Tony Kushner denied CUNY honorary degree over views on Israel

on 32 Comments

The City University of New York has rejected a honorary degree for playwright Tony Kushner after a member of its board of trustees, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, objected to Kushner’s criticism of Israel. The Jewish Week reports on the board of trustees meeting this week where the decision was made:

But Wiesenfeld, a board member of several Jewish organizations and an activist in conservative circles, spoke out against plans to honor Kushner, who, like others receiving honorary degrees, may have spoken at the graduation ceremony.

Wiesenfeld cited what he believed were some of Kushner’s anti-Israel statements, all of which he said he found on the website of Norman Finkelstein, another figure known for his vehemently anti-Israel views.

When people identify themselves with “these types of viewpoints,” Wiesenfeld told his fellow trustees, “it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things,” especially when Israel sits in such a hostile neighborhood. “There’s a lot of disingenuousness and non-intellectual activity directed against the State of Israel on campuses across the country,” he said, adding that CUNY has had its share of such activity, although it’s far better than most universities.

Following Wiesenfeld’s comments, a majority of CUNY board members voted to remove Kushner’s name from the list of this year’s honorees, and then voted unanimously to table, or put off, the honor to the playwright, according to CUNY spokesman Michael Arena. The move, though, effectively kills the honor, because the next scheduled board meeting is at the end of June, after John Jay’s June 3 commencement ceremony.

Wiesenfeld evidently also worked with Brooklyn Assemblyman (and settler supporter) Dov Hikind to try to get Brooklyn College adjunct professor Kristopher Peterson-Overton fired over critical views of Israel. That effort failed.

Kushner’s response to the CUNY board of trustees is embedded below and deserves to be read in full:

Letter to CUNY Trustees 05-04-11

32 Responses

  1. Citizen
    May 4, 2011, 5:48 pm

    Tony’s letter says it all. But he may as well have sent a message critical of any aspect of the US “special relationship” with Israel to any US congress person who will at best acknowledge receipt of same in a response completely ignoring the content of the original letter. SOP, that’s what we all pay taxes for. Nice to know the trustees of CUNY, like our US congress folks, think they are trustees in behalf a foreign state.

    • GuiltyFeat
      May 5, 2011, 4:57 am

      Yes, thanks for reprinting this. Kushner is a fine and eloquent man who has been treated very poorly in this instance.

      These kinds of stories need to be promoted so that decent voices like Kushner’s are heard.

      Here’s some more of his words to show the world what a thoughtful and important man Tony Kushner is:

      “I believe that there’s a great deal of jurisprudence and legislative history and executive action in Israel that supports a vision of Israel as a progressive, democratic, secular, pluralist state. I don’t know how you reconcile that with the notion of Israel as a Jewish state and that’s always been a question that I’ve had about it, but I leave that to Israel to work out. I believe that there are a lot of people in Israel who absolutely want to see the country equally enfranchise its Jewish citizens and its non-Jewish citizens, its Arab citizens, and I would hope that would be an ongoing struggle that resolves itself in the direction of pluralist, constitutional democracy; a secular, pluralist, constitutional democracy. And there’s good reason to hope for that and I think that needs to be supported.”

      Amen to that.

      • GuiltyFeat
        May 5, 2011, 5:26 am

        And one more about the response to his script for Munich from the same interview (link to

        “we were very, very viciously attacked by people who simply feel that it’s not permissible to raise any questions about the government of Israel or America’s support of the right-wing government in Israel. And, of course, that’s unacceptable, and it’s not Jewish…

        the Israelis are infinitely more intelligent about these discussions than we certainly are in the United States. Any kind of automatic silencing of dissent poses great dangers to everyone involved.”

        Awesome stuff.

      • clenchner
        May 5, 2011, 7:53 am

        I can’t shake the feeling that if Kushner had submitted his views on this site in a guest post, the usual suspects here would be trashing him as a Zionist hasbarist and counting noses in the American theatrical establishment.

        It might be interesting to quote from Kushner in the future under my own name, collect hostile responses, and juxtapose them with all the support he is getting today.

