SPME Opposes Kushner CUNY Honor

Academic association challenges CUNY decision to honor anti-Israel playwright Tony Kushner, saying decision is "deeply uninformed."

Gabe Kahn. , | updated: 12:22

Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner
Wikimedia Commons

In light of the selection of playwright Tony Kushner for an honorary degree, the Board of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) has sent a letter to the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) expressing distress over the the politicization of the university.

The letter, signed by scholars from across America, calls for a reversal of the highly controversial decision to honor Kushner. It terms the decision "deeply uninformed" and says it gave celebrity status to a man with "extremist views."

Kushner has been involved with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and has made numerous statements opposing the existence of Israel. Kushner has also accused Israel of being founded on ethnic cleansing.

In the letter, SPME questioned the CUNY Board’s decision to bestow its highest honor on someone who "regularly makes incendiary and biased accusations against Israel," and thereby "fans the fires of anti-Semitism, hatred, and genocide incitement now prevalent in the Middle East."

Pointing out that the bestowal of an honorary degree is a privilege and not a right, SPME also challenged the Board of Trustees' reversal of a previous decision to delay Kushner's honorary degree until discussions could be held. The reversal was based on the grounds that the delay violated Kushner's "freedom of speech" or "academic freedom."

SPME is a grass-roots organization representing 55,000 professors, researchers and students on 3500 campuses worldwide.

For Prof. Phyllis Chesler's article on the letter, click here.

The full text of the letter reads:

May 15, 2011
Board of Trustees
City University of New York
New York, NY

Dear Trustees:

We members of the Board of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a grass-roots organization representing 55,000 professors, researchers and students on 3500 campuses worldwide, would like to express our distress at the politicization of the university revealed by your selection of Tony Kushner for an honorary degree

1. We are distressed that you have chosen to give your highest honor to someone who frequently makes incendiary and biased accusations against Israel, thereby feeding the fires of antisemitism, hatred, and genocide incitement now prevalent in the Middle East. By accepting this politicized nomination, you are also giving the CUNY stage to a celebrity advocate of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, through direct statements and through his role on the Board of "Jewish Voice for Peace." This is a position that all American universities have rejected.

2. We are further distressed that, based on political pressure from the press and a letter-writing campaign, your Executive Committee peremptorily overturned an earlier decision by your full Board to postpone Mr. Kushner's nomination for later discussion. Maintaining the board's initial decision would have demonstrated your dedication to inquiry into the many allegations and counter-allegations made about this matter. Sadly, your peremptory vote serves to suppress debate and symbolizes to students and the public that a distinguished university easily succumbs to political pressure.

3. We are concerned that you have collectively refused to come to the defense of your trustee, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, for exercising his fiduciary responsibility. Mr. Wiesenfeld has been vociferously insulted in public, with unsupported insinuations that he was involved in a political scandal and calls for his resignation -- 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. Your silence in the face of these extreme attacks on Mr. Wiesenfeld's character tragically gives evidence that you, representing a giant urban public university, are now susceptible to public intimidation.

4. We are further concerned at your acquiescence to accusations that a delay in approving Mr. Kushner's nomination represented an alleged violation of his freedom of speech or academic freedom. To receive an honorary degree is a rare privilege, not a right. To discuss it and consider implications for CUNY's role as an educational institution is your obligation. Some of your members' statements that Mr. Kushner has a right to get an award undermine your own role in making considered judgments about whom you wish to recognize as role models for students. By rejecting your earlier decision to table the nomination and put it up for discussion, you have, sadly, abrogated your responsibility.

Most of all, we are distressed that you have now given a celebrity the stage through which political advocacy and flag waving will triumph over the tradition of critical thinking that is the university's highest calling. Please act immediately to reverse this deeply uninformed decision. Your reversal would send a signal of firmness in upholding open inquiry into Middle East affairs over politicization and street pressure.

Sincerely yours,

The Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East