Kushner to receive disputed honorary degree from CUNY

University president calls meeting to fix "a mistake of principle, not merely of policy," in approving the playwright's degree.

May 10, 2011 17:29
2 minute read.
Jewish American playwright Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

NEW YORK – In an out-of-theordinary, 20-minute meeting of its board of trustees Monday night, CUNY approved an honorary degree for Jewish American playwright Tony Kushner.

The award of this degree had previously been placed on hold due to Kushner’s views on Israel, which, when publicized, elicited a veritable maelstrom of criticism of CUNY and the board of trustees.

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Kushner, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his play Angels in America will receive the honorary degree of doctor of letters from John Jay College of CUNY, at the school’s commencement ceremony on June 3.

In a statement, CUNY President Benno Schmidt called the unusual trustees’ meeting in order to fix “a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy.”

Prior to Monday night’s meeting, the board of trustees had voted to table the decision on Kushner’s honorary degree after one trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, alerted the board to Kushner’s positions on Israel – among them the playwright’s belief that Israel had engaged in ethnic cleansing at the state’s founding.

Kushner, who has been honored by many Jewish institutions in the past, disputed Wiesenfeld’s characterization of his views on Israel. Kushner has called himself a supporter of the Jewish State who subscribes to the political left, as well as the views of Israeli historian Benny Morris, who has made similar arguments regarding Israel’s behavior in 1948.

Kushner told The New York Times Monday night that he will accept the honorary degree, “because of the real gratitude I feel for the students and faculty of John Jay... I think it was appropriate for the board to make this decision,” adding, “I think questions have been raised about what constitutes appropriate conduct for individual trustees and the board as a whole, and I hope those questions will go on to spark a vigorous and consequential debate.”

New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman wrote that the school’s trustees “seemed to have collectively blanked on the fact that Mr. Kushner’s opinions of Israel – good or bad, definitely not indifferent – had nothing to do with John Jay’s reason for extolling him: he writes important plays.

“He’s not creating shrines to Osama bin Laden. He simply thinks differently about the Middle East than many others, including fellow Jews.”

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