Tony Kushner: Fallen Angel

How should American Jews address anti-Israel positions by other Jews?

Avi Katz (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Avi Katz (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
To what extent should the American Jewish community tolerate anti-Israel positions by Jews that border on the anti-Semitic? The recent controversy involving the playwright Tony Kushner poses this question.
The City University of New York (CUNY) faced a decision on whether to award Kushner an honorary degree. The accomplished author had won numerous awards including the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his play, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on NationalThemes.” His work had undoubtedly made a significant contribution to American culture.
But Kushner had also distinguished himself through a string of harsh anti-Israel statements. In winter 2005, he told the “Yale Israel Review” that “[Israel was] founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing, and that today is behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people.”
On October 14, 2002, the “New York Sun” quoted him as saying at a conference in New York that “I’ve never been a Zionist. I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would have been better if it never happened.”
Though many (including myself) would disagree with the first comment, it could be seen as a harsh, if misguided, judgment on Israel’s conduct during its War of Independence. Kushner is entitled to such inflammatory criticisms. A Jew has a right to be pro- Palestinian.
But the second statement crosses the line. Israel is one of several nations that had to fight a war to secure its independence. The United States fought a revolution to obtain its freedom, as did many of the Latin American countries. No one questions the right of those nations to exist. Terrorist-harboring states like Syria, Iran and Pakistan do not have to justify their existence. Arabs, Latinos and Africans have all formed independent countries of their own and are recognized as legitimate. Despite a continuous Jewish presence of over 3,000 years in the Land of Israel, people like Kushner still seem to question the State of Israel’s right to exist. By this logic, every people on earth,except the Jews, can form nations of their own.
Black civil-rights champion Dr. Martin Luther King once said that “when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking anti-Semitism.” In other words, although he is obviously not an anti-Semite, Kushner seems to advocate what many Jews and others construe as anti-Semitic views, whether he is cognizant of the fact or not. That is why the CUNY board initially required him to recant his criticisms of Israel to obtain his degree.
It later reversed itself and decided to award the honor without preconditions. I think the board made the right decision. Ideological tests for artistic awards are dangerous and unjustified. If you consider Kushner on his literary accomplishments alone, he has earned his degree. A democracy that protects only majority opinions is not a real democracy.
Ironically, though, Israel is one of the best examples of a nation that protects unpopular opinions. Its coalition governments regularly seat anti-Zionist Haredim as deputy ministers. It even tolerates the annual Nakba Day observances by Israeli Arabs mourning the "catastrophe" of the creation of the State of Israel. It is mystifying why Kushner does not have even an ounce of sympathy for a country that practices the principles of free speech and toleration that he and others so ardently profess.
Yet Kushner is not the only Jewish Diaspora intellectual to have expressed deep hostility towards Israel. Indeed, some have been at the forefront of the ideological campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state. In 2003, the celebrated late British-born historian Tony Judt wrote that Israel was becoming a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno state” and advocated transforming it into a bi-national country. He followed up in 2006 with the thought that “it will not be self-evident to future generations of American Jews” why American interests “are so closely aligned with one small, controversial Mediterranean client state.”
Other British Jews joined the verbal onslaught. In April 2008, on the eve of Israel’s 60th anniversary, Jewish intellectuals, the most prominent among them being the actor and author Stephen Fry, signed an open petition in “The Guardian,” which attacked Israel as “…a state founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people from their land.”
This Jewish empathy for Israel’s enemies shows total disregard for Jewish history, shamelessly distorts the circumstances of Israel’s founding and panders to a strain of intellectual political correctness, fairly common in Britain, less so in the US. It is completely one-sided, blinkered and insensitive to profound Israeli suffering from Arab-initiated war and terror.
The question is how should we as Jews who support Israel respond to the Tony Kushners of this world? In my view, we should follow the example of Dr. King and the civil rights movement and, as a Jewish community, boycott them. People like Kushner have a right to speak and to propagate their views. However, like the oppressed African Americans of the civil rights era, the unsilent majority of pro-Israel individuals are not obliged to subsidize them.
Naim Peress is a lawyer and writer, based in New York.