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Reprinted from JewishPress.com.
The decision last week by CUNY’s Board of Trustees to deny playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree sparked an uproar in the media, and Jeffrey Wiesenfeld has been at the center of it.
Wiesenfeld, a longtime outspoken Israel supporter and a member of CUNY’s board of trustees, convinced four of his colleagues that honoring Kushner – who believes Israel’s founding was a mistake and resulted from ethnic cleansing – would be inappropriate. Kushner needed nine votes out of 12 to receive the degree. He got only seven.
But then, responding to public pressure, the board’s seven-member executive committee – which does not include Wiesenfeld – overturned the decision Monday night and voted to grant Kushner the degree.
The Jewish Press: In various newspaper interviews over the years, Tony Kushner has “deplored [the IDF’s] illegal and brutal tactics” against the Palestinians; argued that Israel is engaged in “a deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people”; and stated that Israel’s founding “was a mistake.” And yet, he now claims to be “dismayed by [your] vicious attack and wholesale distortion of [his] beliefs.” How do you make sense of that?
Wiesenfeld: Kushner is disingenuous and dissembling. If his libelous statements against Israel were made by anyone outside the Jewish community, that person would be labeled an anti-Semite. When you hold the State of Israel – a nation in a struggle for its survival from the beginning and a target for the misogynist, racist, anti-western, dictatorial regimes that surround it – to a standard you would hold no other nation under normal circumstances, let alone under such exigencies, and when you spew libel against our sole regional democratic ally for “crimes” concocted by delegitimizers, you’re an anti-Semite.
It’s a tragedy to tell you that we could do without 80 percent of the Jews. It’s the good Christians who stand up for Israel and for us. It’s a very sad thing for me to say.
The Jewish Press: Some people argue, though, that politics should be irrelevant when deciding whether to give a famous playwright an honorary degree.
Wiesenfeld: As I wrote in my letter to the editor of The New York Times: If Kushner were a CUNY student degree candidate, no trustee or administrator would have the right to deny him a degree if he fulfilled his requisite requirements.
But an honorary degree is wholly within the discretion of CUNY’s board to grant. It identifies the university with accomplished, generous citizens or public figures. It is also a tool that highlights the university and enhances its image in the educational marketplace. Kushner is an extremist. And no extremist from any quarter is a good face for any university – from the far left or from the far right.
The Jewish Press: This “Kushner affair” is not the first time this year you’ve fought for Israel’s reputation at CUNY. In March you were responsible for arranging security so that conservative pro-Israel speaker David Horowitz would be able to lecture at Brooklyn College and provide an alternative view during Israel Apartheid Week.
Wiesenfeld: Every year the situation for Israel’s reputation and Jewish students on campus around the country gets worse and worse. As David Horowitz has said, the left can’t win the argument with normal people. They can only win the argument with their fellow radicals. So how do they try to win the argument with regular folks? They shut them down. They win with hooliganism – there’s no other word for it.
So they’ll find out about an event where a pro-Israel speaker is lecturing – it could be Michael Oren, Benjamin Netanyahu, David Horowitz, or Daniel Pipes – and they will disrupt the event until the college relents and says, O.K., everyone has to leave, we’re canceling this event. That has been the predominant response in this country.
Here, at CUNY, thanks to Chancellor Matt Goldstein, our view is that if there’s an anti-Israel event, there has to at least be an opportunity for a student or professor who wants to arrange a pro-Israel event to be able to do so without disruption.
The Jewish Press: What can Jews do to counter increasing anti-Israel sentiment on American college campuses?
Wiesenfeld: For one, Hillel must undertake the obligation to instill in our students Jewish pride and educate them on how to defend Israel. For decades it has been sufficient for Hillel to be like an identity center where kids can be with other Jewish students, shake a lulav, have some challah, and light a Chanukah menorah. That’s not enough anymore. I’m not attacking them; I’m just saying they’ve been a little slow to react to this new reality.
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