Kushner Affair Puts Israel Dissent At Center Stage

Source: NY Jewish Week, 5-10-11

CUNY restores playwright’s honorary degree, but questions linger over boundaries of acceptable debate.

One is the child of Holocaust survivors who grew up in the South Bronx. The other is the son of professional musicians who spent most of his childhood in Lake Charles, La.

One started out in law enforcement, working in counter-intelligence for the FBI, and eventually entered politics, becoming an operative for two New York Republicans, U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and Gov. George Pataki. The other became an award-winning playwright, looking with an artist’s sensibility at the experiences of minorities, including Jews, gays and blacks, as well as such themes as human imperfection.

One, now working for a wealth-management firm and living in Great Neck, L.I., speaks in blunt, forceful terms and attends an Orthodox shul mostly to avoid the liberal politics associated with other synagogues. The other may be the epitome of the classic urban intellectual — gifted, intense, voluble and engaged in a permanent wrestling match over what it means to be gay, Jewish and American.

In many ways, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the former political operative, and Tony Kushner, the playwright two years his senior, are polar opposites, sharing little in common outside their passion and Jewishness. And so, too, are the outlooks they represent on Israel — worldviews that collided publicly last week, drawing attention far beyond the Jewish world.

The clash began at a May 2 meeting of the City University of New York’s Board of Trustees, where members were scheduled to consider a slate of 40 honorary-degree candidates nominated by CUNY’s schools and colleges.

The recommendations are normally rubber-stamped by the board, and no one expected anything different at the start of last week’s meeting. But Wiesenfeld, a board member of several Jewish organizations and a well-known activist in conservative circles, launched an attack on Kushner, whose name had been submitted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Wiesenfeld focused on Kushner’s Israel views, quoting comments in which the playwright claimed that Israel’s founding was based on a program of “ethnic cleansing” and branded the creation of a Jewish state a “mistake.” The criticism eventually led to a 10-2 vote by the board to postpone any consideration of the honor — the first time in CUNY’s history that such an action was taken, university officials say, and a move that seemed to effectively kill the degree.

But the board’s action, first reported by The Jewish Week on its website, sparked days of mounting pressure on CUNY officials from the university’s own faculty members, members of the arts community, public figures and the playwright himself. In his own letter to the board, Kushner said that Wiesenfeld’s presentation “grotesquely mischaracterized” his views on Israel and that the quotes he offered were selective and taken out of context. Other letters came from former Mayor Edward Koch, who called for Wiesenfeld’s “resignation or removal,” and from past honorary-degree recipients who wanted to return their awards.

Finally, the board’s executive committee met Monday night in a hastily convened session to approve an honorary degree for Kushner, reversing the action it took a week earlier. The session was called by Benno Schmidt, the board’s chairman, who, in a statement last week, said the trustees had made “a mistake in principle” by failing to divorce politics from the award of an honorary degree…READ MORE

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