        Reminds me of how, on this site, expressing support for JVP positions was seen as causing trouble, but at the same time JVP actions are celebrated. As if there was no connection between one and the other.

    • Kathleen
      May 5, 2011, 9:58 am

      “Nice to know the trustees of CUNY, like our US congress folks, think they are trustees in behalf a foreign state”

      Just finished the letter. Was not able to defend himself, no one stood up and objected. Then woven throughout the letter is this sense that he has to stand up for Israel anyway. One more strong example of how the I lobby and their agenda to keep the debate shut down.
      Contact the board of .
      link to

  2. pabelmont
    May 4, 2011, 5:48 pm

    The trustees were railroaded, pure and simple. Whereas it appears that the faculty of John Jay had the usual (good and usually sufficient) reasons for desiring to honor Mr. Kushner, the trustees permitted an unannounced opponent of Mr. Kushner to mount an unannounced opposition to Mr. Kushner’s honorary degree at the last moment.

    The matter should be re-opened, first by the faculty which initiated the honor and then, again, by the trustees, but this time on an adversarial basis unlike the unilateral and surprise lynching accorded Mr. Kushner in the first hearing.

    The matter of the removal of trustee Wiesenfeld should be raised and argued (without surprises or lynchings) by those who value the good name of CUNY and its constituent organizations.

    • ToivoS
      May 4, 2011, 9:55 pm

      The matter of the removal of trustee Wiesenfeld should be raised

      Yes it should be. But keep in mind college trustees are appointed because of their access to large donors. I have yet to see any university threaten a golden egg laying goose over something as trivial as fairness.

      But the faculty, if sufficiently aroused, could pressure them to reverse their vote. Academic freedom is still important to most faculty, even if the administrations and trustees may find it a nuisance.

      • lysias
        May 4, 2011, 10:37 pm

        Could this be made grounds for somebody to challenge CUNY’s accreditation status? The university would surely take that seriously.

      • Sisaket
        May 4, 2011, 11:01 pm

        I think not. Technically, the individual colleges that make up the university are the entities that grant degrees and are accredited.

      • pabelmont
        May 5, 2011, 8:46 am

        Typically ? And here? That is, what business had the trustees to review the honors in the first place? Do they do that with tenure too?

        In a way it makes sense. as elsewhere in politics, the mantra “follow the money” makes sense.

        “WEXTRA, WEXTRA, READ ALL ABOUDIT! Academic Freedom for sale here. Getcha Paper here!”


        Amid calls from CUNY faculty and staff members for the board to reverse its decision, Mr. Kushner said in an interview that he believed the trustees had slandered him and owed him an apology. Even if the board was to reconsider and approve the degree, Mr. Kushner said, he would not accept it.

      • Keith
        May 4, 2011, 11:47 pm

        TOIVOS- “I have yet to see any university threaten a golden egg laying goose over something as trivial as fairness.”

        What a delightfully refreshing grasp of reality you have.

      • Kathleen
        May 5, 2011, 9:59 am

        “I have yet to see any university threaten a golden egg laying goose over something as trivial as fairness.

        But the faculty, if sufficiently aroused, could pressure them to reverse their vote. Academic freedom is still important to most faculty, even if the administrations and trustees may find it a nuisance.”

        Except it seems over and over in the case of Israel

  3. justicewillprevail
    May 4, 2011, 6:11 pm

    What a wonderfully eloquent rebuttal of the tiny-minded McCarthyist xenophobes like Weisenfeld. While you expect this dismal level of debate, the falsification of truth and the debasement of Judaism by low life creeps like Wiesenfeld, what you are entitled to expect is that the other members of the board will reject such shallow and manipulative dishonesty, so typical of apartheid Israel supporters. It is the feebleness of average men, the unwillingness to stand up against bullies and propagandists, which allows small-minded anti-democrats like Weisenfeld and the whole Israel lobby to make a mockery of democracy and open debate, which they twist ceaselessly for their own base, self-interested, divisive, privileged lifestyles. Only by speaking out against these subversive trolls can we try to regain some civil discourse worthy of the name.

