Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The frailty of academic freedom: CUNY, part 1

There is more in the Tony Kushner case than even the great issue of academic freedom at CUNY and whether that institution is now a serious university, deserving of respect. There is also the question of democracy in Israel and the persecutory attempt of the Israeli government and its reactionary allies in the United States to supress debate which names what the Israeli govenment has become and is becoming - day by day, a fascist regime - and fights for a decent alternative. This is a complex story with several major layers.

Why is Kushner deserving as an artist of a great academic honor and to address students at a commencement? Tony Kushner‘ s Angels in America, a dreaming account of the plague of AIDS and how it has taken down, in the setting of fear and secrecy, so many people (even the odd Roy Cohn), gay and straight, is one of the few contemporary American plays which has in recent times made it onto a Broadway stage (better to have a good musical like Cats or Phantom of the Opera, tried and true, for 15 years, the sort of thing that attracts a tourist audience). Vienna has Mozart in period costume (a young musician may not get a job unless lucky enough to hook on there…), London Shakespeare (there is of course a wider repertoire of contemporary plays there), in Denver, Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cerentola) – all are wonderful but the new and real, let alone avant-garde, for the most part, is hidden, unsubsidized, unmentioned. These are hoary cultural celebrations, for money, in place of living culture and creativity...

But such a culture could combine the old and the new (could use some of the money even to subsidize the new). That happens rarely. That Kushner is celebrated, is unusual and deserved; he wrote an imaginative political play which through a great tragedy of our time and the fact that gay people are often in the arts became a Broadway production. Recall Mel Brooks’s “Springtime for Hitler in Germany” in which a satiric New York idiom (”don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party”) and gay jokes/sight gags are much of the substance of the songs and laughs; the relationship of the two leading men is that of greatest emotional substance….

Angels in America shows how being gay could – and often does – bring down horrors and persecution on people who are doing no wrong, following their hearts as adults. It is the kind of thing for which people were exorcised and beaten and murdered just yesterday by bigots. Thus, as an American, one can feel proud that in the Armed Forced, the Congress and the President - despite the know-nothing Republican-authoritarians, whose hypocrisy is illuminated by the sad toe tapping in a public bathroom stall of a reactionary senator from Utah or a child-molesting Congressional leader (toward underage pages) who was a House leader under Dennis Hastert and an outspoken bigot against gays and lesbians - have passed a law repealing the bigoted policy in the military of "Don’t ask, don’t tell." The US army is now more civilized in this respect, although occupying armies, for instance Israel's (i.e ones as uncivilized as the American) often do not and need not express prejudice toward gays and lesbians.

The City University of New York was to give an honorary degree to Kushner. Kushner is a son of New York, a jew who worries deeply about Israelis - wants a safe place for jews in Israel - as well as about the occupation's daily harms to Palestinians and a safe place for Palestinians. Given the occupied territories are smaller and more divided and more filled with settlements daily, a genuinely democratic Israel may have to be that place. As Kushner notes in his letter to the Board below and Peter Beinart underlines also below, Kushner wants a secular rights-upholding democracy in Israel. He is among those many honorable people like Hannah Arendt and Judah Magnes and I.F. Stone who have always demanded that Palestinians be treated fairly, who oppose a racist Jewish state which expels and tramples on other people (people who did Jews no harm).

In mainstream American politics, the Israeli government trades off the falsehood that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. First, Iran was (until the US overthrow of the elected President Mossadegh in 1954), Tunisia and Egypt are becoming democracies from below; second, Israel is now rule by force over Arab Israelis and especially Palestinians (it is in this respect like apartheid South Africa, especially in the occupied territories, but incresingly - the Knesset debates demanding "loyalty oaths" from Arab Israelis, members of the Lieberman-Netanyahu coalition ran at an Arab representative who denounced the Israeli army's murder in international waters of 9 people aboard a humanitarian relief ship to Gaza, the Mavi Marmara - in Israel itself. See here and here.

Support for Israel as a democracy - what is invited among American Jews and others - does not survive looking at the policies of a Jewish state, knowing even a breath of fact about the occupied territories. One might work then for Israel to be the democracy that many of its founders (Ury Avnery, a great and honorable one fighting to this day for recognition of the Palestinians) hoped for.

