Kushner Crisis: Day 2

Wel­come to the Kushner Crisis blog. We’ve been cov­er­ing the recent sit­u­a­tion of polit­i­cal purg­ing at CUNY involving Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrite Tony Kushner, who was denied an honorary degree from John Jay College by the CUNY Board of Trustees. It would seem that Kushner does not have politically correct-enough views for the BoT with regards to the state of Israel. We will be reporting on this crisis and related news beginning today. The most recent updates will appear at the top with a EST stamp.

Day 2

11:45pm     The New York Times reports on the statement issued this afternoon by the CUNY Board of Trustees regarding the decision to deny playwrite Tony Kushner an honorary degree. The paper of record notes that “that its decision to block an honorary degree for the playwright Tony Kushner ‘should not be interpreted as reflecting on Mr. Kushner’s accomplishments.’”

The article goes on to point out that “the statement fell short of an apology, which is what Mr. Kushner called for after Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, a trustee, claimed that he held deeply anti-Israel views. Mr. Wiesenfeld’s words, at a board meeting on Monday, set in motion a vote by the trustees to shelve the honor.”

In addition, “CUNY’s statement also appeared unlikely to quell the mounting criticism from intellectual and artistic circles that has erupted. Former Mayor Edward I. Koch, an outspoken supporter of Israel who is receiving an honorary degree from CUNY, called on Thursday for the board to grant Mr. Kushner the degree and for Mr. Wiesenfeld to resign, saying he had abused his power.”

Meanwhile, “Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University who received an honorary degree from CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2008, said she planned to return it in solidarity with Mr. Kushner.”

At the school in question, “Karen Kaplowitz, the head of the faculty committee at John Jay that had nominated Mr. Kushner, said she was mortified that he had been treated with disrespect. She said the Faculty Senate had submitted the nomination to honor Mr. Kushner’s work.

“This is not,” Dr. Kaplowitz said, “how the academy works, and it should not be how the trustees of a great university operate.”

11:30pm    The Nation‘s Katha Pollitt wrote a strong letter of condemnation of the Kushner situation. It runs below.



Dear CUNY Trustees et al, 
9:30pm     Even Jeffrey Goldberg is up in arms over the Kushner crisis at CUNY.  Very sharply worded piece at his Atlantic blog today:

This is just unconscionably stupid. Where to begin? Actually I can’t begin now, I’m running out to something, but really, denying Tony Kushner an honorary degree because a former aide to George Pataki thinks he is anti-Israel? Kushner is critical of Israel, yes, and I don’t think he actually understands much about the Middle East, but I’m not sure this is the business of the City University of New York. In any case, Kushner is obsessed, in his own way, with the Jewish condition, and he views himself, I’m reasonably sure, as inhabiting the age-old role of the laceratingly self-critical Jewish dissident. He strikes me, from a distance, as one of those sons-of-the-people who wakes up worrying about the Jews, and goes to sleep worrying about the Jews. I think his discomfort with Jewish power is mainly misplaced, but turning him into a free-speech martyr? Is that what a handful of Jews want to do with their political power? In any case, if those Jews on the right are trying to marginalize his opinions, this is certainly not the way to do it. Bozos.

More later, if I can stand it.

9:00pm     The Advocate has recevied a copy of a letter written by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, condemming the CUNY Board of Trustees decision to deny Tony Kushner an honorary degree from John Jay, and calling for Jeffrey Wiesenfeld’s removal from the Board of Trustees.  









In part the letter reads:

I read with considerable distress the New York Times article of May 4 reporting that “the trustees of the City University of New York have voted to shelve an honorary degree that one of its campuses, John Jay College, planned to award Tony Kushner.” The reason given that Mr. Kushner “had disparaged the State of Israel in past comments, a characterization that the writer attacked…”

I can’t think of a dumber action. What does Kushner receiving an award have to do with criticsim of the State of Israel? I am a well-known supportin of the nation. What if I were denied an honrary degree because of my strong support for that state? That would mkae as much sense as denying Mr. Kushner a degree.

Mr. Wiesenfeld and the trustees who followed his request and immediately reverse their action and urge Mr. Kushner to forgive them. I consider Mr. Wiesnefeld’s action so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal fromt he Board of Trustees.

7:45pm     Thanks to Jerry Haber, who offers a useful template for letters sent to the various CUNY Board of Trustees.  It reads:

Dear CUNY Member of the Board of Trustees

What were you thinking?

Did you really think that allowing an uninformed partisan hardliner deliver an inaccurate rant against Tony Kushner in order to torpedo his honorary degree — without engaging in a serious discussion and presenting Mr. Kushner’s side — would redound to your credit?