  4. marc b.
    May 4, 2011, 6:19 pm

    bravo to tony kushner for his eloquent defense of his principles, and a hearty f*ck you to that weasel, jwiesenfeld. what a fitting examplar of the ignoramuses that have undermined the institution of higher learning in the US.

  5. Avi
    May 4, 2011, 6:36 pm

    So aside from the Israelification of US law enforcement, universities nationwide are victims of Zionist academic witch hunts, academic freedom be damned.

  6. ToivoS
    May 4, 2011, 6:50 pm

    There was a 3 page but empty Scribd. box in liu of Kushner’s response. Does this require special software to read?

    • ToivoS
      May 4, 2011, 10:12 pm

      Ignore problem. It works on my other computer. The problem seems to be with an older version of firefox on Linux Red Hat.

  7. Dr Gonzo
    May 4, 2011, 6:54 pm

    Shame on CUNY. You would expect a Zionist like Wiesenfeld to act the way he acted revisionism and stifling of intellectual debate are bread and butter methods of Zionists.

    What you wouldn’t expect is a 11 member University board to go along with it without even a murmur of protest. Shows the level of intellectual debate that goes on in City University of New York echelons.

  8. Chaos4700
    May 4, 2011, 7:34 pm

    Why it’s anti-Semitic to suggest that Zionist Jews dominate American discourse and engage in fifth column style manipulations! Why, didn’t you know, Mr. Horowitz? Facts are anti-Semitic!

  9. LanceThruster
    May 4, 2011, 7:41 pm

    Those familiar with Dr. Finkelstein’s website know that many are uncomfortable with hearing painful truths about Isreal. Those standing for justice in the IP conflict often face retribution, particularly those with high profiles (as was the case with Dr. Finkelstein himself).

    Israel is gradually losing the ability to enforce their “official narrative” but are still able to bully some into submission.

  10. Les
    May 4, 2011, 8:14 pm

    This is a reminder that public universities are more subject to political pressure than private ones. This is nothing new for Wiesenfeld. Many years ago when Mario Cuomo was governor, he went after a faculty member at Stony Brook who wanted his students to study what was happening to the Palestinians. Wiesenfeld is supposed to be a conservative and Cuomo is supposedly a liberal, but both are adamant enemies of free speech and independent thought.

    • ToivoS
      May 4, 2011, 10:20 pm

      This is a reminder that public universities are more subject to political pressure than private ones.

      Not true. DePaul University anyone — a private Catholic University capitulating to Dershowitz for criminees sake! The fact is that both private and public universities depend on private donations and the trustees are the conduit to those donors.

  11. Sisaket
    May 4, 2011, 9:25 pm

    The board of trustees needs to reverse this stain and approve an honorary degree for Tony Kushner. The board has ample grounds to censure or remove Wiesenfeld as a result of his efforts to interfere in the Petersen-Overton matter in contrevention of board regulations for a trustee not to act unilaterally on or interfere with such matters outside the deliberations of the board of trustees. Wiesenfeld is a stain on the academy, while the other members of the board brought shame on themselves and the University.

  12. MRW
    May 4, 2011, 10:14 pm

    Stupifying. The Israeli Inquisition.

    • seafoid
      May 5, 2011, 8:05 am

      Standard Zionist thuggery practice since 1880. They killed Bernadotte and Ghassan Kanafani , amongst thousands . So many people have been silenced.

  13. RoHa
    May 4, 2011, 10:47 pm

    I found this section particularly impressive:

    “democratic government must be free of ethnic or religious affiliation, and that the solution to the problems of oppressed minorities are to be found in pluralist democracy and in legal instruments like the 14th Amendment; these solutions are,like all solutions, imperfect, but they seem to me more rational, and have had a far better record of success in terms of minorities being protected from majoritarian tyranny, than have national or tribal solutions.”

    • LeaNder
      May 5, 2011, 3:10 am

      A kingdom for the podcast Kushner writes about:

      I found the passages below the most interesting, since it reminds me of the manipulation of a group in the art world with outright lies. It was a highly Machiavellian performance relying on carefully constructed stereotypes.

