Shoe is now on Wiesenfeld’s foot

on 20 Comments

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld has made it a career habit to try and marginalize anyone he perceived to be insufficiently pro-Israel and to smear Muslims and Arabs. But in the wake of the Tony Kushner degree controversy, it is Wiesenfeld’s politics, racism and abuse of power that are coming under scrutiny.

Wiesenfeld, a trustee at the AIPAC-created think-tank called the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was a board member for the so-called Stop the Madrassa Coalition, which led the vicious anti-Arab and anti-Muslim campaign against the Khalil Gibran International Academy. He also played a role in the short-lived firing of Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a professor at Brooklyn College whose academic scholarship focused on Palestinian identity. And now, he has single-handedly blocked an honorary degree from the City University of New York’s (CUNY) John Jay College for playwright Tony Kushner solely for his views on Israel.

This time, though, Wiesenfeld is on the defensive, and it’s entirely his doing. His abuse of power in nixing an honorary degree for one of the most celebrated artists in America was the first transgression. His second one was telling the New York Times’ Jim Dwyer that, in effect, he believes that the Palestinian people are “not human.”

The double-shot to the foot has led to a piling up of calls for Wiesenfeld to resign. The New York Times upped the ante in a May 6 editorial calling for Wiesenfeld’s removal:

The trustees of the City University of New York got it exactly backward this week. They supported the political agenda of an intolerant board member and shunned one of America’s most important playwrights. They should have embraced the artist and tossed out the board member.

Wiesenfeld is also taking heat from former mayor of New York City Ed Koch, despite the fact that Wiesenfeld served in the Koch administration and that Koch shares many of Wiesenfeld’s right-wing political views.

Activist groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations-NY and Jewish Voice for Peace are also demanding Wiesenfeld’s resignation. Cyrus McGoldrick, the civil rights director for the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said:

The underlying issue here is a taboo on addressing the conditions of Palestinian people in the public space. Wiesenfeld may feel that his bigotry is the order of the day, but our tax dollars which support CUNY should not be utilized to dehumanize any people, and we call on CUNY to enforce this basic yet critical notion by removing or demanding the resignation of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld.

Some prominent academics have renounced their honorary degrees from CUNY in protest of the decision on Kushner

The uproar over Wiesenfeld marks an important and ongoing shift in the U.S. discourse on Israel/Palestine, as blogger Jerry Haber writes. Instead of Kushner being the focus of controversy, Wiesenfeld’s actions have backfired, and it is the powerful CUNY trustee who finds himself the subject of scrutiny.

The controversy will peter out in the coming weeks, as CUNY is set to award Kushner the degree Wiesenfeld sought to nix. But if the pressure escalates on CUNY so much so that Wiesenfeld is forced to go, it would a victory for free speech and Palestine solidarity and a blow to the Israel lobby.

Alex Kane, a freelance journalist based in New York City, writes on Israel/Palestine and Islamophobia at alexbkane.wordpress.com, where this post originally appeared.  Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

20 Responses

  1. Shingo
    May 9, 2011, 9:16 pm

    Instead of Kushner being the focus of controversy, Wiesenfeld’s actions have backfired, and it is the powerful CUNY trustee who finds himself the subject of scrutiny.

    This is so sweet. I expect that Wiesenfeld will now fight back and claim that he’s the victim of anti Semitism or a Saudi funded Islamofascist smear campaign. the guy is clearly a lunatic.

    • Chaos4700
      May 9, 2011, 9:58 pm

      Let’s start a betting pool to see how long it takes Witty and hophmi to get behind Wiesenfeld when the reason this whole tawdry affair happened at all drops down their collective memory hole and their tribalist lizard brains spike into action.

      • justicewillprevail
        May 10, 2011, 4:01 am

        No, the best they can do is trot out the old standby: the bad apple theory, and in the process try and gain themselves some moral high ground by tut tutting and disassociating themselves from him. The problem of course is that Weasel is part of a network of these bigots who work tirelessly in order keep the taboo in place: Palestinian civil rights are never to be given credence, or even debated.

      • GuiltyFeat
        May 11, 2011, 8:45 am

        In other words anyone who disagrees with Wiesenfeld is actually as bad as someone who agrees with him.