Regardless of his political views, Kushner is, however, – the only relevant matter to the award – a very accomplished playwright especially on a fundamental moral and political issue of our time. John Jay College nominated him. Benno Schmidt, former President of Yale, sat dully on the Board (at our leading universities, President is unfortunately not always a role of moral or political or egalitarian decency or intelligence, as Larry Sommers’ tenure at Harvard, in the main, shows). The Board had rejected no nominee since 1961.

But Kushner was barred through a single two minute speech by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a rich, Israeli government operative. As Beinart rightly says, the aim of Wiesenfeld is not only to intimidate Jews and others from recognizing that Palestinians are human, which would be bad enough. It is to prevent a democratic debate in America and especially on university campuses about what Jews have often thought: that Israel should be a rights-protecting democracy, not as it is and is daily, as Israeli intellectuals have underlined, becoming: a fascist state.

Wiesenfeld is in the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank that specializes in fantasized neocon projects of aggression and conquest for Israel or America in the Middle East(it was created by AIPAC, Kissinger and Wolfowitz are among its leading Board members). Wiesenfeld had not gone to Kushner’s plays or could not recall them (violating an obvious minimal cultural qualification for a Trustee of a great city and public university; one might even hope for an interest in what makes academic life and scholarship, when they are, great, but that was not one of Governor Pataki's considerations in making this appointment). Wiesenfeld had found on the web that Kushner used the term ethnic cleansing for the founding of Israel and said this was extremist.

Wiesenfeld screams and tries to rule this out of bounds, to intimidate (see Steve Walt, below) precisely because this is a case of "who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" Kushner learned about the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the conservative and truth telling Israeli scholar Benny Morris; there is also Ilan Pappe's very disturbing The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. That the "transfer" was ethnic cleansing is why so many Palestinian families in the occupied territories and Jordan still have the keys to their homes in Israel from 1948. Jews live often in the houses of others (right now, in the settlements and in East Jerusalem; many Palestian names have been changed, ruins built over, but the crime here is, sadly, near to the touch...). Prime Minister Ben Gurion spoke of Palestinians as lesser beings, analogizing them to indians in the United States, and thought the Western powers would allow Israel to commit genocide against them. They did.

We Jews had suffered the most terrible pogroms and genocide in Europe; one Zionist slogan was "a people without land for a land without people." But this saying was false - Palestinians who had done no harm to the Jews lived on the land. There was not much choice offered to Jews (who could go elsewhere in the world to be persecuted, even in Russia or the America of the time - the American government resettled Nazi war criminals after World War II, including the track coach at the University of Denver, Edgars Laipeniks, formerly the "Butcher of Riga" and just after I came to the University of Denver, exposed by my friend, the journalist Doug Vaughan, and deported; Jews displaced in Central Europe could get no visas to the United States.

But after the "transfer," Israel needed to work hard to make peace with its neighbors. Instead it chose to rely on nuclear and other weapons and an alliance with the United States government, furthering American empire and control of oil. With regard to the human rights of the occupied, it has become increasingly an outlying and outlaw regime. This is why Israel's leaders and their supporters to this day often speak of Palestinians as less than human. They make themselves and today's Israel less than human.

The Israeli government cultivates paranoia. A nonviolent relief ship to Gaza, the Mavi Marmara, is attacked by Israeli helicopters in international waters. 9 people are murdered (including one Turkish-American about whom the Obama administration said nothing). Yet at a pseudo-academic conference last May on anti-semitism at Yale, a Colonel of the Counterterrorism force in Herzliya, Jonathan Fighel, unanswered, denounced what he imagined as "Jihad Flotilla". See here and here. Not that he made the point, but yes, nonviolence would be a non-murderous of innocents, more successful among ordinary people including Israelis, wiser form of jihad. Fighel's title and speech are, sadly, however, genuinely crazy, a view that cannot tolerate debate, needs to suppress and demonize questions, dissent, nonviolent protest...

