CUNY Blocks Honor for Tony Kushner

New York Times: May 4, 2011

In a rare move, the trustees of the City University of New York have voted to shelve an honorary degree that one of its campuses, John Jay College, planned to award to Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Angels in America.” The vote on Monday evening came after a CUNY trustee said that Mr. Kushner had disparaged the State of Israel in past comments, a characterization that the writer attacked on Wednesday.

Amid calls from CUNY faculty and staff members for the board to reverse its decision, Mr. Kushner said in an interview that he believed the trustees had slandered him and owed him an apology. Even if the board was to reconsider and approve the degree, Mr. Kushner said, he would not accept it.

According to a podcast of the Monday meeting and accounts from two CUNY officials who attended it, one of the 12 trustees present, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, objected to John Jay College’s submission of Mr. Kushner for an honorary degree. Mr. Wiesenfeld described viewpoints and comments, which he ascribed to Mr. Kushner, that he had found on the Web site of Norman Finkelstein, a political scientist and critic of Israel.

Mr. Wiesenfeld, an investment adviser and onetime aide to former Gov. George E. Pataki and former Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, said that Mr. Kushner had tied the founding of Israel to a policy of ethnic cleansing, criticized the Israel Defense Forces and supported a boycott of Israel.

“I think it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things,” Mr. Wiesenfeld said. “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 almost universally misogynist, antigay, anti-Christian.”

Mr. Kushner, who had not been alerted that Mr. Wiesenfeld would speak against him, said that he was “dismayed by the vicious attack and wholesale distortion of my beliefs.” He has criticized policies and actions by Israel in the past, and said that he believed — based on research by Israeli historians — that the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of Israel was ethnic cleansing. But he added that he was a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist, that he had never supported a boycott of the country, and that his views were shared by many Jews and supporters of Israel.

“This has been an incredibly ugly experience,” Mr. Kushner said, “that a great public university would make a decision based on slanderous mischaracterizations without giving the person in question a chance to be heard.”

“I’m sickened,” he added, “that this is happening in New York City. Shocked, really.”

CUNY officials were not aware in advance that Mr. Wiesenfeld had planned to speak against Mr. Kushner, according to the two university officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss board business. The board’s decision not to award Mr. Kushner a degree was reported on Tuesday by The Jewish Week.

Support from 9 of the 12 trustees was needed to move forward a full slate of honorary degrees, including Mr. Kushner’s, according to state law. Seven trustees indicated support for the full slate, and five opposed. After that, Mr. Kushner’s name was removed from the slate of degrees, and it passed overwhelmingly. The trustees then voted, 11 to 1, to table the Kushner degree. The board chairman is Benno C. Schmidt Jr., a former president of Yale.

Jay Hershenson, CUNY’s senior vice chancellor for university relations and secretary of the trustees, said that since 1961, no other honorary degree nomination had been tabled after reaching the board.

Regarding the Kushner degree, Mr. Hershenson said, “The CUNY board of trustees acted independently and exercised its authority.” Responding to Mr. Kushner’s charge of slander, Mr. Hershenson repeated his comment.


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