to continue to exist. I have always said that. I’ve never said anything else.” In the same interview he said, “In terms of the Palestinian situation, as I’ve always said, I’m in favor of a two-state solution.”
In a letter to the CUNY board, Kushner amplified his views, saying, ” 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, and that the solution to the problems of oppressed minorities are to be found in pluralist democracy and in legal instruments like the 14th Amendment … I am very proud of being Jewish and discussing this issue publicly has been hard; but I believe in the absolute good of public debate, and I feel that silence on the part of Jews who have questions is injurious to the life of the Jewish people.”
In the letter, Kushner complained that no one asked him to explain his views, and he castigated the other 11 CUNY board members. ” I canít adequately describe my dismay at the fact that none of you felt stirred enough by ordinary fairness to demand of one of your members that, if he was going to mount a vicious attack, he ought to adhere to standards higher than those of internet gossip,” Kushner wrote.
Reaction to the board’s decision quickly flared across the blogosphere. New English Review lauded Wiesenfeld as ” the epitome of what tough thoughtful Jews in positions of prominence should be doing to combat those Jews seeking Israelí’ destruction.”
Praising CUNY for, in the end, deciding not to honor a “self-hating Jew,” Israel Matzav wrote, “Kushner has made numerous egregious statements viciously condemning Israel and decrying its very existence. … Kushner has also repeatedly blamed Israel for supposed ‘ethnic cleaning’ and ‘dispossession’ of Palestinians.”
But Tikun Olam said that, in denying Kushner the honor,” “CUNY now looks like a political battlefield and stifler of free speech, instead of one of the biggest and best urban university systems in the nation. Students and faculty are rightfully enraged. Never before in CUNYís history has an individual campusí honorary degree candidate been axed.”
“Almost makes me ashamed to be CUNY student,” blogged The Playgoer. “Yet, there’s still time for other board members to come to their senses and for John Jay College to stand up to the bullying by one man intimidating the public university which he claims to ’serve.’”)
For his part, Wiesenfeld is no stranger to controversy. He played a leadership role in Stop the Madrassa, a group widely seen as Islamaphobic, that tried to block the city’s creation of a dual-language Arabic-English public school in Brooklyn. The CUNY faculty union opposed his appointment to the CUNY board
In 2009, he had a shooting match with City Councilmember Charles Barron — hardly a reticent figure himself — at a CUNY groundbreaking, repeatedly calling the Brooklyn politician a “disgrace.” The News gave both Wiesenfeld and Barron a New York Knucklehead Awards for their conduct.By Gail Robinson on May 5, 2011, 12:59 pm
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