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In a meeting convened Monday night, the executive committee of the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY), voted to approve an honorary degree for playwright Tony Kushner. The 6-1 vote reversed a previous decision by the overall board to table Mr. Kushner’s degree when trustee Jeffery Weisenfeld revealed Mr. Kushner’s heinous anti-Israel views, including his belief that the Jewish State was responsible for “ethnic cleansing.” The original decision ignited a firestorm of criticism directed primarily at Mr. Weisenfeld, despite the reality that last week’s final vote was 11-1 against honoring Kushner. The immense degree of pressure orchestrated by the political left, notwithstanding the near unanimous initial decision, evidently has triumphed.
In an attempt to deflect responsibility for their original vote, some trustees claimed they had been caught “off guard” by Mr. Weisenfeld’s objections. CUNY Chancellor Dr. Matthew Goldstein echoed that rationale, saying he wasn’t sure “why the appropriate people didn’t chime in at that time.” Goldstein then offered a statement in which he “consistently expressed that Mr. Kushner’s extraordinary body of work and enormous artistic contributions should be recognized by this University.” Another trustee, Kathleen M. Pesile, claimed that the executive board was “now correcting [the original vote] because it benefits CUNY and we will not get another chance to remove this blemish.” Board Chairman Benno Schmidt also characterized the original vote as ”a mistake of principle and not merely of policy.” It was Schmidt who urged Mr. Goldstein to convene the executive committee meeting to reconsider the vote of the entire board — even as he remained out of the country when the final vote was taken. Why the executive committee and not the full board? Perhaps because Mr. Weisenfeld is not a member of the executive committee.
He is, however, both unsurprised by the board’s decision, and unrepentant for taking a stand. When I asked him if the executive board had a legal right to overrule the entire board of trustees, he indicated that they did, but said that “it is such a rarely invoked instance to overturn the board, that it has never transpired in my 12 years as a member,” adding that he had talked to others whose membership on the board pre-dated his, and they couldn’t remember an instance either. He was not critical of either Mr. Goldstein or Mr. Schmidt for overriding the board, claiming he is both “aware” and “respectful” of their worldviews.
Yet it is those worldviews which prompted the decision to overturn the original ruling after the board’s refusal to grant Kushner an honorary degree was deemed an outrage by liberals. NY Times blogger Clyde Haberman opined that “the trustees seemed to have collectively blanked on the fact that Mr. Kushner’s opinions of Israel — good or bad, definitely not indifferent — had nothing to do with John Jay’s reason for extolling him.” Former NYC Mayor Ed Koch also said that Mr. Kushner’s personal views should have nothing to do with his academic honor, and that Mr. Weisenfeld should resign from the board. “What does Kushner receiving an award have to do with criticism of the State of Israel?” Mr. Koch asked.
But Mr. Haber is being disingenuous. Mr. Kushner’s politics are an integral part of his artistic work, including his deliberate re-writing of history in both his play “Angels in America,” which depicts convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as innocent victims of McCarthyism, and his movie “Munich,” in which Israeli commandos are shown as overcome by guilt for avenging the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games. Thus, it is Mr. Kushner himself who makes his politics relevant.
And Mr. Koch is being a politician. Despite public excoriation of Mr. Weisenfeld, he sent the trustee a note which Mr. Weisenfeld gave me permission to quote from, but not publish. Mr. Koch expressed his appreciation for Mr. Weisnefeld’s “generous remarks” about him in the Jewish Press, and added that while he disagreed with Mr. Weisenfeld on “this particular issue” he admired his “strength of purpose and character particularly so in [his] support of Israel.”
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