For today's project of a "greater Israel," stalling around on a negotiated settlement and moving settlers into the occupied territories, seizing Palestinian homes, and making life more and more unbearable for ordinary Palestinians, is illegal and immoral. It is the project of an increasingly fascist government. This project threatens to destroy the last vestiges of Israel as a law-governed, parliamentary regime at all, to make it fully a race state. This project makes every student at my school, jew and nonjew, who goes to Israel and works with Palestinians, into a sympathizer of the oppressed (watching the IDF displace some Palestian family one is staying with, throw the mothers with their children out of their homes and onto the street, push the students who try to block them down the stairs, will not for a person who values human rights, encourage affection for the Israeli governemnt). The project of greater Israel harms both Palestinians and ordinary Israelis (militarized, invited to be part of a despicable racist regime). Speaking as a Jew who has fought Nazism all his life, the analogies between this government and the extreme European Right are all too clear: I sometimes refer to the Palestinians as the Jews of the occupied territories and their oppressors I cannot quite make out...Hannah Arendt and Judah Magnes and I.F. Stone and Tony Kushner stand for a democratic Israel; Leo Strauss and his followers, especially as the life of the party among the neocons, stand for Israeli fascism and an American police state. See here, here, and here.

Though the Israeli government once committed a great crime against Palestinians, it might still settle 70 years later, into the Middle East. But it cannot survive a second such crime (of course, with nuclear weapons, that government might also take much of the world with it...). As is frequently the case in academic freedom denials, there are far bigger stakes in the award to Tony Kushner than just the honor of universities and those of us who work and go to school in them.

Kushner is for the existence of Israel. He opposes a theocracy or race state and supports a rights-based democracy there; he even opposes the Boycott and Divestment campaign of Jewish Voices for Peace of which he sits on the Board. That divestment campaign, a nonviolent struggle in which many students, Arab- , Jewish- and otherwise American, participate, is an important and effective way to stop the abuses of the Israeli government in the occupied territories. That Kushner is on the Board of a courageous organization mainly of Jewish young people who stand for the prophets and speaking and acting for the truth, even where he disagrees, is entirely admirable.

Thus, at the CUNY Board meeting, an extremist of no intellectual or moral merit projects the term on an honorable and in many respects, moderate other. The effort to ban jews from speaking about democracy in Israel and the United States is a particularly glaring aspect of Wiesenfeld's claim to represent all "real" Jews as reactionary.

But there has been a great outcry from below. Many have an affection for academic freedom. Thus, the Times, a remarkably pro-Israeli newspaper in its reporting about the occupation and increasingly striving to be bland (Frank Rich and Bob Herbert are no longer there; after Krugman and some pieces by Kristof and some editorials and occasional letters, there is less of substance to read every day even on the editorial page), said rightly that the plays are important, that the kinds of criticisms Wiesenfeld made were irrelevant to the honor, and that Wiesenfeld should not be on the Board of a serious university. See below.

This is the issue in the award itself. Do Universities support serious intellectual, artistic and moral accomplishment, do they value debate and diversity, or are they easy prey to the prejudices of the powerful or the many? One thinks of universities that stand up for freedom of speech - academic freedom - against political and economic power as shining places, those who violate it as odious. Harvard during the McCarthy period distinguished itself by firing every junior professor who had been in the Communist Party during World War II (when the US was allied with the Soviet Union to fight Nazism); before World War II, Harvard would not give tenure to Jews. In contrast, the University of Colorado promoted Jews during the depression; Cornell was, during McCarthyism, a safe haven for former radicals.

For instance, Senator Joe McCarthy said, "Harvard is a smelly mess of reds, the Kremlin on the Charles"; President Nathan Pusey responded "no, it isn’t; there isn’t a single red on the Harvard faculty (and told a famous psychologist, Jerome Bruner, he must keep his mouth firmly shut unless called before HUAC - the House Unamerican Activities Committee - and then tell all). In many universities, large numbers of innocent people were slandered, degraded, silenced and blacklisted, prevented from pursuing the career in which they had trained or gettng other jobs. The story of this period is worth taking in deeply.

We have some frail degree of academic freedom as Martin Luther King says because Athens put Socrates to death...

Just a blink of an eye ago historically, women, jews, chicanoes, blacks, Arabs, indigenous Americans, gays and lesbians and many other oppressed groups could not hope to teach or gain tenure at leading universities...

Neither debate to seek the truth, nor mutual regard among persons of differing conscientious or comprehensive viewpoints, of different national origins or genders, nor inclusiveness were part of that "intellectual" life.