Do you often like to see CUNY’s name dragged through the mud? Since when is Zionism a litmus test of a CUNY honorary degree?

May I suggest that you issue a statement of apology to Mr. Kushner. And that you change your decision, regardless of whether he decides to accept the honor or not.

[sign your name here] 

 7:25pm     A h/t to Eva Koumtog for passing along the link to this piece by Mitchell Plitnick on the Wiesenfeld/Kushner situation at CUNY. Plitnick points out that

Wiesenfeld has an ugly history of bigotry. It is nothing short of appalling that he, a noted bigot, tries to paint Kushner, a courageous fighter for LGBT rights who was still willing to brave the fire, in his spare time, of defending the rights of Palestinians, and criticizing Israeli policy in an attempt to not only secure justice for the Palestinians but also a better future for Jews in and outside of Israel.

7:00pm    Kwame Anthony Apiah, president of the PEN American Center, along with the organization’s executive director, Steven Isenberg, and Larry Siems, Director of PEN’s Freedom to Write and International Programs, sent the following letter today to the CUNY Board of Trustees. It follows in its entirety below:

Dear Chairman Schmidt and members of the CUNY Board of Trustees:

We are writing on behalf of the 3,400 members of PEN American Center regarding the decision of the CUNY Board of Trustees to remove our esteemed Member and colleague Tony Kushner from the slate of candidates to receive an honorary doctorate from John Jay College in New York.

As you know, Mr. Kushner has created a body of work that is among the most distinguished in contemporary American theater—a body of work that has been recognized with awards including the Pulitzer Prize and honored with a two-week celebration by the Guthrie Theater in 2009. He is manifestly deserving of an honorary doctorate; indeed, he already has fifteen honorary degrees, from institutions including Columbia, NYU, Northwestern, Occidental, Wesleyan, Julliard, Pace, SUNY, the University of Minnesota, and Brandeis. That he would be so honored by the City University of New York seems especially fitting: as a writer who was born in Manhattan and who has risen to the highest ranks of American literature and gained international acclaim as a powerful and compassionate voice willing to challenge political and cultural taboos, he embodies both the highest aspirations of many New York City youth and one of the bedrock values of all institutions of higher education, not least the proud and inspirational campuses of the CUNY system.

We were therefore deeply troubled to learn of the decision to remove Mr. Kushner from the list of those who will receive this year’s honorary degrees. We are especially concerned that the decision was apparently made after one trustee denounced the political views of the former UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Mary Robinson and Mr. Kushner, particularly as they relate to the history and politics of Israel. You already have before you a letter from Mr. Kushner in which he describes this denunciation as a “grotesque caricature of my political beliefs.” But that Mr. Wiesenfeld presented an incomplete and distorted version of Mr. Kushner’s views is almost beside the point: there is nothing even in Mr. Wiesenfeld’s description of those views that is outside the bounds of legitimate questioning, discussion, and debate by scholars and ordinary citizens alike, in both the United States and Israel. The spirit with which Mr. Kushner has engaged these questions is the same spirit which has produced such memorable and justifiably-acclaimed theatrical work, and indeed it is very likely the spirit the John Jay College community sought to honor by nominating Mr. Kushner to receive an honorary degree. It is a spirit that you, as CUNY Trustees, must surely recognize and value, and which the CUNY system most surely wants to foster.

We therefore ask you to review the decision to set aside Mr. Kushner’s candidacy for an honorary degree as a matter of urgency, canvassing the entire CUNY Board with an eye toward reconsidering and approving the degree. We believe nothing will send a stronger message to the students of John Jay College and the entire CUNY system about the importance of free and open debate in the university community—and in the country as a whole.


Kwame Anthony Appiah

Steven L. Isenberg
Executive Director

Larry Siems
Director, Freedom to Write and International Programs

6:15pm     Stephen Walt weighs in on the Kushner crisis at CUNY with more excellent writing about Jeffrey Weisenfeld. Walt notes that

First, the main reason that hardliners like Mr. Weisenfeld go after someone like Kushner is deterrence.  By denying critics of Israeli policy any honors, they seek to discourage others from expressing opinions that challenge the prevailing “pro-Israel” orthodoxy to which Weisenfeld is committed.  Kushner was not nominated for an honorary degree for his views on Middle East politics; he was obviously nominated because he is an exceptionally talented and accomplished playwright and literary figure. But if someone like him can also be critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and receive an honorary degree, then — horrors! — other people who feel similarly might be empowered to speak out themselves and pretty soon such comments will cease to be taboo. People like Mr. Weisenfeld don’t want that; they want people who do not share their views to be constantly aware of the price they might pay for expressing them.  And it never seems to occur to them that maybe Kushner’s views might be both more humane but also better for Israel than the position that Weisenfeld apparently holds. 

