The kerfuffle we posted, surrounding the denial of a CUNY Honorary degree from the President and faculty of John Jay College to Tony Kushner, Pulitzer prize winning playwright and Columbia alum took the inevitable controversial turn. Ed Koch, former Mayor of New York came out supporting Kushner and castigated the CUNY Board vote and Trustee Jeffrey Weisenfeld in a JTA article, “Koch to CUNY: Boot Trustee who attacked Kushner”.
"I can't think of a dumber academic action," the former New York mayor and one of Israel's most ardent supporters said in a letter Thursday to the chairman of the Board of Trustees. "What does Kushner receiving an award have to do with criticism of the State of Israel? I am a well-known supporter of that nation. What if I were denied an honorary degree because of my strong support for that state? That would make as much sense as denying Mr. Kushner a degree."
[. . .]
"Mr. Wiesenfeld and the trustees who followed his request should immediately reverse their action and urge Mr. Kushner to forgive them," Koch wrote. "I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld's action so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees."
As in previous controversies, such as his screen-writing role on Steven Spielberg's highly biased Munich, Kushner considers the quoting of his own words or mention of his close ties to fringe anti-Israel extremists to be unfair, "vicious," or "McCarthyite." In his latest letter, he repeats calumnies against Israel he's uttered over the years, among them his frequent charge 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." Of course, there's nothing at all "incontrovertible" about this allegation. Kushner is simply repeating anti-Israel propaganda disconnected to facts. He cites as his source Benny Morris, yet Morris himself has written that the fact that "Israel emerged from the 1948 War with a 160,000-strong Arab minority" undermines charges of ethnic cleansing. Such is the caliber of the playwright's commentary on Israel and the Palestinians.
Nor of course, does he bother to consider the work of Professor Efraim Karsh, whose book Palestine Betrayed chronicles the events leading up to and through the Israeli War of Independence and the realities about Palestinian refugees. Karsh notes the
claim of premeditated dispossession and the consequent creation of the longstanding Palestinian “refugee problem” forms, indeed, the central plank in the bill of particulars pressed by Israel’s alleged victims and their Western supporters. It is a charge that has hardly gone undisputed. As early as the mid-1950’s, the eminent American historian J.C. Hurewitz undertook a systematic refutation,and his findings were abundantly confirmed by later generations of scholars and writers. Even Benny Morris, the most influential of Israel’s revisionist “new historians,” and one who went out of his way to establish the case for Israel’s “original sin,” grudgingly stipulated that there was no “design” to displace the Palestinian Arabs.
Stef Kanfer in his City Journal review of the Spielberg film, Munich,that he deemed ‘mendacious’ , had this to say about Kushner:
All this comports with Kushner’s beliefs. He is not only on record with his anti-Israel statements: “I think the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity. . . . I wish modern Israel hadn’t been born.” He is also an avowed socialist whose leftist beliefs led him to join forces with those who advocate divestiture from companies that do business with the Jewish State. Thus, ideologically, Kushner finds himself in bed with people like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a socialist who recently stated, “Some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ [i.e. Jews] . . . took the world’s wealth for themselves.” Chavez went on to identify Jesus as the first socialist.
Benno C. Schmidt, Jr. former Yale President and Chairperson of the CUNY Board of Trustees, came up with a contrived solution to the caterwauling in the liberal media about the injustice shown to Kushner. Schmidt released a statement today that the CUNY executive committee of the Board of Trustees, seven out of the 17 members, would meet on Monday, May 9th to presumably grant Kushner an honorary degree. All that is required is for four Trustees to vote in the affirmative.
Note what Schmidt said:
Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name. If it were appropriate for us to take politics into account in deciding whether to approve an honorary degree, I might agree with Trustee Wiesenfeld, whose political views on the matters in controversy are not far distant from my own. But it is not right for the Board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here. The proposed honorary degree for Mr. Kushner would recognize him for his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater.
[. . .]
Would we want it thought that we approve of the politics of everyone who receives a CUNY honorary degree? Certainly I have moved the approval of honorary degrees for persons with whose opinions I differ.
I asked him if he had any doubt Kushner was an anti-Semite. He said: "Anyone who accuses the Jews of ethnic-cleansing is participating in a blood libel, so yes, he's a Jewish anti-Semite." ... Wiesenfeld told me it is this specific charge -- that Israel was built on a campaign of ethnic cleansing -- that caused him to actively oppose the granting of an honorary degree to Kushner. "I've been on the CUNY board since 1999, and every year we have two or three honorary degrees on each of our 20 campuses. There have been people who have been critical of Israel in this group, but I never opposed them. Criticizing Israel is not a disqualifier. I wouldn't vote for such a person for public office, but this doesn't make them anti-Semitic."...
I asked him if was going to keep up his opposition to Kushner. "If Tony Kushner wanted to come to the board and say, `You know, when I looked at all of this, I oppose Israeli policies, I think they're heading in the wrong direction, but I sincerely regret having said that the State of Israel should never have been created, and I shouldn't have said that the State of Israel had been involved in a national plan of ethnic cleansing, and that this accusation has consequences for the Jewish people,' guess what, the shit I'm taking from the left I'll be taking from the right because I would support him."
One final note about the competency of the CUNY Board of Trustees can be found in this bon mot from the New York Times:
“I have no idea who Mr. Kushner is; I don’t know his issues,” said Valerie Lancaster Beal, a trustee who said she felt the board should not have singled him out. “To me, it should have been all or none.”