My friend of long ago from Cambridge, Ellen Schrecker has written No Ivory Tower – if you want to see what Truman-McCarthism is and the baseness it imposed on universities, go look at this (it is hard to read about what universities did and do to often completely innocent people - i.e. people who went to some meetings supporting the Spanish republic during the Civil War against the fascists - for anti-democratic reasons; what they did to Communists was also foul for they, too, committed no crime except for having some false beliefs. But academic freedom protects beliefs true and false and allows debate and evidence to sort out the truth. Even the Communists were punished by, as Lillian Hellman rightly says, scoundrels. One might also want to read David Caute, The Great Fear, Graham Fariello, Red Scare and Lillian Hellman's marvelous Scoundrel Time about her standing up to the intimidation of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.

During and after World War II, the Communist Party itself was very timid, most of the professors who joined when the US was allied with the Soviet Union in World War II, no longer in it, cowering and certainly not outspoken, and what Universities did to the individuals on their faculties was the opposite of what Universities stand for. President Pusey then and in 1969 (the Harvard strike) is the precise counterexample to an honorable or upstanding University leader.

Ellen wrote a letter giving back at honorary degree from City - the greatest honor, she said, she had ever received. But there is no honor now to a degree from City. And perhaps only Tony Kushner in his commencement address might have the grace to restore it tentatively.

Kushner wrote an eloquent letter below. He was not informed that this issue could come up at the Board meeting. He was given no opportunity to defend himself. There was no process nor any thought. Even Wiesenfeld didn’t expect the board to vote the degree to Kushner down, to display that kind of cowardice and lack of principle or decency, which has thus produced a far fiercer storm of controversy than the one the Trustees were striving to avoid. As Steve Walt says below, the efforts of university administrations to achieve quiet at the expense of principle is unfortunately the norm. But the Board is far worse off than just being timid, because the principle of academic freedom is with those whom they rejected. The Board exhibited neither principle nor attention to facts and process nor honor.

Stanley Fish, ordinarily an intelligent man, protested in a Times op-ed against Ellen Schrecker that there is no issue of freedom of speech. Really, he said, trustees just make administrative decisions on who to give such degrees to. Schrecker, he says, is wrong because these are just opportunist, celebratory occasions at Universities to rake in money.

No, universities stand for something - for honorable debate and for the academic freedom which protects it. Kushner was celebrated because his plays are important, especially in the fight against bigotry and persecution of gays (and straight people who get aids too), in the fight for an America which upholds equal basic rights for each citizen. That the University should take away an award because of his seeing that Palestinians are human, his standing with the prophets like Amos against the kings and the Amaziahs, king's men like Wiesenfeld, is odious. See here and here. It reveals the frailty of academic freedom. City University, as the Times below says, disgraced itself.

The Board met Monday and, given pressure from below, reversed itself. Kushner will now give the commencement speech. The attempt to suppress thought about the Palestinians, even in New York, a center of reactionary, pro-Israeli government bullying, has now failed miserably. It is no longer so easy to shout down and silence those who use their eyes, who have questions, who stand up for equal rights.

Business and other "illustrious," self-important people, who are into raising money and have little sense of the meaning of academic freedom or debate, need to recall that they signed on to serve a university, not to make it intellectually and morally bankrupt. To defend academic life means to stand up, to be, as Thoreau named it, a majority of one, a person of conscience. Trustees, too, need to be able to look at themselves in the mirror, to learn that there are great costs to destroying the principles that make a University or a country free and great.

For Kushner's interview on DemocracyNow! Tuesday morning, see here.

Tony Kushner c/o Heat & Light Co., Inc. 119 West 72nd Street #193 New York, NY 10023The Board of Trustees of the City University of New York 535 East 80th Street New York, NY 10075cc: President Jeremy Travis The faculty and students of John Jay College of Criminal Justice899 Tenth Avenue New York, NY, 10019 May 4, 2011

