Backlash Hits CUNY for Denying Honorary Degree to Tony Kushner, Top US Jewish Dramatist and Israel Critic

The plays of the award-winning US Jewish dramatist Tony Kushner are remarkable for the empathy he demonstrates for the ‘other‘. Whether the ‘other’ is a Jew, a gay, a Mormon, an African-American, the people of Afghanistan, Kushner tries to get under their skin, explore why they are as they are. He is, though, no moral relativist. He has a very strong sense of right and wrong. And it is no doubt for all of these things that the City University of New York originally decided to award Kushner an honorary degree, a decision that was dramatically reversed when a CUNY Trustee raised objections on the grounds of the playwright’s outspoken criticism of Israel.

But if the trustee, Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld, and the CUNY authorities thought any controversy over the decision would rapidly disappear, they were very much mistaken. Not only has Kushner robustly defended himself, prominent academics have attacked the university’s decision and, according to the New York Times, ‘Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University who received an honorary degree from CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2008, said she planned to return it in solidarity with Mr Kushner.’

In an interview with the paper Kushner said: ‘I have been honored many times by prominent Jewish organizations, proudly identified as a Jew and maintained a passionate support for the continuous existence of the State of Israel . . . An apology should come from the Board of Trustees for not following the dictates of simple fairness and decency when this happened, and allowing someone who deserved better treatment to be treated shabbily.’

Numerous groups and individuals have rallied to Tony Kushner’s support. Even Ed Koch, the former Jewish mayor of New York, a staunch supporter of the state of Israel, who is receiving an honorary degree from CUNY, publicly stated that Kushner should receive the degree and that Weisenfeld should resign.

Kushner has often been vilified for his views on Israel. In 2006 he was among a number of Jewish writers, intellectuals and academics attacked for giving succour to antisemites in a notorious pamphlet,  Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, written by Professor Alvin H Rosenfeld for the American Jewish Committee. Rosenfeld’s paper was hugely controversial. It was greeted with glee by the McCarthyite Jewish and Zionist right and attacked by progressive Jews and Zionists. The national press on both sides of the Atlantic gave extensive coverage to the story.

Regrettably, this latest attempt to punish and blacken the name of a Jew who has a strong sense of his Jewish identity and whose right to express dissenting views should be cherished, exemplifies the extent to which the pattern of tarring Jewish critics of Israel with the brush of antisemitism has become an ingrained part of intra-Jewish discourse. And it’s not just Jews levelling such accusations against other Jews. The non-Jews who love us too much, defend Israel’s indefensible human rights violations and stand ready to fight Islam down to the last Jew and Israeli, do it too. The neo-conservative David Pryce-Jones gets up to such tricks in a 5 May op-ed piece in the Jewish Chronicle, ‘Israel’s blinker-wearing, self-righteous detractors’, in which he dredges up the hoary accusation of ‘self-hatred’.

Kushner is hardly in need of another honorary degree – he has 15 already, as well as the Pulitzer Prize – but he clearly cares enough about asserting the moral fundamentals of his Jewishness to want to stand up in public and defend himself against his detractors. His is a powerful voice and he sets an example we should all follow. But this is a battle in which there can be no knockout blow. For now, it looks as if the cycle of demonisation will be endlessly repeated in various guises, at least until events beyond our control in a region experiencing the most far-reaching upheaval for a hundred years render such such internecine quarrelling utterly redundant.

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