        What would happen if someone were to color the attitudes of Hamas with the actions and opinions of a single Hamasnik like, say, the happy chappy who wrote the Hamas Charter? Wouldn’t that get you kinda angry?

        But it’s OK for you to say that this moron represents all Zionists and there’s nothing anyone can do to convince you otherwise.

        The latest in a long line of double standards.

  2. piotr
    May 9, 2011, 9:28 pm

    Sacking someone for expressing opinion in his public function is not exactly “a victory for free speech”. This is not about free speech, but about the limits.

    The idea is that in a “free country” you can pretty much say and write what you wish, but you can also demand that public officials stay within reasonable limits. In other words, there are some view that are too toxic for public official to espouse. And being public, they are legitimate targets for public pressure. Which opens the question: which views are toxic, and which aren’t.

    To a degree the story is convoluted: Wiesenfeld is an extremist because he attacks not-extremists for being extremist. We attack Wiesenfeld for being extremists, so we are if he is not. One can see that we actually need a bit more to make the case.

    Wiesenfeld made some concrete claims like: Palestinians have pathological culture that is historically unprecedented, and any attempt to defend them is deeply immoral. This is plain vanilla racism, or more precisely, racism with habanero peppers. So various jalapeno flavored racists started to take exception: defending the rights of people is not vile even if those people do not deserve those rights. It is exactly the kind of “as if” thinking that we expect artists to do.

    To be sure, this is not my thinking, but my interpretation how Edward Koch took exception to Jeffrey Wiesenfeld. To me, it had the flavor: “Of course we should liquidate kulaks, but when Comrade Stalin started to kill good Communists he went too far”. Rather modest statement, but very informative! Namely, it suggests that Comrade Stalin is no longer in charge, at least not in the locale where the speaker lives (assuming that he/she still lives).

    • Chaos4700
      May 9, 2011, 9:56 pm

      People get punished because of actions, not speech. Wiesenfeld can say whatever he likes, but if what he does results in corruption and inequity, just because it was an act through speech doesn’t mean the act is protected.

      When someone gets punished for shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there isn’t any, they aren’t being punished for shouting. They’re being punished for the injuries their action caused.

      • piotr
        May 10, 2011, 12:21 am

        I tried to say that this is not an issue of “free speech” but of morality — at long last there is an emerging consensus that a certain degree of racism, what I called habanero flavor — is immoral and extremist.

  3. Chaos4700
    May 9, 2011, 10:02 pm

    What happens if Kushner now decides to spurn the honorary degree as a result of how he’s been treated, incidentally? I’m a bit curious how he interprets this fracas and where he feels he needs to stand in it.

  4. American
    May 10, 2011, 12:33 am

    I am curious about one thing….Wiesenfeld and his fellow travelers have been doing this same thing to people forever…but for what reason did this time spark such outrage?

    Is it a sign of change or was because this time it happened to be Kushner?

    I doubt this will stop them from going after others but it will be interesting to see if future attacks on other individuals generate the same outrage.

  5. piotr
    May 10, 2011, 12:45 am

    If Kushner spurns the honorary degree from CUNY, he would be small minded and peevish.

    CUNY is basically a university for the working class. It has relatively small budget and enormous number of students. It does not offer particularly good conditions for faculty, but being in New York City, it can still attract talent. Thus for “structural reasons” it is a progressive institution.

    Tactically, CUNY was the worst place in USA to make a stand for extreme Zionism. Jeffery Wiesenfeld is a bit of an idiot, and I actually believe his explanation that he just wanted to present his point of view and be duly voted down by the rest of the board.

    By the way, Kristofer Petersen-Overton is not a professor but a grad student (the title “Adjunct Professor” is somewhat misleading). And the faculty stood for him.

    • justicewillprevail
      May 10, 2011, 4:05 am

      Maybe, but the least he can do is refuse to accept it until the bigotry of a liar is publicly rescinded and that person, clearly not worthy to be there, is removed.

  6. wondering jew
    May 10, 2011, 5:17 am

    The lesson to supporters of Israel is that a full court press, especially when conducted by wrong headed ideologues like Wiesenfeld, is not the wisest strategy in all situations. Ultimately Kushner is more level headed than Wiesenfeld and certainly the better communicator, so the battle should never have been waged.

