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On Friday morning, June 3rd, several dozen people gathered across the street from the Jacob Javits Center on Manhattan’s west side to voice their outrage and indignation over the decision of the board of trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) to grant an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner. The site was selected because it was the venue of the commencement ceremonies for the 2011 class of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice; the same CUNY school that saw fit to bestow the honorary degree to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright for his literary accomplishments.
A polemical firestorm erupted a month ago when CUNY trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld (an investment adviser and one-time aide to former New York State Governor George E. Pataki) represented the lone dissenting voice at a CUNY board meeting on May 2nd in which he expressed his vehement opposition to the nomination of Kushner for an honorary degree.
At the time, Mr. Wiesenfeld cited a litany of anti-Israel statements made by Mr. Kushner and spoke of the “disingenuous and non-intellectual activity directed against the State of Israel on campuses throughout the country, the West generally and oftentimes the United States as well.” Mr. Wiesenfeld also pointed to direct quotes that Kushner made to the media. Among them are:
“[Israel was] founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing, and that today is behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people.”
— Yale Israel Review (winter 2005)
“I’ve never been a Zionist. I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would have been better if it never happened.”
— The New York Sun reporting Kushner comments made at a conference in NY (10/14/02)
Ha’aretz reporter: “But you are saying that the very creation of Israel as a Jewish state was not a good idea.”
Kushner: “I think it was a mistake.”
— Ha’aretz (4/7/04)
“I am not a Zionist in case you haven’t noticed.” Kushner cited “the shame of American Jews for failing to denounce Israel.”
– Chicago Tribune (4/10/02)
“[Israel is involved in] a deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people.”
– New York Sun (10/4/02)
Under routine circumstances, the CUNY board “rubber stamps” nominations of this kind, but subsequent to Mr. Wiensenfeld’s address, the trustees voted to deny Kushner a degree. Displaying obvious consternation, Kushner penned a critically worded letter to CUNY Chairman of the Board Benno Schmidt and the other trustees. Admonishing them, Kushner intoned: “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?”
Regarding his views on Israel, Kushner wrote in the same letter, “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.”
Several days later, Mr. Schmidt released a statement saying the trustees had made a “mistake of principle, and not merely of policy,” in withholding the degree for Mr. Kushner from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In an attempt to quell widespread criticism, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein urged Mr. Schmidt to convene a board meeting on May 9th at which time the trustees reversed their previous decision and voted to approve an honorary degree for Kushner.
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