To Chairperson Benno Schmidt and the Board of Trustees: At the May 2 public meeting of the CUNY Board of Trustees, which was broadcast on CUNY television and radio, Trustee Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld delivered a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I’ve given, the mention of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever, and the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr. Weisenfeld strongly disagrees. 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. Ms. Robinson, however, was not on public trial; I was, apparently, and at the conclusion of Mr. Weisenfeld’s vicious attack on me, eight members voted to approve all the honorary degree candidates, including me, and four voted to oppose the slate if my name remained on it. Lacking the requisite nine votes to approve the entire slate, the Board, in what sounds on the podcast like a scramble to dispense with the whole business, tabled my nomination, approved the other candidates, and adjourned. Not a word was spoken in my defense. I wasn’t told in advance that my willingness to accept an honorary doctorate from John Jay would require my presence at a meeting to defend myself. As far as I know, noone who might have spoken on my behalf was notified in advance. I’m not a difficult person to find, nor am I lacking in articulate colleagues and friends who would have responded. For all his posturing as a street-tough scrapper for causes he believes in, Mr. Weisenfeld, like most bullies, prefers an unfair fight. But far more dismaying than Mr. Weisenfeld’s diatribe is the silence of the other eleven board members. Did any of you feel that your responsibilities as trustees of an august institution of higher learning included even briefly discussing the appropriateness of Mr. Weisenfeld’s using a public board meeting as a platform for deriding the political opinions of someone with whom he disagrees? 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, entirely because I’d been nominated for an honor by the faculty and administration of one of your colleges? I can’t adequately describe my dismay at the fact that none of you felt stirred enough by ordinary fairness to demand of one of your members that, if he was going to mount a vicious attack, he ought to adhere to standards higher than those of internet gossip. Mr. Weisenfeld declared to you that, 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 for an honor. It would have taken very little effort to learn that my politics regarding the state of Israel do not resemble Mr. Weisenfeld’s account. I don’t intend to mount a full defense of myself or my opinions in this letter, an effort on my part which an honorary degree ought not to require. But I can’t allow myself to be publicly defamed without responding:- My questions and reservations regarding the founding of the state of Israel are connected to my conviction, drawn from my reading of American history, that 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. I am very proud of being Jewish,and discussing this issue publicly has been hard; but I believe in the absolute good of public debate, and I feel that silence on the part of Jews who have questions is injurious to the life of the Jewish people. My opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel’s right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr. Weisenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks.- I believe that the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the state of Israel was ethnic cleansing, a conclusion I reached mainly by reading the work of Benny Morris, an acclaimed and conservative Israeli historian whose political opinions are much more in accord with Mr. Weisenfeld’s than with mine; Mr. Morris differs from Mr. Weisenfeld in bringing to his examination of history a scholar’s rigor, integrity, seriousness of purpose and commitment to telling the truth.- I won’t enter into arguments about Israeli policy towards the Palestinian people since 1948, about the security fence or the conduct of the IDF, except to say that my feelings and opinions – my outrage, my grief, my terror, my moments of despair - regarding the ongoing horror in the middle east, the brunt of which has been born by the Palestinian people, but which has also cost Israelis dearly and which endangers their existence, are shared by many Jews, in Israel, in the US and around the world. My despair is kept in check by my ongoing belief in and commitment to a negotiated conclusion to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.- I have never supported a boycott of the state of Israel. I don’t believe it will accomplish anything positive in terms of resolving the crisis. I believe that the call for a boycott is predicated on an equation of this crisis with other situations,contemporary and historical, that is fundamentally false, the consequence of a failure of political understanding of a full and compassionate engagement with Jewish history and Jewish existence.- I am on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, and have remained there even though I disagree with the organization about a number of issues, including the boycott. I remain affiliated because the women and men of JVP are courageous, committed people who work very hard serving the interests of peace and justice and the Jewish people, and I’m honored by my association with them. I have a capacity Mr. Weisenfeld lacks, namely the ability to tolerate and even value disagreement. Furthermore, resigning from the advisory board of JVP, or any organization, to escape the noisy censure of likes of Mr. Weisenfeld is repellent to me.- Mr. Weisenfeld attempts to cast me as a marginal extremist, a familiar tactic on this particular issue. It’s a matter of public record that this is not the case. I’m co-editor of a volume of essays on the crisis in the middle east, which includes among its 58 contributing authors many rabbis, two US Poet Laureates and two recipients of the Jerusalem Prize. I’ve had a long and happy affiliation with such organizations as the 92nd Street Y, The Jewish Museum and the Upper West Side JCC. My work has been recognized by such groups as The National Foundation for Jewish Culture, The Shofar Center, The Central Synagogue and Brandeis University (one of fifteen honorary degrees I’ve received). I state this not to present credentials, but because I refuse to allow Mr. Weisenfeld or any other self-appointed spokesman/guardian to diminish the depth or meaningfulness of my connection to the Jewish community. I accepted the kind offer of a degree from John Jay College not because I need another award, but because I was impressed with the students and teachers there – as I have always been impressed with CUNY teachers and students - and I wanted to participate in celebrating their accomplishment. I did not expect to be publicly defamed as a result, and I believe I am owed an apology for the careless way in which my name and reputation were handled at your meeting. I decided long ago that my job as a playwright is to try to speak and write honestly about what I believe to be true. I am interested in history and politics, and long ago I realized that people uninterested in a meaningful exchange of opinion and ideas would selectively appropriate my words to suit their purposes. It’s been my experience that truth eventually triumphs over sound bites, spin and defamation, and that reason, honest inquiry, and courage, which are more appealing and more persuasive than demagoguery, will carry the day. Sincerely, Tony Kushner

