It was inevitable that the City University of New York would reverse its decision not to grant an honorary degree to playwright and Israel foe Tony Kushner. No such institution could possibly withstand the fury of the left-wing cultural establishment in the city or the wrath of the New York Times which devoted several articles, columns and editorials to the cause of defending the writer and excoriating his critics. But it is now becoming equally clear that the forces that raged at the original decision will not be satisfied until the man who stood up against Kushner is hounded off the CUNY board.
Two days after the CUNY’s board reversed itself, a Times article has appeared to help orchestrate the protests aimed at pressuring the institution to drive financier Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld from his position at the university. Groups purporting to represent the faculty are claiming that Wiesenfeld is improperly interfering in the university. As proof they cite not only his position on Kushner but also his criticism of an October 2001 “teach-in” about 9/11 which centered on the supposed faults of the United States as well as his concerns about including what he considered anti-Semitic passages in required readings.
Wiesenfeld is rightly standing his ground but it is becoming apparent that despite the claims that refusing to support an honorary degree to Kushner was somehow a violation of academic freedom, what is really at stake in this controversy is an effort to silence anyone who dares to stand up against attacks on Israel. Though Kushner’s highly ideological plays and other writings are deemed so sacred that any opposition to honoring him is considered beyond the pale, Wiesenfeld’s passionate advocacy is considered so odious that he must be exiled from the university.
But though the leftist faculty may think it is in the catbird seat on this issue with the Times cheering on their effort to make Wiesenfeld a pariah, they need to be careful about getting what they asked for. If Wiesenfeld is somehow forced off the board, this may cost the university far more in potential donations from Jewish supporters than the snub to Kushner would have done.
And speaking of the faculty, Phyllis Chesler, an emerita professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at CUNY, writes on her blog to tell us that she has discovered who it was that started this mess. It turns out that it was none other than Michael Meeropol, a visiting professor of economics at John Jay College. Along with Amy Green, who also teaches at John Jay, Meeropol formally nominated Tony Kushner for an honorary degree. Meeropol is, of course, the son of Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who are depicted in Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America as innocent victims. For some New York cultural figures and intellectuals, Meeropol’s advocacy for Kushner may only confirm to them the importance of honoring the playwright. But for the rest of America, this ought to illustrate the absurdity of the attacks on Wiesenfeld.