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The decision to table the bestowing of  an honorary degree to Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner by the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice has erupted into a firestorm of polemics.

Originally nominated by Karen Kaplowitz, the head of the faculty committee at John Jay, Kushner was to receive the honorary degree for "his extraordinary talent and contributions to the American theater."
 
Kushner is best known for his two-part play cycle "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," for which he won a host of major awards and international recognition.
 
His screenplay for the 2005 film "Munich," which earned him several Academy Award nominations, was widely condemned by numerous critics as being grossly inaccurate in ways that were hostile to Israel and sympathetic to Palestinian terrorists.
 
Kushner's latest play, "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures," opened Thursday at the Public Theater in New York City.
 
The CUNY Board of Trustees decision to award the proposed degree was vehemently opposed by a lone dissenting voice at a board meeting on May 2nd., that of Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld,  investment adviser and one-time aide to former New York State Governor George E. Pataki, who appointed him as a CUNY trustee in 1999. 
 
Mr. Wiesenfeld cited a litany of anti-Israel statements made by Mr. Kushner  and the "disingenuous and non-intellectual activity directed against the State of Israel on campuses throughout the country, the West generally and oftentimes the United States as well."  Mr. Wiesenfeld pointed to direct quotes of Kushner's words to the media, among them:
 
“[Israel was] founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing, and that today is behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people.”
— Yale Israel Review (winter 2005)

“I’ve never been a Zionist. I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would have been better if it never happened.”
— The New York Sun reporting Kushner comments made at a conference in NY (10/14/02)

Ha’aretz reporter: But you are saying that the very creation of Israel as a Jewish state was not a good idea.
Kushner: I think it was a mistake.
— Ha’aretz (4/7/04)

“Zionism aimed as the establishment of a national identity is predicated on a reading of Jewish history and an interpretation of the meaning of Jewish history I don’t share. Insofar as Zionism is an idea that the solution to the suffering of the Jewish people was the establishment of a Jewish nation, I think it is not the right answer.
— Ha’aretz (4/7/04)

“I am not a Zionist in case you haven’t noticed.” Kushner cited “the shame of American Jews for failing to denounce Israel.”
– Chicago Tribune (4/10/02)

"The Israeli-built security wall should come down, the homeland for the Palestinians should be built up, with a strictly enforced peace, not enforced by the Israel Defense Forces, but by the United Nations.”
– Baltimore Jewish Times (6/4/04)

“I deplore the brutal and illegal tactics of the Israeli Defence Forces in the occupied territories. I deplore the occupation, the forced evacuations, the settlements, the refugee camps, the whole shameful history of the dreadful suffering of the Palestinian people; Jews, of all people, with our history of suffering, should refuse to treat our fellow human beings like that.”
– London Times (5/7/02)

“[Israel is involved in] a deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people.”
– New York Sun (10/4/02)

“To avoid facing up to such atrocity, to sustain the refusal of any Israeli share in culpability, Zionism has produced a long, shameful, and debilitating history of denial…”
– Wrestling with Zion – Introduction p.5

Mr. Wiesenfeld told the CUNY trustees, "I think it is up to all of us to look at fairness and to consider these things, especially when the State of Israel, which is our sole democratic ally in the area, sits in the neighborhood which is almost universally dominated by administrations which are misogynist, anti-gay, and anti-Christian. Societies that are doing today to the Christians what they did to the 500,000 Jews who lived in the Arab world in 1948 at the time of the creation of the State of Israel, dispossessing them, murdering them, deporting them."
 
In 2006, pro-Israel organizations led a campaign to stop Brandeis University from bestowing an honorary degree upon Kushner, but the university decided to go ahead with the honor. At that time the Zionist Organization of America protested, issuing a press release stating, "Kushner has also made numerous egregious statements viciously condemning Israel and decrying its very existence."
 
Kushner sits on the Board of Advisors of the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which advocates divestment and boycott campaigns against Israel. His name appears on JVP letterhead and news stories referring to JVP's involvement in anti-Israel activity make special mention of Tony Kushner role in the organization.
 
Mr. Wiesenfeld was not the sole opposition vote to the Kushner nomination; 4 out of the 11 other voting members cast similar votes, including Judah Gribetz, Peter S. Pantaleo, Deputy Mayor Carol A. Robles-Roman and Charles A. Shorter. Support from 9 out of the 12 trustees was required to push the nomination forward, but since only seven had voted for it, the move marked the the first time in 40 years that a nomination was tabled by an 11-1 vote by the board.
 
