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.”
Yet Mr. Koch undoubtedly recognized the pitfalls of supporting Weisenfeld publicly. The union representing the CUNY faculty also called for Mr. Weisenfeld’s resignation, along with ”Mr. Kushner’s fellow artists, his supporters, university professors and civil libertarians,” according to the New York Times. Union leader Dr. Barbara Bowen said Wiesenfeld “has abused his position as CUNY Trustee on numerous occasions. He should resign immediately and the trustee selection process should be reformed so that the Board is composed of qualified people with genuine expertise in higher education…“ Ellen Schrecker, Yeshiva University history professor, and American Communist party (CPUSA) apologist, wrote a letter to Schmidt saying she cannot “remain silent when the institution that once recognized the value of academic freedom now demeans it,” adding that she planned to return her own CUNY honorary degree. Marxist mouthpiece Barbara Ehrenreich said she planned to do the same. Karen Kaplowitz, the head of the John Jay faculty committee which nominated Kushner, claimed she was “mortified” that Kushner had been treated with “such disrespect.”
Yet it is the nomination of Kushner which yields the most telling clues as to the genesis of leftist indignation regarding the board’s original decision. Kushner was nominated for the honorary degree by two professors, one of whom was Dr. Michael Meeropol. Meeropol is the son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were tried, convicted and executed for spying against the United States. Both Meeropol and Kushner are on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, a radically anti-Israel organization which equates Palestinian terrorism with Israeli self-defense. Meeropol is currently a visiting professor of economics at John Jay College.
Each piece of vitriol directed at Mr. Weisenfeld is part of a mosaic designed, not only to silence anyone who would dare to point out the litany of reprehensible Israel-demonizing statements made by Mr. Kushner himself, chronicled in my previous column on the subject, but to chill potential criticism of Israel demonization in the future. Mr. Weisenfeld, who made it clear to me he has “every intention of serving until June 30th 2013,” explained that he “can’t imagine anyone as stupid as I am to rise up and take a [pro-Israel] position unless there’s a change of paradigm from Jewish leaders to enable it to happen.”
But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope. A letter reportedly hand-delivered Monday to each member of the board of trustees signed by “Members, Association of CUNY Alumni and Retirees” decries the “character assassination” of Mr. Weisenfeld, and asks the board to “initiate an investigation into the assault on Jews at the City University, disguised as anti-Israelism[.]” If the board ignores the request, the writers will make sure that “CUNY alumni are apprised of recent events and are exhorted to reconsider donations to their alma maters,” and “Jewish graduates and others of good will are apprised that the colleges which were once their homes, [but] are no longer welcoming to supporters of Israel.” The final sentence of the letter says it all: “We will not sit by idly and allow this cancer to continue to grow.”
Unfortunately the “cancer” is not yet in remission. Mr. Kushner will get his degree, and leftists, aptly described by columnist Daniel Greenfield as people who want to “storm the barricades and then break off for a meal at a five star restaurant,” will have their sanctimoniousness satisfied. But it remains to be seen whether their retributive campaign against a defender of Israel – for the crime of opposing the veneration of a radical anti-Israel propagandist – will be assuaged.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributor to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.