Should loathsome or controversial public attitudes be taken into account when
determining whether to honor a person for artistic, musical or literary
contributions? This has now become a contentious issue in the American Jewish
In New York – the city accommodating the largest Jewish community
in the Diaspora – playwright and author Tony Kushner was initially denied an
honorary doctorate by the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York
(CUNY) because of his vitriolic attacks and campaigns against Israel and
Zionism. That decision was adopted on May 2 by 11 of the 12 trustees
participating in the meeting.
However, the vote triggered a fierce uproar
from the CUNY faculty and the New York arts and media establishment. Liberals
Jews like journalist Jeffrey Goldberg bitterly condemned Kushner’s principal
critic on the board, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, and staunchly pro-Israel former mayor
Ed Koch even demanded that he resign from the CUNY Board of Trustees.
response, Wiesenfeld stated that if Kushner renounced his statements alleging
that the Jewish state was born in sin and accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing,
he would revoke his vote denying the playwright an honorary degree.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Benno Schmidt, a former president of Yale,
condemned the Kushner veto, alleging that it was based “on a vicious attack” and
insisting that “freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any
university worthy of the name.”
He hastily summoned a special meeting of
the Board’s executive committee, which is entitled to reverse any decision it
considers detrimental to the university. This week, six of its seven members
voted to reinstate Kushner’s honorary degree. This will also entitle him to
address students at the commencement of the new term. Kushner triumphantly
accepted the award, expressing the hope that this would spark a “vigorous
MOST OF us would agree in principle that a person’s beliefs
should not represent a barrier to being honored for artistic or literary
On the surface, there was therefore a legitimate case for
challenging the propriety of Wiesenfeld’s call to refuse to honor Kushner for
his achievements merely on the grounds of his having expressed “critical” views
about Israel. But the issue is far more complex.
Tony Kushner is a
renowned playwright, famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning production Angels in
America, as well as other plays and films.
His supporters insist that he
is merely a legitimate critic of Israeli policies. They allege that he was
slandered, and is a victim of right-wing political Zionist
Yet in reality, the assertion that Kushner is merely a
“critic” of Israel is utter nonsense. He fervently demonizes the Jewish state,
claiming it was born in sin. “Israel”, Kushner says, “was founded in a program
that if you wish to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing.”
states: “I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would have been
better if it had never happened... I think it was a mistake.”
occasion, he pontificated that “the existence of Israel, because of the terrible
way that the Palestinian people have been treated, is now in great peril, and
the world is in peril as a consequence of it.”
Kushner is also a member
of the Board of Advisers of the viciously anti-Israel group “Jewish Voice for
Peace” which actively promotes Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against
the Jewish state. Not surprisingly, he figures prominently on the website of the
rabidly anti- Israel publicist Norman Finkelstein.
So let’s be clear. It
is more than an understatement to sanitize Kushner as a mere “critic” of Israel.
He is indisputably an inveterate Israel basher, repeatedly making public
statements designed to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.
the issue, as alleged by CUNY Board of Trustees chair Benno Schmidt, one of
freedom of expression. Nobody can deny Kushner his right to continue
defaming the Jewish state.
THE REAL Issue centers on whether publicly
aired political attitudes should be considered when determining whether a person
be honored for artistic talent.
Whereas most would adamantly disapprove,
the question is: Should this be applied rigidly, without exception? Are there no
red lines beyond which the bigotry of a candidate should be taken into account?
For example, should a person who campaigns against the re-election of President
Barack Obama exclusively on racial grounds be excluded? Or a confirmed Nazi who
claims Hitler was right? Or a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan? Or an active
homophobe? Or someone favoring the banning of the Koran and the deportation of
Muslim Americans? Would it be conceivable for any self-respecting university to
provide an honorary degree to a person promoting such views, thus enabling him
to address its students from their official podium at commencement? Are there
any red lines when a person demonizes and delegitimizes Israel – the only
country in the world whose very existence is under challenge? Have American
liberals, including some Jews, reached the deplorable conclusion that it is no
longer politically correct to treat those libeling and promoting boycotts
against the Jewish state as deviating from the realm of decency? Is it in order
to accept the demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state as valid
mainstream political discourse? The American left-wing arts establishment,
including its Jewish components, seemingly has no problem with
Otherwise, there would have been a more meaningful debate before
the Executive Committee of CUNY acted to reverse the decision of their Board of
Perhaps those who feel that the perfidious political views of a
person like Kushner should not prevent his being honored by society will apply
the same procedures to racists, homophobes, misogynists and all other bigots.
Would CUNY now offer an honorary degree to a virulently anti-Semitic musician
like Wagner, or a philosopher like the pro-Nazi Heidegger, and invite them to
address their students? Such an approach, in my opinion, would be appallingly
misguided. But at least it would be firstname.lastname@example.org