Following an avalanche of protest against its decision Monday night to block an honorary degree for playwright Tony Kushner, the City University of New York board of trustees will reconsider its action in an executive committee meeting on Monday, May 9.
CUNY officials scheduled the meeting after receiving a statement from the board’s chairman, Benno Schmidt, saying that the body had made “a mistake of principal, and not merely of policy,” in voting to table the honorary degree.
The controversy, first reported by The Jewish Week, began after a trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, spoke out against Kushner during the board’s consideration of honorary degrees, including the one for Kushner recommended by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Wiesenfeld, a lay leader in several Jewish organizations and an activist in right-wing circles, claimed that Kushner holds views that are harshly anti-Israel, leading the board to block plans to honor the playwright.
His comments came with no advance notice, catching most of those at the meeting by surprise, and no other trustee spoke on the matter, either for or against the honorary degree.
Referring to those proceedings, Schmidt suggested that Wiesenfeld had every right to make his remarks and said his own views about Israel might, in fact, be close to Wiesenfeld’s. But his statement added that “it’s not right for the Board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases.” The honorary degree recommended for Kushner wouldn’t reflect approval or disapproval of his politics, Schmidt said, but a recognition of “his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater.”
The board’s executive committee, consisting of seven members, is expected to approve the degree for Kushner, a source close to CUNY told The Jewish Week. The source also said that CUNY officials had been in touch with Kushner, who, in a letter of protest to the board earlier this week, said he wouldn’t accept an honorary degree even if the board reversed its decision. Kushner couldn’t be reached Friday afternoon by The Jewish Week for comment Friday.
John Jay College’s commencement ceremonies are scheduled for June 3, where Kushner would speak if the executive committee approves the honor and the playwright decides to accept it.
In response to Wiesenfeld’s actions, former Mayor Edward Koch called for his“resignation or removal” from the board of trustees. Wiesenfeld is a former official in Koch’s administration.
Wiesenfeld’s attack focused on Kushner’s views on Israel, which Wiesenfeld has called “extreme” and “anti-Semitic.” But the playwright defended himself in a letter to the CUNY board, branding the trustee’s comments “a grotesque caricature” of his views, taken, in part, from quotes he said were selective and distorted. Meanwhile, other critics of the board’s action, including many who disagree with Kushner’s politics, said his views on Israel should have nothing to do with the awarding of an honorary degree.
Koch joined those critics Thursday, speaking of his “considerable distress” as he read the news. In a letter to CUNY board chairman Benno Schmidt, Koch wrote that he couldn’t think of a “dumber academic action” and urged the board to reverse it.
On Friday, four liberal groups — Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, Jews Say No!, and Jews Against Islamophobia — announced the launching of a petition drive designed to overturn the trustees’ decision and to open debate on American campuses regarding Israel’s policies. They promised to present the petition to the trustees early next week.
"In this case, luckily, many people are coming to the defense of Tony Kushner and raising their concerns about blacklisting at CUNY," Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said in a statement. "But what about the incidents of silencing, censorship and punishment of less well-known figures who are brave enough to speak out about Israeli violations of human rights? Self-appointed guardians of Israel like Jeffrey Wiesenfeld should no longer be allowed to bully and intimidate us from having free and open discussions about Israel’s policies and expressing our opinions."
The statement also quoted Naomi Klein, the Canadian author and social activist, as saying that at "far too many academic and cultural institutions, critics of Israel find themselves on an invisible blacklist. With this shameful incident, the blacklist has been made momentarily visible. But it is not enough to simply give Tony Kushner the honor he so richly deserves. All the quiet and invisible blacklisting has to stop, replaced with a free and open debate about Israeli policies."
And Eve Ensler, the American playwright and activist, was quoted as expressing the wish that "this attempted censoring and dishonoring of one of our great playwrights may be a call for the end of blacklisting and muting of voices who have differing views on the policies of Israel." She added that she hoped also that this incident "opens dialogue and discourse without shaming, bullying or anti-Semitic accusations."
But what stands out in Koch’s letter is his description of the role played by Wiesenfeld, who spent four years in the Koch administration as chief of staff to the mayor’s traffic commissioner.
“I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld’s action so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees,” the mayor wrote at the end of his letter.
Reached at his office at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Global Wealth Management Thursday, where he is an asset manager, Wiesenfeld said he continued to “love Ed Koch,” despite the letter, and that he’s “not going anywhere. You can only be removed for misconduct or malfeasance.” He added that the letter would have “no bearing” on his situation.
Discussing his role at Monday’s board meeting, Wiesenfeld said he had no idea his comments on Kushner would lead to this outcome.
"I thought I’d be making a lone dissent," he said, and he had no expectation that other board members — "righteous gentiles," he called them — would join him and block Kushner’s degree.
Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor and secretary to the board, noted that Koch’s letter was addressed to Schmidt, not the board as a whole, implying that the response would be in Schmidt’s hands. He said he would reserve any comment “on matters that are left to the appointing authorities” — namely, the mayor and governor, who name CUNY trustees.
Meanwhile, CUNY issued a statement saying the board of trustees "is an independent board, and acted independently in exercising its judgment and authority. Mr. Kushner has indicated in published reports that even if the Board were to reconsider and approve the honorary degree, he would not accept it. The board’s actions, however, should not be interpreted as reflecting on Mr. Kushner’s accomplishments and we regret any such misunderstanding."
Wiesenfeld, a board member of several Jewish organizations and an activist in right-wing circles, worked as an aide to New York Republian Sen. Alfonse D’Amato and, later, Gov. George Pataki after his years with the Koch administration.
It was Pataki who appointed Wiesenfeld to the CUNY board in 1999 and, at the end of his first seven-year term, reappointed him in 2006. His current term ends in June 2013, Hershenson said.