CUNY to reconsider nixing Kushner’s honorary degree

University trustee had campaigned against the decisions to give Pulitzer-winning playwright honorary degree due to anti-Israel statements.

May 8, 2011 03:04
3 minute read.
Jewish American playwright Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner 311. (photo credit: Reuters)


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NEW YORK – A meeting of the trustees of the City University of New York is slated to be held on Monday, and will in all likelihood reconsider the board’s decision to deny Jewish-American playwright Tony Kushner an honorary diploma on the basis of his views on Israel.

Four days after the news broke that a trustee of the university, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, had successfully led a campaign to table the decision to award Kushner, author of the acclaimed play Angels in America, among others, an honorary degree, the head of the trustees, Benno Schmidt, sent out a statement convening another meeting of the group Monday.

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“I believe the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees needs to reconsider the Board’s decision to table the motion to approve the award of an honorary degree to Tony Kushner,” Schmidt’s letter to the trustees read. “I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken. But when the board has made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy, review is appropriate, and indeed mandatory.”

Schmidt’s convening of the trustees is doubtless in response to the strong outcry following the announcement that Kushner’s consideration for an honorary degree from John Jay College, part of the CUNY system, had been rescinded due to opposition most strongly expressed by Wiesenfeld, due to Kushner’s views on Israel.

Kushner has been honored by numerous Jewish institutions in the past, and he said he characterizes his views as being supportive of Israel, but on the political left. He cites Israeli historian Benny Morris as among his sources for his view that Israel conducted ethnic cleansing.

An e-mail from the Center of Policy Research in American Education asked its recipients to rally behind Wiesenfeld, saying that the trustee “has never opposed the granting of an honorary degree to any of the myriad critics of Israel who have received them from CUNY institutions,” and that there are qualitative differences between Kushner and other Israel critics.

The e-mail noted that Kushner “states that Israel should never have been created” and that Israel “engages in ‘ethnic cleansing,’ which goes far beyond ordinary criticism, and is nothing short of a blood libel, akin to so many blood libels of which Jews have been accused throughout history.”

“Jeff Wiesenfeld is only one of the trustees who voted to refuse the honor to Tony Kushner. Why single out Wiesenfeld?” the e-mail asks, and then answers: “Because he is outspokenly pro-Israel, and a symbol to the Israel haters and their fellow travelers. He is a red flag to them, and they are determined to bring him down.”

When asked by The Atlantic’s writer Jeffrey Goldberg if he would reconsider his views on Kushner’s honorary degree, Wiesenfeld said he was open to the idea.

“If Tony Kushner wanted to come to the board and say, ‘You know, when I looked at all of this, I oppose Israeli policies, I think they’re heading in the wrong direction – but I sincerely regret having said that the State of Israel should never have been created, and I shouldn’t have said that the State of Israel had been involved in a national plan of ethnic cleansing, and that this accusation has consequences for the Jewish people,’ guess what, the shit I’m taking from the left I’ll be taking from the right because I would support him,” Wiesenfeld said.

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