MONDAY UPDATE: Tonight the City University of New York will reverse the decision to ban playwright Tony Kushner for his views on Israel. See the New York Times update here. This whole Kushner suppression thing blew up in the right's face. Not only will Kushner get his degree but he is probably going to sue those who defamed him. Nice.
All too often the people who think of themselves as "pro-Israel" take actions that seriously harm their cause.
In Washington this takes the form of pressuring and pestering Congress and the White House to unquestioningly support right-wing policies that thwart Israel's chances for peace and security.
Away from Washington - especially on the nation's college campuses and in other intellectual arenas - it takes the form of squelching any idea that deviates from right-wing Israeli positions.
That is what apparently happened after John Jay College, part of the City University of New York system, decided to confer an honorary degree on one of the world's greatest playwrights, Tony Kushner.
Kushner, most famous for the Pulitzer-winning "Angels in America" - and with a host of other award-winning plays under his belt - would seem to be a more than appropriate choice for a Manhattan-based college that prides itself in allowing students to pursue their degrees through independent study with scholars throughout the City University system.
Kushner, whose plays often interweave gay and Jewish themes, international politics and American social issues, is, one would think, a natural for John Jay. And that is what its trustees thought when they invited him to be honored at graduation; it was what they thought when they rejoiced at his acceptance of the honor.
But then one of the university's trustees, conservative Republican Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, discovered that Kushner (who he says he had never heard of!) holds unacceptable views on Israel. According to the New York Times:
Mr. Kushner has criticized policies and actions by Israel in the past, including what he called the "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians from the land that became the State of Israel at its founding. But he has also repeatedly said that he is a strong supporter of Israel's right to exist, that he has never supported a boycott of the country, and that his views are shared by many Jews and supporters of Israel.
"I have been honored many times by prominent Jewish organizations [he received an honorary degree from Brandeis in 2006], proudly identified as a Jew and maintained a passionate support for the continuous existence of the State of Israel."
That was too much for Wiesenfeld who sounded the alarm: a hater of Israel was being honored at a public university. He immediately went to work to get the honorary degree stopped, pushing for a vote by the trustees to deny Kushner the honor. He succeeded; the university rescinded it.
Here is his Wiesenfeld's rationale for his actions, which he offered in a telephone call with the Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg:
"My mother would call Tony Kushner a kapo," he said in a telephone conversation earlier this morning. "Kapos" were Jews who worked for the Germans in concentration camps.
Pretty amazing, likening criticizing Israel to working with the Nazis to kill Jews. But Wiesenfeld (active in AIPAC, trustee of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, and an admirer Muslim baiter Pam Geller) has some strong views. In today's New York Times, he told Jim Dwyer that he did not consider Palestinians to be human.
I tried to ask a question about the damage done by a short, one-sided discussion of vigorously debated aspects of Middle East politics, like the survival of Israel and the rights of the Palestinians, and which side was more callous toward human life, and who was most protective of it.
But Mr. Wiesenfeld interrupted and said the question was offensive because "the comparison sets up a moral equivalence."
Equivalence between what and what?
"Between the Palestinians and Israelis," he said. "People who worship death for their children are not human."
Did he mean the Palestinians were not human? "They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history," he said.
As Andrew Sullivan points out here, Wiesenfeld is far from alone in holding those views. Or the view, in Sullivan's words, that "any criticism of Israel is extremist and a function of anti-Semitism if you are a goy and of self-hatred if you are Jewish." Wiesenfeld's unique stupidity comes not from holding these views but from exposing them to the light of day.
That is why former New York mayor, Ed Koch, far right on all matters relating to Israel, says of the revocation of the honorary degree that he "can't think of a dumber academic action...What does Kushner receiving an award have to do with criticism of the State of Israel? I am a well-known supporter of that nation. What if I were denied an honorary degree because of my strong support for that state? That would make as much sense as denying Mr. Kushner a degree." Koch wants Wiesenfeld fired from the CUNY board.
The difference between Wiesenfeld and Koch may simply be a matter of smarts. Wiesenfeld believes that using smash-mouth tactics to silence critics of Israel makes the Jewish state stronger. Koch seems to understand that blatantly silencing debate on Israel in America does the opposite. .
After all, if Wiesenfeld had not achieved his ban on Kushner, who would have known - other than the graduates and their families - that the great playwright was being honored by John Jay? Sure the college would have promoted their good fortune in landing him as a degree recipient but it would not exactly be big news. And no one would have noted his Middle East views. But now the story is big news. And the story is that the one issue on which free discussion is prohibited in academe is Israel.
That may not even be completely true. But making it appear to be is Wiesenfeld's big contribution to Israel. Israel needs to find itself some new friends.