is back in the news! The furor over the CUNY Board of Trustees decision to table an honorary degree for the playwright Tony Kushner shows no sign of abating. Since trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld persuaded his peers to side against Kushner earlier this week CUNY has sort-of apologized but Weisenfeld has not backed down. Instead he has gone on a media phone tour in which he has decried Kushner's perceived "blood-libel charge" that Israel has engaged in ethnic-cleansing and told a Times reporter that he didn't know what he was talking about. And now CUNY is considering changing its mind again and giving the degree to Kushner after all!
CUNY sent out a release from its chairman Benno C. Schmidt Jr. this afternoon saying that the trustees had “made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy” and that he was calling an executive committee session for Monday to reconsider giving Kushner the degree. The executive committee is made up of 7 of the board's 17 members and is expected to approve Kushner's degree. Schmidt elaborated his opinion in the statement, saying:
"it is not right for the board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here. The proposed honorary degree for Mr. Kushner would recognize him for his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater. Like other honorary degrees, it is not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored.”
The news comes as folks on both side of the issue have made their cases to the press. After word leaked about the board's decision Kushner wrote an unsurprisingly eloquent letter decrying the move, a number of politicians including Ed Koch have come out calling for Weisnefeld's resignation and pro-Kushner protesters even showed up at last night's premiere of the author's new play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.
In the face of such a backlash one might have expected Weisenfeld to take down his rhetoric a touch, but instead he has just turned it up. His major issue with Kushner isn't that he thinks the man is anti-Israel (though that does bother him), it is that he thinks Kushner has said that Israel has participated in ethnic-cleansing. He explained to the Atlantic:
"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. ... 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?"
OK. But even if Kushner does believe that Israel has participated in ethnic-cleansing, we still don't really understand what that would have to do with John Jay College of Criminal Justice giving him an honorary degree for his work as a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright? In an opinion piece defending himself Weisenfeld seems to argue that Kushner didn't deserve an honorary degree because he is "an extremist" but we also still aren't clear on where he is getting that. Anyway, Kushner's views certainly don't seem to bother the New School—it will now be giving an honorary degree to Kushner—along with the New York Post's favorite DOT commissioner, Janette Sadik-Kahn!
Finally, are we the only ones disturbed that not everyone on the CUNY Board of Trustees even knew who Tony Kushner was? Because that appears to be the case: “I have no idea who Mr. Kushner is; I don’t know his issues,” trustee Valerie Lancaster Beal told the Times. Not knowing a playwright like Tracy Letts or an experimental Off-Broadway writer like Young Jean Lee we can understand, but Kushner is a major figure in mainstream American theater and has been for decades. It's almost as if any hayseed can be a trustee as long as they've got money! We feel so disillusioned.