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Kushner Denied Honorary CUNY Degree

GOP politico on Board alleges BDS support; Kushner responds

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On Monday, the City University of New York’s Board denied its John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s plan to award playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree due to Kushner’s vocal criticism of Israel. The 12 CUNY trustees voted on the full slate of honorary degrees, and only seven voted “yea,” short of the necessary nine; then the Board voted 11-1 to table Kushner’s degree. The prime person responsible? Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a finance guy, an old New York state Republican political hand, and a trustee at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He accused Kushner of abetting the “disingenuous and non-intellectual activity directed against the state of Israel on campuses throughout the country, the West generally, and oftentimes the United States as well,” including through allegedly supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. (UPDATE: Wisenfeld writes this morning, “If his libelous statements against Israel were made by anyone outside the Jewish community, that person would be correctly labeled an anti-Semite.”)

We don’t have to suppose what Kushner thinks about Israel, because, in a lengthy response to the CUNY board, he lays it out. You could fairly describe him as pretty harsh on Israel’s actions; I think contributing editor Jeff Goldberg gets it right when he guesses, “He strikes me, from a distance, as one of those sons-of-the-people who wakes up worrying about the Jews, and goes to sleep worrying about the Jews. I think his discomfort with Jewish power is mainly misplaced.” But he is plainly not an anti-Zionist, much less someone with a hateful heart; and, equally plainly, withholding the degree based on his political views is, as Kushner put it, “McCarthyite nonsense.”

Personally, I’m proud to have graduated from an institution from which Kushner holds both undergraduate and honorary degrees. In fact, it is worth revisiting the speech he gave at Columbia’s Class Day several years ago, in which he instructed graduates not how to think but merely to think:

This is the Columbia dialectic, the New York City dialectic, all this spectacular symmetry, all this Euclidean geometry, all this rational griddage is a lattice entwined with floribund, uncontrolled and uncontrollable vines, shoots, roots, fruits, leaves, bees, busily cross-pollinating. This box, this machine, this is a crystal incubatory whence comes the fluid, the protean, the revolutionary, the non-mechanical, the non-commodified, the non-fetishized, the human. The air this morning is electric. You have fed, you have sated, you’re ready; and every step you take from this point on counts. This is your Code Orange: Life and its terrors, terrible and splendid, awaits. I know I speak for Jon, Warren and Justice Ruth—seek the truth; when you find it, speak the truth; interrogate mercilessly the truth you’ve found; and act, act, act. The world is hungry for you, the world has waited for you, the world has a place for you. Take it. Mazel tov. Change the world.

School Blocks Kushner Honor Over Israel [Salon]
CUNY Blocks Honor for Playwright Tony Kushner [NYT]

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Leaving aside his views for a moment, that passage you cite is some god-awful writing, Marc. Reminds me a bit of this:

“And getting up here I say it is the best road trip in America soaring through nature’s finest show. Denali, the great one, soaring under the midnight sun. And then the extremes. In the winter time it’s the frozen road that is competing with the view of ice fogged frigid beauty, the cold though, doesn’t it split the Cheechakos from the Sourdoughs? And then in the summertime such extreme summertime about a hundred and fifty degrees hotter than just some months ago, than just some months from now, with fireweed blooming along the frost heaves and merciless rivers that are rushing and carving and reminding us that here, Mother Nature wins. It is as throughout all Alaska that big wild good life teeming along the road that is north to the future. That is what we get to see every day. Now what the rest of America gets to see along with us is in this last frontier there is hope and opportunity and there is country pride.”

To me it’s a shandeh that one trustee using 1950s-style guilt-by-association tactics should be able to force CUNY to such a dishonorable and retro position. Kushner is a “national treasure” for Jews and all Americans. He’s a boundary-crosser who has changed the landscape of American theatre. CUNY is acting like a panicky branch of the Jewish Federation — an organization increasingly willing to throw Jewish artists under the bus.

fw, your associative linkings are fascinating but could use unpacking. What’s the connection between a message of inspiration to new grads and the unattributed passage about Alaska? Without researching it, my guess is that your example is an either an excerpt of a monologue written in the voice of a specific character or else a Sarah Palin rant. Don’t be coy, now. Inquiring inquiring minds want to know!

fw says:

It’s Sarah Palin’s farewell address, Corey. Both selections feature florid imagery and adjectives piling up on one another like a car wreck. In Kushner’s case, it’s ersatz Walt Whitman by way of Tennessee Williams, except that Kushner’s not in the same league as either of his great predecessors.

