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Despite mixed feelings in and outside the college community, Brandeis University is standing by a decision to give Tony Kushner, a Jewish playwright who is fiercely critical of Israel, an honorary doctorate at its upcoming commencement.
The decision to honor Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize winner known most recently for his screenplay for Steven Spielberg's Munich, has been blasted by groups like the Zionist Organization of America.
Kushner, who is Jewish, has called the founding of the State of Israel a "mistake," has accused Israel of carrying out ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and told reporters "it would have been better if Israel never happened."
Some in the Jewish community found Kushner's script for Munich subtly hostile to Israel and overly sympathetic to Palestinian terrorists, and accused him of drawing moral equivalence between the terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games and the Israeli hit squad that tracked down and assassinated the killers.
Morton Klein, president of the ZOA, has implored Brandeis's president and board of trustees to reconsider the award to Kushner, to be given at the May 21 graduation.
"Would Justice Louis Brandeis be anything but revolted by your honoring Tony Kushner?" Klein asked in a letter to university officials. Louis Brandeis, for whom the heavily Jewish university is named, was a giant of early American Zionism.
University spokesman Dennis Nealon said Kushner was being honored "based on the fact that he is a leading playwright of this generation and a giant in his field." The board was unaware of Kushner's anti-Israel statements during the decision-making process, Nealon said, but added that "politics was never on the table in this discussion."
Stuart Eizenstat, a former adviser to presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and a 10-year veteran of Brandeis's board, backed the decision.
"Notwithstanding Kushner's views on Israel, with which I disagree, it's about his artistic contributions," Eizenstat said. "His political views are quite separate from his artistic contributions for which he's being honored."
Kushner defended his stance in a letter to Brandeis president, Jehuda Reinharz.
"I am a proud Jew, a Jewish-American man, and my opinions about Israel are characterized by a serious ambivalence," he wrote. "But ambivalence, doubt, confession of uncertainty, confusion even are all things that thoughtful people experience when confronting terribly tangled political situations."
The controversy comes after the ZOA led calls earlier this year for Brandeis to distance itself from Palestinian demographer Khalil Shikaki because of his ties to figures associated with Islamic Jihad. Shikaki's late brother was a founder of the Palestinian terrorist group.
However, Shikaki had long since cut his ties with the group, and Brandeis dismissed the demands as McCarthyism.
Responses to the Kushner award have been mixed on campus.
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, said he felt it "strange for a university named for Louis Brandeis to honor someone so opposed to his life work." However, once the invitation was extended, it shouldn't be rescinded, Sarna said.
"Taking away the degree is a more serious step than most in the university would like to take," he said.
A May 2 editorial in The Justice, the school's independent student newspaper, applauded the decision to honor Kushner, saying it showed the university leading the American Jewish community in "reaching out to those with different points of view."
Kushner is not the only name fomenting controversy at this year's commencement. Brandeis also has been criticized for inviting Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan to give the keynote address and receive an honorary doctorate.
A university press release calls the prince "a leading international advocate of interfaith dialogue and understanding," but the decision has been controversial on campus, despite the fact that Jordan made peace with Israel in 1994.
A May 2 column described the prince as "inextricably involved in the Jordanian government's questionable human rights record and suppression of political opponents." "Brandeis would be well-advised to reverse its decision to welcome Prince Hassan as a commencement speaker. For a university founded upon the principles of justice and tolerance, this choice is odd at best and offensive at worst," Justice columnist Joe Farbeann wrote.
JTA Staff Writer Rachel Silverman in New York contributed to this story. (JTA)