Second, what this incident also reveals is the reflexive timidity of many academic organizations. There doesn’t seem to have been any sort of organized campaign to deny Kushner the honorary degree; instead, the board voted to table the nomination after one member (Weisenfeld) made his disparaging remarks. I’ve spent more than a quarter century in academia, including seven years as an administrator, and the board’s reaction doesn’t surprise me a bit. Despite their public commitment to free speech and open discourse, nothing terrifies deans and trustees more than angry donors, phone calls from reporters, and anything that looks controversial. By tabling the nomination, they undoubtedly thought they were avoiding a potentially uncomfortable controversy.

Walt concludes that

in this case the CUNY board blew it big-time, both because Weisenfeld’s accusations were off-base but also because they would not have been grounds for denying Kushner an honorary degree even if they had been true. And meekly caving as they did is contrary to the principles of intellectual freedom that universities are supposed to defend. The end result is that this incident will get a lot more attention than awarding the degree would have garnered (Kushner already has several), and the board’s shameful lack of vertebrae has been publicly exposed.

3:25pm     The British Guardian has an article in today’s edition on the controversy at CUNY over Tony Kushner.  Among other things, the paper reports that:

The controversy is not the university’s first involving Wiesenfeld. In February Brooklyn College, another CUNY campus, fired Kristopher Petersen-Overton from a teaching post after objections were raised by Wiesenfeld and others about his views on Israel and the Middle East. In that case Wiesenfeld directly lobbied CUNY’s chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, along with local Brooklyn politician Dov Hikind, to get the academic removed from his post. However, after a furious row in the media Petersen-Overton was reappointed.  A spokesman for CUNY did not return a call asking for comment.

3:00pm     Jeffrey Wiesenfeld has an op-ed in the Algemeiner defending his claim that Tony Kushner is an “extremist” that has no business “representing” CUNY.  It would be funny if it weren’t so sad and transparently ideological without any basis in fact. You can access this piece of garbage here.

9:30am     BroadwayWorld.com has a brief article, largely reiterating the reporting from the New York Times on the Kushner situation at CUNY. It can be accessed here

I can’t believe that one man’s casual slurs against Tony Kushner caused CUNY to back down on offering him an honorary degree. It is just absurd to call him anti-semitic for expressing criticisms of Israel that many American Jews and many Israelis also hold. 

Tony Kushner is a wonderful playwright and we are lucky to have him here in New York City. How strange that this brilliant writer, who is loaded down with honors, should be insulted by his city’s–our city’s — own public university.

You are proving the truth of the Biblical saying, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country. 

I hope you will rethink this rash and foolish decision.

Katha Pollitt

2 Responses to “Kushner Crisis: Day 2”

  1. My commentary from GRITtv last night – aired, among other places, on CUNYtv.

    The F Word: Tony Kushner Denied Honors Over Palestine

  2. [...] Koch, to his credit, sees things as they are and says if Kushner can be denied a degree for criticizing Israel why couldn’t someone come along and take away Koch’s degree for his support of Israel.  The former mayor courageously adds that Wiesenfeld has outlived his usefulness and should be fired or resign from the board. [...]

  3. [...] lacking in values and ethics. Ellen Schrecker has returned her honorary degree.  Katha Pollit writes letters.  And good for Ed Koch. Share and [...]

  4. [...] "Good Enough for a Pulitzer, but Not for City University New York?" His colleague Katha Pollit wrote an open letter to the University deriding its [...]

  5. Simon Koeppel says:

    The very fact that there’s a blog on something termed “the Kushner Crisis” is almost comical. Granted, he’s the darling of the New York Times and the Israel-hating left (both Jewish and non-Jewish, as exemplified by Stephen Walt), but his views on that nation’s security and survival are vile, and though his string of honorary degrees and awards is sure to continue, it’s nice to see him denied at least one (at least for now). And as Commentary reminds us, it’s not as if he has a constitutional right to another honorary degree: “A New York arts world that considers a hard-core leftist theatrical polemicist like Tony Kushner to be “compassionate” and fair-minded must find it hard to accept the fact that there are people in the world who deem his anti-Zionism so hard to stomach they refuse to remain silent when asked to honor him…. The drumbeat of incitement against Wiesenfeld, in which Kushner is falsely portrayed as a victim, will accelerate in the days to come…. That is the way the cultural elites play hardball. Wiesenfeld must understand that he will not be forgiven for his act of lese majeste against a leading cultural liberal. But in standing up against a man whose opposition to Israel has always brought him honor rather than the shame it deserved, Wiesenfeld has restored a little bit of balance to New York’s cockeyed world of high culture.”

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