Dani ben Leb says:

Well, somebody is having a blast, this morning.
BDS is toxic.

Jay says:

When do they plan on screening Angels in America at the Ramallah Playhouse?

corey says:

I applaud your taste, fw, I’m a great admirer of bother Whitman and Tennessee W.and no fan of La Palin’s prose. However, we clearly disagree about the quality of Kushner’s work (I don’t view his graduation speeches as a major part of that, btw). Since K’s playwriting needs no defending by the likes of me, I won’t belabor the point.

And, to Jay, I’m sure the Ramallah Playhouse, if it exists would be interested in your curatorial suggestions. However, I don’t think the tendancy toward homophobia in Muslim culture would create a receptive audience for “Angels,” not to mention that it’s really a play steeped in American history and many references would be lost to Ramallahites. His more recent, “Homebody/Kabul” might be a better choice, but it can’t be “screened” since it wasn’t, as far as I know, filmed. Perhaps you could suggest it be translated into Arabic and produced there.

fw says:

We’ll have to disagree on this one, Corey. I didn’t see the original staging of Angels in America, but I was curious about the fuss, so I read the script, which I thought was filled with rambling passages like his commencement address. I just didn’t understand how it could possibly work on stage. Later on, I saw the Mike Nichols version on HBO. There is at least one scene (and this is from memory), where Louis sits at a table with Belize, and launches into some kind of political soliloquy, and Nichols shoots it from the point of view of Belize, pulling back and lowering the volume so that it becomes a kind of senseless drone, suggesting that it is just a lot of tedious navel-gazing on Louis’s part. Which I thought was a good solution, dramatically. I did like the story, but evidently he had help on that from his dramaturg, which I guess is a fancy way of saying co-writer.

This is a crying wolf moment that may harm future protests of truly hate-filled anti-Zionists.

susan Buckler says:

I am THRILLED with this development, couldn’t be happier. I think the trustees are brave and intelligent people who are simply SICK, as I am, of the vituperative language coming from the left, and most hateful, the Jewish left.

Kol Ha Kavod to the trustees. May this start a movement, in the proper direction, against the Israel bashers and the appeasers of those who would love to see Israel’s demise.

Ahava says:

It pains me to see us engaged in spitting such vitriol at our own. There is room in Judaism and politics for disagreement and discourse and once we lose those we are lost entirely. It sickens me to see Jews turn on each other over differing views and to see “intellectuals” support educational institutions in slander and prejudice.

Mr. Kushner’s body of work and the inarguable SUCCESS (whether it meets your personal “taste” or not) was being “honored” and for CUNY to allow that “honor” to degrade into the wholesale assault of him and his personal beliefs (especially his MISREPRESENTED ONES) is unforgivable.

I grow weary of the notion that ANY suggestion that Israel is anything but PERFECT means the critic is somehow a self-hating Jew or in violation of some stone-able offense. We and the institutions we build must be able to not only RECEIVE criticism but ABSORB it and CHANGE as needed. The mark of greatness in both man and nation isn’t in “perfection” but in the ability to see shortcomings and repair them.

And before someone decides to go off on some rant that clearly I am self-loathing anti-Zionist let me assure you I am not. That said… My Israel isn’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t honored. My Israel is big enough and courageous enough to learn from the past and DO BETTER. My Israel needs to make some changes but that doesn’t mean I want it obliterated or that I don’t have a deep and abiding love for it. I love it enough to want the BEST for it and ALL who call it home.

Why don’t we stop doing the work of the Anti-Semites and SUPPORT each other even if we don’t agree? We have enough enemies outside the Tribe, we don’t need to encourage a culture of hatred internally.

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Kushner Denied Honorary CUNY Degree

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