It took just eight minutes of their May 2 meeting for the board of trustees of CUNY—a proud public institution that has provided opportunity and scholarly refuge to generations of New Yorkers—to thoroughly and abjectly humiliate themselves. A good portion of the blame lands at the feet of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the trustee who attempted to deny an honorary degree to esteemed playwright and Nation editorial board member Tony Kushner by grossly caricaturing his views on Israel and insulting him as a “Jewish anti-Semite.” But the entire board shares some responsibility. As Wiesenfeld used snippets of Kushner’s words and guilt by association to defame him, not one trustee objected or reminded the board of the principle of academic freedom or wondered what one’s views about Israel have to do with receiving an accolade from John Jay College. In the end, they expeditiously tabled discussion of Kushner’s award, presumably hoping the mess would just go away.
They were wrong. A righteous furor ensued, inspired by Kushner’s angry and anguished letter to the board in his defense. Just days later, the executive committee unanimously voted to reverse course, bestowing on Kushner an honor he may or may not now accept. Now Wiesenfeld is under pressure to resign. What lessons can be drawn from this debacle?
The most obvious is that Wiesenfeld picked on the wrong Jew. Kushner is a beloved figure, especially in New York, not only for his brilliant dramatic writing but for the humane empathetic approach he takes to all inquiries he undertakes, including the Israel-Palestine conflict. On that subject, Kushner has unequivocally said that the founding of Israel was based on the dispossession of Palestinians, which he has called the “unignorable reality” of ethnic cleansing. But Kushner has also consistently engaged the full human complexity of Israel’s and Palestine’s intertwined “vexed histories.” He is less a campaigner—although he does not eschew moral obligation—than he is a philosopher, a teacher.
Isn’t that exactly the kind of person CUNY ought to celebrate? In Wiesenfeld’s opinion, apparently not. So there’s a second lesson that goes beyond Kushner’s particular case. In the past Wiesenfeld has abused his position as trustee to assault academics for their views on Israel. His crusade is part of a larger attempt to blacklist intellectuals and activists who dissent from the narrowest of pro-Israel lines. The goal here is not the shaming of any particular perspective (Kushner, for example, does not support a boycott of Israel) but to narrow the bounds of acceptable public discourse—to silence opinion, to squelch thought. How shameful it is, then, that a university as honorable as CUNY colluded so thoughtlessly in such an endeavor.