Tony Kushner was snubbed by the City University of New York earlier this week when his planned honorary degree was canceled after trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld questioned his support of Israel. Now CUNY is coming under protests by supporters of the Angels in America playwright.
Kushner's latest play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism with a Key to the Scriptures, premiered in New York last night. The Village Voice reports that Kushner arrived at the premiere "to find a small group of demonstrators (made up of CUNY faculty), holding signs defending him to CUNY." One protesting teacher, the Voice reported, "was incensed not just over the Middle East aspect of the controversy, but because he saw the CUNY board overruling John Jay as 'a scandalous intrusion on the rights of the faculty, the rights of the students, and a attack on academic freedom and artistic freedom.'"
The CUNY Graduate Center Advocate started a blog following the start of this fight, posting letters from prominent members of the academic and literary communities to CUNY's board. Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, told trustee Benno Schmidt, in a letter published on the blog, "I was on the faculty at Brooklyn College for six years, and have always felt honored to be a member of a great institution. I received an honorary doctorate in 2009, of which I have been enormously proud. I feel, however, that in the light of the incident on May 2, I have no choice but to return it. I do so with real regrets."
Nickeled and Dimed writer Barbara Ehrenreich echoed Cunningham's sentiment with her own letter, noting that she, too, had received an honorary degree from John Jay College but did not consider the school's requirements for such an honor. In light of the Kushner debacle, "as well as Jeffrey Wiesenfeld's comment in the The New York Times suggesting Palestinians 'are not human'--I do have to question both your qualifications and the legitimacy of the honorary degree I was given," she writes. "Hence my decision to renounce my own honorary degree, which I will return to you if I can find it. Please expunge me from your record of past honorees."
Cunningham and Ehrenreich are just two of at least 10 writers and professors who have reached out CUNY today alone on behalf of Kushner. The blog also notes tweets, like this one from New York Times Columnist Nicholas Kristof: "The Tony Kushner episode leaves me thinking that CUNY needs new trustees, yesterday. Blocking his degree was a disgrace."
The Atlantic's own Jeffrey Goldberg has weighed in on the issue a few times this week. Goldberg declared on Wednesday that the school's decision was "just inconscionably stupid," and that it should "give Tony Kushner his award, dammit." On Thursday he denounced Wiesenfeld's explanation for why he opposed awarding Kushner in The New York Times, writing:
If Wiesenfeld had said, "I have proof that Tony Kushner has spoken out in favor of Hamas and the al-Aksa Martyrs' Brigade, two organizations that have both developed a very unusual and repulsive culture of death, which has allowed them to use Palestinian suicide bombers, often very young Palestinian suicide bombers, to murder Israeli children; therefore, I don't believe Tony Kushner is deserving of this honor," well, that would have been one thing. But he didn't say that. He broad-stroked the Palestinians -- some of whom I know, and some of whom, from what I have observed, love their children -- in the manner many Palestinians, particularly those in the Hamas camp, broad-stroke Jews.
Goldberg's own subsequent interview with Wiesenfeld failed to change his opinion. Goldberg writes that Wiesenfeld told him " 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" and "anyone who accuses the Jews of ethnic-cleansing is participating in blood libel, so yes, he's a Jewish anti-Semite." Goldberg links to his original post on the matter to explain why he disagrees with this.
The Guardian's Theater Critic Michael Billington writes that he "find[s] the withdrawal of Kushner's proposed degree deeply depressing...It denies It denies the fact that a playwright is a citizen as well as an artist and has a perfect right to express an opinion on public issues," and, he argues, "Above all, it undermines the idea that, in a nation such as the USA, academia is the last bastion of intellectual freedom. In the end, it simply makes CUNY look puny. It makes you wonder whether any self-respecting intellectual will in future want to accept an honorary degree from a college that seems so ready to stifle open debate."
Peter Rothberg, at The Nation, where Kushner is an editorial board member, urged readers to "join the campaign to tell the CUNY board this sort of Israeli litmus test is simply unacceptable," linking to a Facebook page created for the cause entitled: "Good Enough for a Pulitzer, but Not for City University New York?" His colleague Katha Pollit wrote an open letter to the University deriding its decision.
Haaretz reports that J Street, the Israel advocacy group, issued a statement issued today, calling the move "a political witch-hunt" and argued that "university boards should not condition academic recognition on the approval of those with differing views on any issue, and certainly not without providing an opportunity for the person affected to respond. An individual [has the] right to hold non-traditional views about how best to achieve peace and security for Israelis, Palestinians, and the region as a whole."
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