There has probably been no artist in the last generation that has been has feted, praised, and petted as the playwright Tony Kushner. Over the course of the last two decades, Kushner has been honored in every possible venue. His Angels in America may not be the most overrated play in the history of the modern American theater. But replete with visions of Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg, whose innocence is falsely proclaimed in the piece, Angels was the perfect play for the liberal chattering classes of the 1980s and 1990s. Ever since then Kushner has assumed the role of a latter-day Eugene O’Neill.
Yesterday, however, Kushner found out that there is at least one group in New York impervious to his dubious charms: the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York. CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Law was set to hand over to Kushner another honorary degree to add to his impressive collection of such honors. But after an impassioned presentation by trustee Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld at a public meeting on May 2, the board voted to rescind the honor and a shocked Kushner is crying foul.
Why did CUNY choose to back away from Kushner? To anyone who had followed his career of anti-Israel activism the answer was easy. The university of the largest Jewish city in the world rightly considered it inappropriate to honor a man who was a declared enemy of Zionism and the State of Israel.
The curious thing about this controversy is that rather than merely answer his CUNY critics with the contempt he generally uses to address pro-Israel and Zionist foes, Kushner is pretending that he has been wrongly accused. In a three-page letter to the CUNY board, he complained that he had been slandered and viciously attacked. He was not a “marginal extremist,” he protested. Why, he has enjoyed a “long and happy affiliation with such organizations as the 92nd Street Y, The Jewish Museum and the Upper West Side JCC.” And he has been honored with fifteen honorary degrees, including one from Brandeis University!
The facts here are fairly straightforward. Kushner is a supporter and board member of Jewish Voices for Peace, a far left anti-Zionist organization that actively supports the effort to boycott, divest from and isolate (BDS) Israel. He has written that Israel’s creation was a mistake and an example of “ethnic cleansing”—a charge that he repeated in his letter to the CUNY board. Kushner bitterly criticized those Jews who stood up for Israel’s right to defend itself at the height of the second intifada when hundreds of Jews were slaughtered in Palestinian suicide bombings. He even devoted his literary talents to editing a book of essays, the 2003 Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which criticized every aspect of Israel life including the Law of Return and treated the Jewish state as the moral equivalent of Palestinian terrorists. (For Kushner, the anti-Zionist tenor of the volume is equalized by the inclusion of “many rabbis, two US Poet Laureates and two recipients of the Jerusalem Prize.”)
In short, Kushner is no “liberal Zionist.” He makes even a loathsome Israel-basher like Peter Beinart look like a stalwart supporter of Zion.
Kushner has every right to parade his hostility to Israel every chance he gets and to assist those who propagandize against the Jewish State if that is how he wishes to demonstrate (in his phrase) that he is “very proud of being Jewish.” But no one else is obligated to treat his perfidious behavior as praiseworthy. It is particularly courageous on the part of the CUNY board to treat this pampered scribbler with the contempt he deserves rather than to join the chorus of his acolytes.
We should expect that Kushner and other leftist Israel-bashers to react as if the writer has been lynched. He will play the victim for all it is worth, as if being deprived of an honor from a public-funded university is a violation of his civil rights. It is not. All that has happened here is that Kushner has been reminded that there are still some Jews in Gotham who are prepared to stand up for Israel against one of the intellectual bullies who have unfairly abused it. Seen in that light, Jeffrey Weisenfeld may have proven Kushner right in one respect: there really are a few angels running around loose in America these days.