Behind the Tony Kushner Story

Last night (Monday night, May 9, 2011), the executive committee of the CUNY Board of Trustees reversed the Board’s refusal of an honorary degree to Tony Kushner.

Behind the Board’s original decision and its reversal are three stories.

The first: There has been a concerted attack against the best traditions of open debate and exploration of opinion in academia and in Jewish life, when it comes to criticism of the Israeli government.  The second story: There is a new wave of bold resistance to such arrogance, in the world and in the Jewish community. The third: The Middle East is on the dizzying verge of an opening toward peace -- and that infuriates some hawks on both sides of the barricades.

1. Mr. Trustee Wiesenfeld, who swept the CUNY Board into its unprecedented refusal to honor someone nominated by the faculty of one of its constituent campuses, was not just attacking Tony Kushner in some momentary outburst.

He had earlier temporarily won the dismissal of a Brooklyn College professor (later reversed by the college) for the same reasons; he had led the fight to squash the first Arabic-language charter school in New York, reviling its professional educator Debby Almontaser; he  opposed the right of Muslims to create a community center/ mosque in Lower Manhattan.  And a network of such bigots has been haunting academia for several years.

2. The new story is that this time, a wave of outrage stopped this bigotry in its tracks.  Jews committed to Jewish values, intellectuals, artists, academics, joined in condemning the Board’s action. (We at The Shalom Center were among the earliest to respond. And we admire the swift and vigorous response of Jewish Voice for Peace.)

This uprising -- which we should take honorable joy in --  is why Benno C. Schmidt Jr., chairman of the CUNY board since 2003 and a former president of Yale University,  told the NY Times that  the board had “made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy,” in failing to approve Tony Kushner’s degree, at its meeting last Monday.  “Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name,” said Mr. Schmidt.

Duhhh! – It’s not likely that Mr. Schmidt was fast asleep and snoring so loud he couldn't hear Mr. Trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld's  "impassioned speech" against a made-up caricature of the real Tony Kushner, when the issue came before the Board last week. 

It’s more likely Chairman Schmidt was thinking that bigots like Wiesenfeld have more money, more glower, and more power, than gay playwrights, wimpy professors,  and soft-hearted peaceniks.   If so, he was awakened by the wave of outrage that swept over the CUNY Board.

Five years ago, or even five weeks ago, many of those who rose up might well have rolled their eyes but kept their mouths shut.

Why now? For one thing, a new sense of ferment is bubbling, from Tahrir Square to Madison, Wisconsin. God is troubling the Waters.

3. And the third story: The REALLY New Middle East is challenging Israel to think anew. Its government might respond by making new wars, or seeking a newer, broader peace.

 Whichever direction it now takes, those Jews who disagree will be tenser than ever, more fearful that the old path or any new one spells disaster. Expect bitter fights, expect less room for shrugging off the struggle, expect more efforts to “excommunicate” the critics. 

In the last two weeks, we have seen the tiny openings for a possible though perilous passage toward peace between Israel and Palestine.

In Israel, for the first time in years those committed to peace have raised their voices with serious proposals for a two-state solution. Thirty crucial veteran leaders of the military / security establishment (not the usual peacenik suspects) have put forward a detailed plan. Hundreds of writers, artists, scholars who are the usual suspects but have for years now kept their mouth shut --  the intellectual flower of Israel – have also called for action to that end.

Among the Palestinians, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah have all agreed to halt attacks on Israel and create a caretaker government of national unity, led by technocrats rather than political figures. Some leaders of Hamas have said that if a majority of the Palestinian people votes for peace with Israel, Hamas will set aside its original framework calling for the abolition of the state of Israel.

The new government of Egypt has announced that its border with Gaza will be opened for trade – import and export.

Plans are moving ahead for the UN General Assembly to admit a new Palestine, within approximately the 1967 Green Line boundaries, as a UN member.

All this could lead in the direction of a true peace settlement, supported by peace treaties between all Arab governments, the new state of Palestine, and the state of Israel – as the Arab League has several times proposed during the last decade.  (Till now, these proposals have been ignored by the government of Israel and the Hamas government of Gaza.)

Or the very possibility of a breakthrough for peace might drive hawks on either or both sides, in or out of their governments,  to sabotage these openings. If that happens, there could be another wave of violence as both the Israeli government and some parts of the Palestinian leadership react with fear and rage to yet another collapse of hope for peace.

So far, the Netanyahu government and the Obama government have rejected the notion of a Palestinian government of national unity that includes Hamas; have rejected the notion of a UN role in establishing Palestinian independence; and have failed to end the blockade of civilian goods from entering or leaving Gaza, to end the demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and to stop the settlement of Israelis in the West Bank.  This triple rejection makes peace impossible.

 A great deal depends on what American Jews, speaking both to their own government and to the government and people of Israel, say and do at this moment.

The ever-quivering Jewish nerve of fear, honed by many many generations  of oppression, has been sharpened in our own day by moments of murderous attacks  upon Israeli civilians. But as Prime Minister Rabin argued in every Israeli town and village before he was murdered,  Jews are no longer victims but possess great power.  Ignoring that truth, and strumming only on the nerve of fear, would bring again the screeching music of Forever War.

But if American as well as Israeli Jews could see how strong the worldwide Jewish people is today, no longer pariahs, no longer victims, possessed of powerful weapons and a strong economy, it might be possible for them to choose the risks of peace –- far less dangerous in the long run than choosing the short-run habit of Forever War.

On the Palestinian side, giving up the wistful hope that not only actual refugees of 1949 and 1967 might return to their old homes inside what is now Israel,  but also their children and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren in millions –-  would mean leaving behind a fantasy in favor of a liberated reality -- a state with its capital in East Jerusalem, ports and airports in Gaza, a thriving culture and economy and politics throughout.

There is no hope of peace without Hamas. There is no hope of peace without the Israeli center-right.  Those who say they want peace but only without Hamas, do not in fact want peace. Those who say they want peace but only on condition that millions of Palestinian refugee families can return within the borders of the State of Israel do not in fact want peace.

Those who claim to be for peace but refuse to take the only risks that can make peace possible, should recognize the truth: In actual practice, in reality, in truth, they are unwilling to make peace.

Martin Buber once said, “The real barricades are not between nations; the real barriers are not between political parties; the real barricades are within each human being.”

Within each of us  -- each Israeli, each Palestinian, each Jew, each Arab, each Muslim, of whatever nation and whatever political party --  is the barricade between fear and rage on the one side, desire and hope and even love on the other.  On which side of our internal barricade do we choose to live, to act?

 In the four decades and more since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem began, there have been many moments when those who really did want peace have warned that a failure to move forward would bring not merely a longer uneasy stalemate, but war.

They (we) were right: the first Lebanon War,  the Second Intifada, the Second Lebanon War, the Gaza War all poured new blood upon the sand. The blood of Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Europeans, Americans, has indeed been drawn inexorably into the bloody sandstorm of war after war, terror after terror, torture after torture, fear after fear, rage after rage, hatred after hatred.

Now we are again at such a moment.

The United States government can make a difference, but so far it has refused to. American Jews, Christians, Muslims, and those of other religious and ethical communities could insist that our government use its influence and power on behalf of the flowering of peace, instead of undergirding violence and war.

Could we work out an approach that strong majorities of our communities can embrace?

Or would we rather pour more blood into the sand?

This "Could we?" is no mere rhetorical question. I welcome your ideas-- write back!

With blessings toward shalom, salaam, peace –- Arthur