Wiesenfeld: 'My Mother Would Call Tony Kushner a Kapo'

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the bomb-throwing CUNY trustee who has blocked John Jay College from awarding the playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree, told me a few minutes ago that, as the child of Holocaust survivors, he has no choice but to call out Kushner for making the "blood-libel charge" that Israel has engaged in ethnic-cleansing.

"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. "If I'm confronted by anti-Semitism in my face, I'm going to call it out." I asked him if he had any doubt Kushner was an anti-Semite. He said: "Anyone who accuses the Jews of ethnic-cleansing is participating in a blood libel, so yes, he's a Jewish anti-Semite." (I disagreed with Wiesenfeld's view here).

Wiesenfeld told me it is this specific charge -- that Israel was built on a campaign of ethnic cleansing -- that caused him to actively oppose the granting of an honorary degree to Kushner. "I've been on the CUNY board since 1999, and every year we have two or three honorary degrees on each of our 20 campuses. There have been people who have been critical of Israel in this group, but I never opposed them. Criticizing Israel is not a disqualifier. I wouldn't vote for such a person for public office, but this doesn't make them anti-Semitic."

He went on, "But ethnic-cleansing is a blood libel. You've crossed the line if you've said that. It's Darfur, Bosnia, Nazi Germany. If you say the Jewish people engaged in ethnic cleansing, then you put them in the class of the Nazis."(America was also built on ethnic-cleansing, as was Canada, Australia, Argentina, and so on, but that will be the subject of a different blog post).

Wiesenfeld argued that Israel never engaged in systematic ethnic-cleansing: "The Jews never did this on a systematic basis. The Jews don't plan genocide. If there was ethnic-cleansing, how come there are more than a million Arab citizens of Israel today?"

On this issue, both Kushner and Wiesenfeld have good, if partial, arguments. There were instances in which Arab villages in what is now Israel were forcibly cleared of their inhabitants by Israeli forces. On the other hand, these episodes occurred during a war initiated by Arabs, after they rejected the United Nations partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.

Wiesenfeld is on shakier ground when he asserts, as he did to The New York Times, that "people who worship death for their children are not human." He then said, in response to the question, Did he mean that the Palestinians weren't human?, "They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history." The reason he is on shaky ground here is because he is generalizing about Palestinians the way he believes Kushner generalizes about Israelis. I asked him about these quotes in The Times: "I told (the writer), people who worship the death of their children are not humans. Did I say all of them do? No. I would say that every Palestinian who supports the development of their child into a shahid (martyr) is not human."

I asked him if was going to keep up his opposition to Kushner. "If Tony Kushner wanted to come to the board and say, `You know, when I looked at all of this, I oppose Israeli policies, I think they're heading in the wrong direction, but I sincerely regret having said that the State of Israel should never have been created, and I shouldn't have said that the State of Israel had been involved in a national plan of ethnic cleansing, and that this accusation has consequences for the Jewish people,'  guess what, the shit I'm taking from the left I'll be taking from the right because I would support him."

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


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