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.