    A few years back Nat Hentoff wrote a column “supporting” Abe Foxman in his battle against Mel Gibson’s “passion of christ”. Hentoff stated that due to his childhood in Jew hating precincts of Boston he tended to give Foxman’s full court press his benefit of the doubt.

    There are real questions raised by the topic: what to ignore, what to protest. But certainly pitting Wiesenfeld against Kushner was a mismatch and should never have happened.

    • Mooser
      May 10, 2011, 11:23 am

      “The lesson to supporters of Israel is that a full court press, especially when conducted by wrong headed ideologues like Wiesenfeld, is not the wisest strategy in all situations.”

      Absolutely! Stick with the half-truths, the implications, and remember, money doesn’t talk, it shouts!
      Hey, Wondering Jew, here’s a proverb I heard, I’m not sure of its origin, but I know you and your family will love it: “Stolen meat always tastes better!”

  7. hophmi
    May 10, 2011, 8:47 am

    “And now, he has single-handedly blocked an honorary degree from the City University of New York’s (CUNY) John Jay College for playwright Tony Kushner solely for his views on Israel.”

    This is nonsense. The board tabled discussion of Kushner’s degree, not Wiesenfeld. There was nothing single-handed about this. Wiesenfeld didn’t even expect the board to vote against Kushner.

    “But if the pressure escalates on CUNY so much so that Wiesenfeld is forced to go, it would a victory for free speech and Palestine solidarity and a blow to the Israel lobby.”

    Actually, it would more be a blow to Wiesenfeld’s free speech rights than Kushner. No one is entitled to a honorary degree. Wiesenfeld is entitled to speak his mind. It would hardly be a blow to the “Israel lobby,” because the Israel lobby is not Jeff Wiesenfeld. It would not be a victory for Palestine solidarity either.

    Mostly, it would be a victory for lazy board members who are looking for a convenient scapegoat for their own failure to do basic homework.

    • Donald
      May 10, 2011, 9:34 am

      Someone (chaos, I think) was betting that it wouldn’t be long before a couple of people here would start portraying Wiesenfeld as the victim. It happened a little quicker than I would have guessed.

      The “lazy” board members were blindsided and probably intimidated, so they voted to table the issue. If I didn’t know much about Kushner’s political beliefs and I wasn’t someone who followed the I/P issue (other than to know that criticizing Israel very harshly was seen as “antisemitic”) then I would probably want to table the Kushner issue until I found out more. Maybe the guy really was a nutcase for all they knew–I’m sure 99 percent of America couldn’t have told you much about Kushner’s politics.

      • hophmi
        May 10, 2011, 10:17 am

        “Someone (chaos, I think) was betting that it wouldn’t be long before a couple of people here would start portraying Wiesenfeld as the victim.”

        I don’t think Wiesenfeld is a victim. But to blame him exclusively for this gives the board members (the ones who voted, after all) a pass. The CUNY Board is not 99 percent of America. They are board members representing a large public university system, and they are in the position of deciding who gets honorary degrees. They should know whom they’re nominating. Checking Kushner’s politics would have taken five minutes and an internet connection. Instead, they simply tabled the question for a year.

        Remember, Jeff Wiesenfeld had no expectation that this would lead to anything substantive.

    • Mooser
      May 10, 2011, 11:26 am

      “Wiesenfeld is entitled to speak his mind.”

      He sure as hell is! And, he is entitled to all the reaction his speaking “mind” garners.
      Yes, yes, I know, hophmi; anybody who reacts to anything a ZIonist says is an anti-semite.

    • ToivoS
      May 10, 2011, 4:18 pm

      “Wiesenfeld is entitled to speak his mind.”

      Yes he does. As an official of a public institution and in a meeting of that institution he is not just speaking for himself but for CCNY as well. CCNY has the perfect right to remove him from his current position.

      • hophmi
        May 10, 2011, 5:28 pm

        “As an official of a public institution and in a meeting of that institution he is not just speaking for himself but for CCNY as well.”

        It’s CUNY. How do you figure this? It’s a board meeting. He’s not speaking on behalf of CUNY. He’s speaking on his own behalf as a trustee.

      • Woody Tanaka
        May 10, 2011, 7:58 pm

        “He’s speaking on his own behalf as a trustee.”

        And one must wonder how such a vile, bigoted, Palestinian-hating Zio became a trustee in the first place. Oh, wait, it’s NYC. Never mind.

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