According to a report in The New York Times, Philip Alfonso Berry, who was among the trustees who voted to shelve Mr. Kushner’s nomination, said he believed that the board needed more information after hearing from Mr. Wiesenfeld. “I would have welcomed some discussion on it,” Mr. Berry said. “This is one of those things that people are going to be upset about on both sides, no matter which way we vote.”  Wellington Z. Chen, another board member who voted to table the motion, said: “It was like when a car comes at you at 100 miles an hour. The right thing to do is to say we don’t have all the correct information yet and let’s take a look at it.”
 
In a three-page letter dated May 4th to the CUNY Board of Trustees, Kushner said, "Trustee Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld delivered a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the State of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, context-less quotes taken from interviews I’ve given, the mention of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever, and the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr.Weisenfeld strongly disagrees."
 
Regarding his views on Israel, Kushner wrote in the same letter, "I believe that the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the State of Israel was ethnic cleansing, a conclusion I reached mainly by reading the work of Benny Morris, an acclaimed and conservative Israeli historian whose political opinions are much more in accord with Mr. Weisenfeld’s than with mine." 
 
He added, " I won’t enter into arguments about Israeli policy towards the Palestinian people since 1948, about the security fence or the conduct of the IDF, except to say that my feelings and opinions – my outrage, my grief, my terror, my moments of despair - regarding the ongoing horror in the Middle East, the brunt of which has been born by the Palestinian people, but which has also cost Israelis dearly and which endangers their existence, are shared by many Jews, in Israel, in the US and around the world. My despair is kept in check by my ongoing belief in and commitment to a negotiated conclusion to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis."
 
Following the receipt of Kushner's letter, the Board of Trustees of CUNY, in an attempt to quell the burgeoning controversy, issued a statement on May 5th saying its decision to deny an honorary degree for the playwright Tony Kushner “should not be interpreted as reflecting on Mr. Kushner’s accomplishments.” 

"I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken," said CUNY Trustee Chairman Benno Schmidt adding that "when the board has made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy, review is appropriate and, indeed, mandatory." Michael Arena, Director of Communications at CUNY, said that the tabled motion will be reviewed at another meeting with the board set for next Monday. "The award was basically placed in a hold position," he said.

Ellen Schrecker, a history professor at Yeshiva University who received an honorary degree from John Jay College in 2008, said that she is planning to return it because of the board's decision. So did American feminist and author Barbara Ehrenreich and former Brooklyn College faculty member Michael Cunningham. Kushner told The New York Observer on Wednesday that he has "no intention of ever accepting an award from CUNY."
 
In an op-ed article that appeared on May 5th in The Alegemeiner newspaper, Mr. Wiesenfeld wrote of Mr. Kushner, "If his libelous statements against Israel were made by anyone outside the Jewish community, that person would be correctly labeled an anti-Semite. When you spew libel against our sole regional democratic ally for “crimes” concocted by delegitimizers, you are an anti-Semite."
He continued, "Every nominee that has been brought before the board, during my 12 years at least, has been approved by the full board. Mr. Kushner, however, was opposed because he is an extremist. No extremist from any quarter is a good face for any University – from far left or far right."
 
Former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch asked the board to grant Kushner the degree and, according to The New York Times, requested that Wiesenfeld resign from his position on the board on the grounds of abuse of power. Said Koch, "Mr. Kushner’s personal views should have nothing to do with his academic honor. “What does Kushner receiving an award have to do with criticism of the State of Israel? What if I were denied an honorary degree because of my strong support for that state?”
 
Supporting Mr. Wiesenfeld's opposition to the Kushner nomination is Israel National News op-ed contributor Dr. Phyllis Chesler, who is an emerita professor of psychology and women's studies in the CUNY system.
 
Commenting in an article entitled, "Communist University of NY (CUNY) Denies Honor to Israel-Bashing Playwright Tony Kushner," she writes, "I once labored at the City University of New York (CUNY). I am amazed but thrilled that enough (five) members on their twelve member Board of Trustees actually viewed Kushner’s views on Israel as “racist.” ...Once, I was friendly with some of the professorial union thugs who literally occupy positions to the left of Stalin. G-d bless CUNY Trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, who was the first to speak against Kushner."