Should loathsome or controversial public attitudes be taken into account when determining whether to honor a person for artistic, musical or literary contributions? This has now become a contentious issue in the American Jewish arena.
In New York – the city accommodating the largest Jewish community in the Diaspora – playwright and author Tony Kushner was initially denied an honorary doctorate by the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) because of his vitriolic attacks and campaigns against Israel and Zionism. That decision was adopted on May 2 by 11 of the 12 trustees participating in the meeting.
However, the vote triggered a fierce uproar from the CUNY faculty and the New York arts and media establishment. Liberals Jews like journalist Jeffrey Goldberg bitterly condemned Kushner’s principal critic on the board, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, and staunchly pro-Israel former mayor Ed Koch even demanded that he resign from the CUNY Board of Trustees.
In response, Wiesenfeld stated that if Kushner renounced his statements alleging that the Jewish state was born in sin and accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing, he would revoke his vote denying the playwright an honorary degree.
The Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Benno Schmidt, a former president of Yale, condemned the Kushner veto, alleging that it was based “on a vicious attack” and insisting that “freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name.”
He hastily summoned a special meeting of the Board’s executive committee, which is entitled to reverse any decision it considers detrimental to the university. This week, six of its seven members voted to reinstate Kushner’s honorary degree. This will also entitle him to address students at the commencement of the new term. Kushner triumphantly accepted the award, expressing the hope that this would spark a “vigorous debate.”
MOST OF us would agree in principle that a person’s beliefs should not represent a barrier to being honored for artistic or literary achievements.
On the surface, there was therefore a legitimate case for challenging the propriety of Wiesenfeld’s call to refuse to honor Kushner for his achievements merely on the grounds of his having expressed “critical” views about Israel. But the issue is far more complex.
Tony Kushner is a renowned playwright, famous for his Pulitzer Prize-winning production Angels in America, as well as other plays and films.
His supporters insist that he is merely a legitimate critic of Israeli policies. They allege that he was slandered, and is a victim of right-wing political Zionist McCarthyism.
Yet in reality, the assertion that Kushner is merely a “critic” of Israel is utter nonsense. He fervently demonizes the Jewish state, claiming it was born in sin. “Israel”, Kushner says, “was founded in a program that if you wish to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing.”
He even states: “I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would have been better if it had never happened… I think it was a mistake.”
On another occasion, he pontificated that “the existence of Israel, because of the terrible way that the Palestinian people have been treated, is now in great peril, and the world is in peril as a consequence of it.”
Kushner is also a member of the Board of Advisers of the viciously anti-Israel group “Jewish Voice for Peace” which actively promotes Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against the Jewish state. Not surprisingly, he figures prominently on the website of the rabidly anti- Israel publicist Norman Finkelstein.
So let’s be clear. It is more than an understatement to sanitize Kushner as a mere “critic” of Israel. He is indisputably an inveterate Israel basher, repeatedly making public statements designed to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.
Nor is the issue, as alleged by CUNY Board of Trustees chair Benno Schmidt, one of freedom of expression. Nobody can deny Kushner his right to continue defaming the Jewish state.
THE REAL Issue centers on whether publicly aired political attitudes should be considered when determining whether a person be honored for artistic talent.
Whereas most would adamantly disapprove, the question is: Should this be applied rigidly, without exception? Are there no red lines beyond which the bigotry of a candidate should be taken into account? For example, should a person who campaigns against the re-election of President Barack Obama exclusively on racial grounds be excluded? Or a confirmed Nazi who claims Hitler was right? Or a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan? Or an active homophobe? Or someone favoring the banning of the Koran and the deportation of Muslim Americans? Would it be conceivable for any self-respecting university to provide an honorary degree to a person promoting such views, thus enabling him to address its students from their official podium at commencement? Are there any red lines when a person demonizes and delegitimizes Israel – the only country in the world whose very existence is under challenge? Have American liberals, including some Jews, reached the deplorable conclusion that it is no longer politically correct to treat those libeling and promoting boycotts against the Jewish state as deviating from the realm of decency? Is it in order to accept the demonization and delegitimization of the Jewish state as valid mainstream political discourse? The American left-wing arts establishment, including its Jewish components, seemingly has no problem with this.
Otherwise, there would have been a more meaningful debate before the Executive Committee of CUNY acted to reverse the decision of their Board of Trustees.
Perhaps those who feel that the perfidious political views of a person like Kushner should not prevent his being honored by society will apply the same procedures to racists, homophobes, misogynists and all other bigots. Would CUNY now offer an honorary degree to a virulently anti-Semitic musician like Wagner, or a philosopher like the pro-Nazi Heidegger, and invite them to address their students? Such an approach, in my opinion, would be appallingly misguided. But at least it would be consistent.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post