CUNY Shamed Itself
Published: May 6, 2011

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.

Much has been said about the importance of Tony Kushner. It’s true. His play “Angels in America” was a masterpiece that gave voice to the AIDS crisis. There also has been much talk about his precise words about Israel, and whether the trustee who blackballed him, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, got them right. That is all beside the point.

If Mr. Kushner were a lesser artist, it still would have been outrageous for CUNY to deny his honorary degree for political reasons. And the particulars of what Mr. Kushner said are not so important. (His comments were not all that remarkable, though we disagreed with them.) The point is that a public university is supposed to nurture free speech and free thought, not quash them.

The CUNY chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, should have spoken out forcefully on this issue. And Mr. Wiesenfeld, who told The Times’s Jim Dwyer that some Palestinians are not human, should resign.

Mr. Kushner, who is Jewish, described the ousting of Palestinians from their homes in the 1940s as a form of “ethnic cleansing.” He has also said Israel is engaged in the deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture. In a letter to CUNY, he said that he has always supported Israel’s right to exist and that Mr. Wiesenfeld distorted his views.

Benno Schmidt Jr., chairman of the CUNY board of trustees and a former president of Yale, voted to table the award for Mr. Kushner. He declared on Friday that this was a “mistake of principle” and called a meeting for Monday to see if CUNY could do the right thing, too.

It would be appalling if the university failed to do so.

On Tony Kushner
Posted By Stephen M. Walt Thursday, May 5, 2011

As readers of the New York Times (and Jewish Week) already know, the Board of Trustees at City University of New York voted to table the awarding of an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner after one member of the board, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, accused Kushner of supposedly "disparaging" Israel. Kushner has been critical of some Israeli policies-which hardly makes him unique among human beings, or among Jews, or even among Israelis. But none of his comments on these issues are outside the bounds of civil discourse or worthy of censure, especially by an institution that is supposed to be committed to freedom of thought and the open exchange of ideas. If you're curious, you can read Kushner's response here. Wiesenfeld is unrepentant, by the way, and defends his attack here. For an update on the evolving situation, see Justin Elliott here.

I have only two points to make about this incident, which one of the many attempts by self-appointed "defenders" of Israel to control discourse on this issue.

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.

But 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.

And why does this matter for foreign policy? Because as John Mearsheimer and I wrote a few years ago: "America will be better served if its citizens were exposed to the range of views about Israel common to most of the world's democracies, including Israel itself. . . Both the United States and Israel face vexing challenges. . .and neither country will benefit by silencing those who support a new approach. This does not mean that critics are always right, of course, but their suggestions deserve at least as much consideration as the failed policies that key groups in the [Israel] lobby have backed in recent years" (pp. 351-52).

My friend Ilene Cohen sent me this:

"Bottom line: wealthy right-wing Jews (trustees, donors, board members) have been throwing their weight around in every sphere of Jewish (but not only Jewish) life: the Kushner case is about CUNY. They are threatening synagogues, pushed national Hillel to make it policy that Jewish Voice for Peace and other Jewish groups supporting BDS have no place under the Hillel umbrella on university campuses, are threatening to withhold funds from Jewish community centers for running film festivals that have moved beyond Exodus, and are trying to darken theaters that mount productions sympathetic to Palestinians, such as at Theater J in Washington DC. They interfere in tenure cases and hiring at universities. The list is long. Remember when they "encouraged" the Polish consulate in New York to cancel an event sponsored by an outside group because the speaker was Tony Judt. In that case it wasn't money--it was the fear on the part of the Poles that they'd be called anti-Semites by Abe Foxman. That's a place where Germans and Poles prefer not to go.

