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 recently spoke with Wiesenfeld, a principal at Bernstein Global Wealth Management, about the “Kushner affair”; Israel activism; the revival of Yiddish theater (Wiesenfeld heads the National Yiddish Theatre); his experiences working for the FBI; his years in the service of New York politicos Ed Koch, Alfonse D’Amato and George Pataki; and his memories of growing up in the Bronx.
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.
We also have to force administrations and use our alumni. Jews are the predominant [financial] givers in so many places. You hold back your money and say, “If you’re not going to provide security for events that also project another point of view, we won’t donate.”
We have the power to do that; we have major Jewish donors across the country. There are good people on campuses – good Jewish students and professors who basically mind their own business out of fear. They’re the quiet minority. We have to make them in the loud majority.
The Jewish Press: Switching topics: You’re the chairman of the board of the National Yiddish Theatre, which drew 50,000 people to its performances this past year – the most since 1962. To what do you attribute this increased attendance?
Wiesenfeld: Yiddish theater goes back to the tradition of Purim shpiels. That’s where Yiddish theater started a couple of hundred years ago. There would be no Broadway in New York, no American theater, and no comedians if not for Yiddish theater. So this Yiddish language is being revived primarily through the theater because it has such an expressiveness.
When I became chairman 10 years ago, I insisted that we had to adopt a technology that would give instant translation. It’s called supertitles – the translation appears above the stage like in the opera, and that changed everything. Even people who’ve never spoken the language can get their Ashkenazic culture.
We’re getting religious people and also people who aren’t even affiliated with a synagogue who are finding their roots through this 1,000-year-old Ashkenazic culture.
The Jewish Press: What kind of family did you grow up in?
Wiesenfeld: You could say we were raised – let’s call it Conservadox. My parents were Holocaust survivors. We observed Shabbos, we went to shul every Shabbos, but it became increasingly difficult to get kosher food and go to shul in the Bronx [as the area deteriorated in the 1960s and ‘70s]. It was a very difficult neighborhood.
I have very bad memories of the Bronx. When Co-op City opened in 1968, my father took ill. We were very poor, and we couldn’t even afford shares in Co-op City. The shuls had closed, and it was very difficult just to observe a holiday. We were in the Bronx about four or five years later than everyone else. We left in 1973, and already nobody was there by the late ‘60s. We were in East Tremont – terrible neighborhood, really terrible place.
What saved my life, to be very honest with you, is that even though I was zoned for Roosevelt High School – which was then, and remains today, one of the five worst schools in the city – I managed to get into Bronx High School of Science.
From there I went to Queens College, then I was in the FBI.
The Jewish Press: What did you do for the FBI?
Wiesenfeld: I can’t be specific, but readers can extrapolate. I was in the counterintelligence division. It was still a high point of the Cold War – long before the fall of the Berlin Wall – and I was assigned to Eastern Europeans and Soviets. Those were what we called criteria countries at the time. It was 1979, 1980, the Soviet Union still existed, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, etc. were all colleague nations of the Soviet Union, so it was still a testy time.
The Jewish Press: Can you be a little more specific in terms of your responsibilities? Did you gather intelligence, write assessments?
Wiesenfeld: Readers will have to make their own interpretations. I’m not supposed to talk about it.
The Jewish Press: You worked as the traffic commissioner’s chief of staff under Mayor Ed Koch; the New York Metropolitan Area executive assistant to Senator Alfonse D’Amato; and executive assistant to Governor George Pataki for the New York Metropolitan Region. What can you say about these three politicians?
Wiesenfeld: I’ll give you a quick one on each person.
Koch was someone who, more than anyone in history, really personified the geographic area he represented. In other words, if the city of New York were a person, who would it be? It would be Ed Koch. Even more so than Giuliani and Bloomberg. He was fun to work with, competent, and did so much for the city in terms of restoring all the housing that was burned out in the riots of the ‘60s, for example.
On D’Amato, I don’t have to tell Jewish Press readers, but it’s sad to say sometimes when you get a gentile like an Al D’Amato, he’s worth more than ten of the average Jews that we have in Congress – any ten of them.
Pataki was a very decent man and made tremendous changes in the state. The problem with New York is that it always gets sour in the third term because people get fatigued. Doesn’t matter if you’re Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, Al D’Amato, or Pataki. The third term never works. I love Pataki, but I think he would have left even stronger after two terms.