      Let’s pull this slightly apart:

      But far more dismaying than Mr. Weisenfeld’s diatribe is the silence of the other eleven board members. …Did none of you feel any responsibility towards me, whose name was before you, and hence available as a target for Mr. Weisenfeld’s slander

      Obviously this always results in an unanimously carried decision, considering that none of the people present have a chance to check what they are confronted with, and thus rarely will be prepared to challenge anything.

      But yes, what expertise in literature, drama has this Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld anyway? …

      As far as I’m able to conclude from the podcast of this meeting, Mr. Weisenfeld spoke for about four minutes, the first half of which was devoted to a recounting of the politics of former President of Ireland and UN Human Rights High Commissioner Mary Robinson that was as false as his description of mine

      Setting the deligitimization context

      Mr. Weisenfeld declared … rather than turn to “pro-Israel” websites, he’d gleaned his insights into my politics from the website of Norman Finkelstein. I find it appalling that he failed to consider a third option:familiarizing himself with any of the work I’ve done, my plays, screenplays, essays and speeches, for which, I assume, the faculty and administration of John Jay nominated me

      Another association that the circle surely connects exactly the way Jeffrey wants them.

      What exactly has Kushner done to enrage Jeffrey so much? Ahh, I see. I actually wondered, if Jeffrey used additional tools out of the culture war toolbox to enforce people’s perception. But that may well be, since Angles in America is the only play I know.

    • Leigh
      May 5, 2011, 3:42 am

      RoHa, for me that is precisely the bit that is not impressive and that shows how much closer Kushner really is to the mainstream than many think. The problem for Israel isn’t what to do with an ethnic-religious minority, it’s how to hold onto Jewish privilege while protecting the rights of a non-Jewish majority.

      • RoHa
        May 5, 2011, 7:20 am

        “The problem for Israel isn’t what to do with an ethnic-religious minority, it’s how to hold onto Jewish privilege while protecting the rights of a non-Jewish majority.”

        Since Israel doesn’t seem terribly interested in protecting the rights of any non-Jews, I don’t think that is quite the best formulation of the problem.

        But I read him as saying that the founding of Israel was the national/tribal solutions to the problem of protecting Jewish minoritites from majoritarian tyranny, and that it was less rational and less successful than pluralist democracy and legal instruments have been.

      • ChrisB
        May 5, 2011, 1:45 pm

        The majority in Israel is Jewish. You are describing the Apartheid regimes of former Iraq (25% sunni Rule), Syria (10% Alawite shia rule), Baharain (25% sunni Rule) and others.

  14. Susan Johnson
    May 4, 2011, 11:00 pm

    Reading this post was disheartening. to say the least.
    The Board members, especially because CUNY is a public institution, should give their students, faculty and the public better than they received The members presented themselves as spineless wonders; devoid of commitment, opinion and the ability to speak. Isn’t that why they’re there. So much for Board involvement and questioning minds. They are a disheartening group!

    As for Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, he distorts information, is dishonest and a bully; which every Board member is well aware of. Would he be listened to without challeng if his plea didn’t rely on “lack of support for Israel”, “criticism of Israel” anti-Semitic thoughts, defining the accused as anti semitic? Probably not! I bet he’s a one issue, one interest person; his life revolving around coming up with people and actions he labels “anti semitic” seeing and hearing what he wants to see and hear.

    Tony Kushner deserves better! The faculty and students should bestow their own special honor and tribute to Kushner. It would certainly be more meaningful than an award from the inept Board. The Board must write him a letter of apology which will be read at their next meeting broadcast over the CUNY network

  15. VR
    May 5, 2011, 4:33 am

    I despise this activity as much as anyone else, however the root of the problem can be found in letting moneyed interest rule the day in academic institutions. Coupled with this fact is the “high calling” of the administrative control of a school which is heavily influenced by the almighty dollar, because this has been made the criteria of not only advance, but many times of survival. When this is the the case, money talks even if what it says is bold faced lies. Also add to the mix the fact of the gap between the rich and poor, so that the concentration of wealth is sent upwards into the hands of fewer and fewer individuals – throw in a little ideology and you have what we are discussing on this post.


    • Citizen
      May 5, 2011, 5:11 am

      Agreed, VR. And no end in sight for our income gap growing like Topsy.

Leave a Reply