On the surface, the incident that grew into a major story — first reported on our website, by the way — pitting Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner (“Angels In America”) vs. the trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) who first denied and later granted him an honorary doctorate was about freedom of speech.
According to that version, Kushner is a great talent, his views on Israel may be offensive to many supporters of the Jewish state but he is being honored for his body of artistic work, not his politics. End of story.
But the stubborn fact is that Kushner’s art and politics are deeply entwined and difficult to separate. One prime example is his script for the Steven Spielberg film, “Munich,” which was suffused with moral equivalence in portraying Arab terrorists being pursued by Israeli agents of the Mossad following the 1972 Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli team members.
In the mainstream media coverage of this past week’s controversy, Kushner was the innocent victim of narrow ideology. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the trustee who sought to deny Kushner the degree, was the single-minded bully, a role he seemed to relish, insulting a New York Times reporter interviewing him and the Palestinians as a whole in stating that “people who worship death for their children are not human.”
But evidence of Kushner’s harsh views of the Jewish state is as prevalent as it is damning. It includes calling Israel’s 1948 victory a case of “ethnic cleansing,” asserting that Israel was a mistake that should never have happened and insisting that the world is in peril because of Israel’s existence and its treatment of Palestinians, etc.
Though he denies favoring boycotts of Israel, Kushner is on the advisory board of the Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports targeted boycotts and divestment campaigns against Israel.
Perhaps it takes the verbal dexterity of such a talented wordsmith to still insist, as Kushner does, that he “maintains a passionate support for the continuous existence of the State of Israel.”
Whether or not Kushner deserves an honorary degree, despite his views on Israel, merits a full discussion. But the shamefully sloppy process of the CUNY board of directors in seeking to rush through 40 nominations for honorary degrees at the end of a long meeting did not allow for it.
In the future, the review process should be deliberate and thorough, allowing for internal debate. It should also explore the intersection of politics, art, political correctness and personality. (One wonders, for example, if Mel Gibson would be honored these days for his artistic talent.)
And beyond the Israel-Palestinian conflict, would there be second thoughts about Kushner if his comments nine months after 9/11 — suggesting that the U.S. brought the tragedy on itself — were taken into account?
What we do know is that, in the end, Jeff Wiesenfeld inadvertently helped make Tony Kushner into a liberal martyr and that Israel’s cause was not well served from this very public controversy.
Jerusalem’s case is best made from, and to, the center of our society, not from the extreme.
Let’s hope that next time, and there surely will be a next time in the battle over the acceptable limits of criticizing Israel, Zionism’s advocates will shed more light than heat in making their case.