Tony Kushner snub over ‘anti-Israel’ views reconsidered by university

City University of New York committee attempts to repair damage done by veto of playwright’s honorary degree

Ed Pilkington in New York |, Monday 9 May 2011 16.56 BST

Tony Kushner

The decision to withhold a City University of New York honorary degree from Tony Kushner was made by trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld who felt the playwright was too critical of Israel. Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP

The trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY) are meeting on Monday night to try to repair some of the damage done to its reputation after an honorary degree was withheld from the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner on the grounds that he was not sufficiently pro-Israel.

The seven-member executive committee of the university is expected to overturn last week’s decision to block the accolade for the gay, Jewish playwright. The trustees will be hoping to salvage some of the university’s credibility as a bastion of freedom of expression.

CUNY’s board of trustees ignited a firestorm of indignation last week by setting aside an honorary degree at John Jay College that would have routinely been approved under normal procedures. It was blocked when a single trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, launched an attack on the playwright over his views on Israel.

The move caused instant outrage among other faculty members and prompted a long letter from Kushner, saying that he had always supported the right of Israel to exist and protesting that he had been given no chance to defend himself. The New York Times said the university had shamed itself by shunning one of America’s most important playwrights and called for Wiesenfeld’s dismissal.

The board indicated that it would use the meeting of the smaller executive committee, to which Wiesenfeld does not belong, to try to make amends. Benno Schmidt, who chairs the committee, said the decision to set aside the award was “a mistake of principle”.

In a statement, he said: “Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name. 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.”

Kushner is an award-winning playwright who is considered one of the leading American voices of his generation. His play about the Aids crisis, Angels in America, won Pulitzer and Tony awards, and his latest work, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, has just opened on Broadway.

Wiesenfeld has a record of acting to forward what he considers the interests of the state of Israel. A former political fixer for the then governor of New York state, George Pataki, he was instrumental earlier this year in having a temporary CUNY lecturer fired because of his views on Israel. The teacher was later reinstated.

In the wake of his intervention against Kushner, he told the New York Times that he believed the Palestinians had “developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history”. He said: “People who worship death for their children are not human.”

In response to the news that the university was likely to grant Kushner an honorary degree after all, Wiesenfeld repeated his claim that the playwright had uttered a “blood libel against the Jewish people” by accusing Israel of having committed ethnic cleansing


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: