The chairman of the City University of New York (CUNY) Board of Trustees released a public statement today, calling for the board to reconsider its decision to deny an honorary degree to Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner.
On Monday May 2, the board voted to "table" the awarding of the proposed degree, igniting a firestorm of controversy from around the world.
"I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken," Chair Benno Schmidt says in the statement, "But when the board has made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy, review is appropriate and, indeed, mandatory."
Schmidt noted in his statement that the proposed honorary degree for Mr. Kushner would recognize his extraordinary talent and contributions to the American theater. "Like other honorary degrees," Schmidt wrote, "It is not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored. Any other view is impractical as well as wrong in principle."
Michael Arena, Director of Communications at CUNY, told The Huffington Post that the tabled motion will be reviewed at another meeting with the board set for next Monday. "The award was basically placed in a hold position," he said. "A position where no action was taken." Since 1961, Arena said, there is no record of any other degree being tabled by the board.
The whole imbroglio started on Monday when Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, who is a CUNY trustee, as well as a trustee with pro-Israel think tank The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, made an impassioned plea to the board. He asked that Kushner be denied his honororary degree, citing posts he had found on the website of Norman Finkelstein, a prominent critic of Israel and well known political scientist, whom Kushner has never personally communicated with.
Finkelstein, in 2006, had titled one of his blog posts: "Kushner: Creation of Israel a mistake," and proceeded to quote past interviews Kushner had given, most prominently to Ha’aretz, an Israeli news source.
In a transcript of the May 2 speech released by the New York Times, Wiesenfeld quoted from the Ha'aretz piece, which featured an interview with Kushner back in 2004. "But you are saying then that the very creation of the State of Israel as a Jewish state was not a good idea," Wiesenfeld quotes. "And Mr. Kushner answered it was a mistake."
“I think it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things," Wiesenfeld continued in his speech to the board, for which Schmidt himself was present, "Especially when the State of Israel, which is our sole democratic ally in the area, sits in the neighborhood which is almost universally dominated by administrations which are almost universally misogynist, antigay, anti-Christian.”
Following Wiesenfeld's speech, the trustees voted 11 to 1 to table the motion to bestow Kushner the degree. In next Monday's meeting, CUNY trustees will revisit the matter, but even if they reverse the decision, it might not make a difference. Kushner told the New York Observer Wednesday he has "no intention of ever accepting an award from CUNY."
Perhaps if Wiesenfeld had looked further into comments Kushner made about Israel after 2004, he might have found a transcript of an interview Kushner gave to the Jewish Independent in 2007.
"I want the State of Israel to continue to exist," Kushner said in that interview. "I have always said that. I've never said anything else. My positions have been lied about and misrepresented in so many ways. People claim that I'm for a one-state solution, which is not true."
In a 3-page letter sent to the Board of Trustees on May 4, subsequently published by multiple news outlets, Kushner provided a strongly-worded and detailed rebuttal to Wiesenfeld's statements.
"Trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld delivered a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I've given, the mention of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever, and the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr. Wiesenfeld strongly disagrees."
In the letter, Kushner derided the other members of the 12-person board for not speaking up on his behalf, asserting that he was never notified that Wiesenfeld was going to speak against him. "I'm not a difficult person to find," Kushner wrote, "nor am I lacking in articulate colleagues and friends who would have responded."
Kushner also cited the breadth of his involvement with Jewish organizations, mentioning his long-standing affiliations with the 92nd Street Y, the Jewish Museum, and the Upper West Side JCC, and explicitly refers to his position on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization whose members have, in the past, called for a boycott of Israel.
Kushner explains that, while he disagrees with the organization on "a number of issues, including the boycott," he maintains that "the women and men of JVP are courageous, committed people who work very hard serving the interests of peace and justice and the Jewish people, and I'm honored by my association with them."
Kushner notes that he originally accepted the offer of an honorary degree because he was impressed with the students and teachers at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the school that planned to award it to him, but he "did not expect to be publicly defamed as a result."
CUNY's actions prompted outrage from a number of notable people, including Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University who received an honorary degree from John Jay in 2008. She announced Thursday that she planned to return her degree in solidarity with Kushner. A Facebook page protesting CUNY's decision features messages from several other writers who plan to return their honorary degrees as well, including Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Cunningham.
Former New York Mayor Edward I. Koch, an outspoken supporter of Israel who was also slated to receive an honorary degree from CUNY in June, asked the board to grant Kushner the degree and, according to the NY Times, requested that Wiesenfeld resign from his position on the board.
The moderate Israeli advocacy group J Street also condemned the board of trustees' decision in a statement today, explaining that "one need not endorse every opinion of Kushner’s on Israel to find his treatment by CUNY unacceptable."
Yet Wiesenfeld does not appear to be backing down. He told Ha'aretz today that if Kushner was willing to renounce what Wiesenfeld called statements accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and denouncing its existence, he would be willing to vote to award the playwright an honorary degree as planned.
Kushner's newest play, "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures," opened Thursday at the Public Theater in New York City. Pro-Kushner protesters gathered outside the theater before the show began. Kushner is best known for his two-part play cycle "Angels in America," for which he won a host of major awards and international recognition.