In the current news, there's a campaign ongoing right now to prevent Rabbi Richard Jacobs from taking over the helm of the Reform movement from Eric Yoffie on the grounds that he's "bad" on Israel: he's a member of J Street, on the board of the New Israel Fund, and has participated in a demonstration at Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem against the Israeli ethic cleansing of Palestinians. Obviously an enemy of the people.

I hope the Kushner story spreads far and wide. Kushner's no shrinking violet and not one to be intimidated by the likes of trustee Wiesenfeld. And he's got a lot of fans in the theater and film communities.

But this, sad to say, is where Jewish life is headed in this country. Support for Israeli colonialism is the universal litmus test.{But as we can see now, the bullies lost and lost infamously.]


* A little background. Kushner has long been loathed in the "pro-Israel" community. Recall Steven Spielberg's very banal film Munich, which was attacked by the friends of Israeli for daring to portray Palestinians (terrorists, no less) in a sympathetic, human light. Now, Spielberg funds a lot of Holocaust-related projects, so the thugs didn't want to go after him. But one of the writers of the screenplay was none other than--you guessed it--Tony Kushner. So they attacked the film and said that poor Spielberg had been tricked by the villainous Kushner. And on and on and on.

Israel's Democracy Hypocrisy
by Peter Beinart

On American campuses, Israel feuds are nothing new. But the City University of New York’s decision to deny playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree—and now perhaps reinstate it—is cutting-edge. It is cutting-edge because the debate over Kushner’s degree is, at heart, a debate over whether people who want Israel to be a secular rather than a Jewish state can be tolerated in public life. That’s a debate that Americans, and particularly American Jews, haven’t had since the 1940s. But it’s returning in a big way.

Stowed away in the attic of American Jewish life lies this uncomfortable truth: Well into the 20th century, many American Jews opposed the creation of a Jewish state. Many Reform Jews were anti-Zionist because they feared a Jewish state would raise questions about Jewish loyalty to the U.S. Many Socialist Jews were anti-Zionist because they believed the proletariat should unite across religious and ethnic lines. Many Orthodox Jews were anti-Zionist because they believed that returning Jews to the land of Israel was God’s job, not man’s. Even when Jews began arriving in Palestine in large numbers, prominent Jewish intellectuals like Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Henrietta Szold, the founder of the American Jewish women’s organization, Hadassah, and Judah Magnes, the American-born founder of Hebrew University, argued for the creation of a secular state in which neither Jews nor Arabs would have pride of place.

The Holocaust and the wars that followed Israel’s creation largely obliterated that vision, and by 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank, Zionism was as uncontroversial an element of American Jewish identity as matzo ball soup. But that’s starting to change. The reason is that for many liberal American Jews, Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state is bound up with its status as a democratic state. As former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have acknowledged, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank imperils that. Ever since 1967—for more than two-thirds of its existence—Israel has held dominion over millions of West Bank Palestinians who lack citizenship simply because they are not Jews. Creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would remedy that, but with 300,000Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and an additional 200,000 in East Jerusalem, more and more close observers fear the window for creating such a state has closed. As former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg wrote last month in Haaretz, “I am not at all sure that a two-state solution formula is alive.”

Enter Tony Kushner. Kushner says he believes that Buber and Magnes were right: “that democratic government must be free of ethnic or religious affiliation.” Whether or not the Palestinians create a state in the West Bank and Gaza, he wants Israel to be a secular democracy like the U.S. That’s what sets Kushner apart from many other critics of Israel’s occupation. Liberal Zionists want to end the occupation so Israel can be a Jewish democratic state. Kushner believes that even if Israel does end the occupation, it can never be Jewish and democratic at the same time.

The American Jewish establishment has answered people like Tony Kushner by trying to bar bi-nationalists from the Jewish conversation.

Kushner is making a serious point. A state whose flag features a Star of David, whose anthem references the “Jewish soul,” and whose immigration policy allows Jews—and only Jews—to receive instant citizenship inevitably privileges its Jewish citizens over its non-Jewish ones.

No comments:

Post a Comment