This week, the news hit that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, perhaps best known for his Angels in America, was being blocked from receiving an honorary degree from the City University of New York because of his views on Israel.
Kushner, who also has an honorary degree from Brandeis University, told Salon's Justin Elliott that this was an “unprecedented and pretty ugly experience.
Sadly, though, it's not that rare for academia to balk at support for Palestinians. Elliott notes that just this January, a Brooklyn College adjunct professor was fired—and later reinstated—after students and an assemblyman complained about his views. Last summer, GRITtv guest and fellow Brooklyn College professor Moustafa Bayoumi was the center of a controversy around his book, How Does it Feel to Be A Problem? Being Young and Arab in America. And back in 2009, Joel Kovel visited us at GRITtv to discuss his termination from Bard College, which he believed was over his pro-Palestinian views.
It's notable that the same cast of characters turns up again and again in these stories. Bruce Kesler, a Brooklyn College alum, caused a stir in both Brooklyn College cases, and Jeffrey Wiesenfeld is the CUNY board member who blocked Kushner's honor.
Wiesenfeld is, Elliott notes, a trustee at the pro-Israel think tank the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and an organizer of the Salute to Israel Day Parade Committee. His views are clearly not considered controversial or problematic.
Instead, even a famed Jewish playwright like Kushner, who reiterated in his letter to the CUNY trustees that he supports the continued existence of Israel even as he opposes the state's policies, is accused of being an extremist.
At a time when dancing in the streets is accepted as a proper response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, it's ironic to see that support for human rights—in this case in Palestine—is still controversial.