New York – Amid a number of calls for Jeffrey Weisenfeld to step down as trustee of the City University of New York after opposing an honorary degree for Tony Kushner, a grass-roots group of academics has come to his defense and criticized the CUNY executive board for choosing, in the end, to honor the playwright.
The board of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, which claims to represent 55,000 professors, researchers and students around the world, expressed concern that the CUNY board “collectively refused to come to the defense” of Wiesenfeld, who cited Kushner’s harsh criticism of Israel as reason not to honor him at graduation next month.
In a letter to the CUNY board, the scholars said Wiesenfeld has been “vociferously insulted in public…for no other reason than his judgment that a university should not honor those who espouse extremist views and advocate boycotts of democratic countries or their institutions.”
It said the board’s “silence in the face of these extremist attacks…gives evidence that you…are now susceptible to public intimidation.
“To receive an honorary degree is a rare privilege,” the letter stated, “not a right.”
The scholars said honoring Kushner “feeds the fires of anti-Semitism, hatred and genocide incitement now prevalent in the Middle East.”
In another development, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York wrote to the CUNY board to defend Wiesenfeld’s right to express his views.
Noting that it has “never taken a position regarding the worthiness of any particular honorary degree recipient,” the JCRC said it was not taking sides on whether Wiesenfeld was right or wrong in seeking to block the honor for Kushner. But it wanted to point out that academic freedom applies to trustees as well as faculty and students.
The letter expressed “shock” that people have called for Wiesenfeld’s removal on the basis of his expressing his views.