Purgatory in America

After trustee calls Tony Kushner anti-Israel, CUNY board blocks John Jay College from giving him honorary degree.
May 5, 2011

Tony Kushner has a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an Emmy Award, two Tony Awards, and more than a dozen honorary degrees. But the playwright best known for Angels in America will not be receiving an honorary doctorate from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

That's because the board of the City University of New York on Monday refused to authorize the college to grant the honor. Instead of approving the honorary degrees proposed by CUNY's various colleges for this spring's commencement ceremonies, the board separated out the Kushner proposal, approved the rest, and tabled the Kushner degree. The vote followed a speech by one trustee denouncing Kushner's views on Israel.

Since the CUNY system was created in 1961, this is the first time the board has tabled such a proposed honorary doctorate. The board is not scheduled to meet again until after the graduation ceremonies are over.

The board's action infuriated Kushner, who issued a letter Wednesday saying that his views had been distorted and that he had been unfairly maligned. Faculty members are also angry, saying that the board applied an inappropriate political litmus test to an honor that had nothing to do with Kushner's views on Israel, which they agreed had been distorted.

While Kushner is in fact critical of Israel's government, he has also spoken numerous times of his love for the country. Much of his criticism of Israel has come within the context of his Jewish identity; for instance, he is the co-editor of Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

The proposal to honor Kushner was challenged by Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, a CUNY trustee who has been on the board since 1999. As soon as the honorary degrees came up, Wiesenfeld said he wanted to discuss an issue that was "larger than the candidate" whose honor he was opposing. This issue is the "disingenuous and non-intellectual activity" hostile to Israel at many campuses.

Wiesenfeld noted that John Jay had previously honored (with an award, not a degree) Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and United Nations official, despite criticism that she allowed a U.N. conference on racism over which she presided to feature repeated attacks on Israel. Turning to Kushner's proposed honor, Wiesenfeld said that he didn't rely on pro-Israel groups for information about the playwright, but instead visited the website of Norman Finkelstein, a controversial author of books that are highly critical of Israel and who was denied tenure by DePaul University in 2007.

According to Wiesenfeld, Finkelstein approvingly quoted Kushner as questioning the decision to found Israel and as being harshly critical of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. While some faculty members may think that "it has a chilling effect when a trustees brings up these kinds of matters," Wiesenfeld said that trustees have "a responsibility" to do so.

He then briefly noted his frustration with the appointment of Kristofer Petersen-Overton (a CUNY graduate student who has also been accused of being anti-Israel, and who also has said that his views have been distorted) as an adjunct at Brooklyn College, and called his scholarship "specious." (CUNY makes podcasts of its board meetings public, and the discussion can be heard here; the honorary degrees were the last topic discussed.) At that point, the board tried and failed to get the votes needed to approve all of the honorary degrees, but then separated the Kushner proposal from the others, and approved the rest. No one spoke in defense of Kushner.

Faculty leaders say that they had no idea that the honor for Kushner would be challenged. At CUNY, all honorary degrees must be approved by the board. Faculty committees at the CUNY campuses come up with nominees, who must be approved through the faculty governance system on the campuses, and then by campus presidents before being presented to the board.

In a letter sent to CUNY's board Wednesday, as well as to John Jay students and faculty members, Kushner said that Wiesenfeld had "delivered a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I’ve given."

Kushner noted that no one had told him that his willingness to accept an honorary degree would mean that he would need to defend himself at a public meeting. And he was critical not only of Wiesenfeld, but of the other CUNY trustees. "[F]ar more dismaying than Mr. Wiesenfeld’s diatribe is the silence of the other 11 board members. 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. Wiesenfeld’s using a public board meeting as a platform for deriding the political opinions of someone with whom he disagrees?

"Did none of you feel any responsibility towards me, whose name was before you, and hence available as a target for Mr. Wiesenfeld’s slander, entirely because I’d been nominated for an honor by the faculty and administration of one of your colleges?" he continued. "I can’t 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."

In his letter, Kushner freely acknowledged that he is highly critical of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and that he has questioned the decision to create Israel, but he said his views reflect a broader view about how to protect minority rights and that he advocates the continuation of Israel.

"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; these solutions are, like all solutions, imperfect, but they seem to me more rational, and have had a far better record of success in terms of minorities being protected from majoritarian tyranny, than have national or tribal solutions," he wrote. "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. My opinion about the wisdom of the
creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel’s right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr. Wiesenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks."

Kushner's views on Israel have sometimes been criticized in the past, but his philosophy is one he has discussed repeatedly. Brandeis University was criticized in 2006 for giving Kushner an honorary doctorate, but did not back away from the honor. At that time, Kushner explained his views on Israel this way: "Though I think nationalist solutions to the problems of oppressed minorities are usually mistakes, I love Israel, I am moved and excited by its culture, its meaning in Jewish history, but I’m critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, I’m opposed to the occupation, the settlements, the barrier wall, and attacks on civilians, whether the civilians are Palestinian or Israeli. I love and admire the Palestinians but I believe that in the midst of their suffering some Palestinians have made their own terrible mistakes. I tend to believe that people make mistakes because of their suffering rather than some inherent evil."

The CUNY Faculty Senate wrote Tuesday to the university's board asking it to reconsider the decision and to award the degree. And Internet debates are starting up over the CUNY action. A new Facebook group is called "Tony Kushner: Good Enough for a Pulitzer, but Not for City University NY?"

Karen Kaplowitz, a professor of literature and president of the Faculty Senate at John Jay, said that while the college proposed the honor for Kushner's work as an author, and not for his views on the Middle East, she believed that those views had been distorted at the CUNY board meeting.

Kaplowitz noted that several parts of the controversy were particularly troubling to her and her colleagues at John Jay. Kushner didn't seek the honorary degree, but was nominated for it by professors who respected his career -- and also his willingness in the past to speak to classes at the college. Further, Kaplowitz noted that the procedures for nominating candidates for honorary degrees at John Jay have a high bar to get over -- only those who receive a vote of 75 percent in the Faculty Senate are forwarded. But Kaplowitz said that the faculty at John Jay also has a rule that these votes are private, and that someone who is considered for the honor but fails to get the 75 percent required doesn't have his or her name recorded as a failed candidate.

That's because, she said, faculty members wouldn't want someone denigrated for failing to get an honor.

"This is a miscarriage of justice in that he deserves the honorary degree," she said. "But that his reputation has now been harmed by no action of his is really troubling. He didn't seek this. We wanted to thank him. He came to the campus to teach, and now he's been maligned."


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