Today at 6:00 pm, the executive board of the City University of New York is set to meet and overturn the decision it made last week when a majority failed to approve the awarding of an honorary degree to playwright Tony Kushner. In the intervening days, as we have previously discussed, the liberal media and cultural establishment joined hands in an effect first to isolate and then to shout down Kushner’s main critic on the board, financier Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld. It is unlikely that any public institution in New York could resist this sort of pressure very long. So today CUNY will bow its collective knee at the altar of the prize-winning writer and perhaps even seek to remove Wiesenfeld from his position if that is possible.
There are those who have argued from the start of this controversy that it would have been better never for Wiesenfeld to start this fight. The backlash against the pro-Israel community and against the board member has been considerable. Kushner has successfully portrayed himself as a victim of persecution when, in fact, all that happened was that one man stood up in a meeting and spoke the truth about the playwright’s vicious politics and questionable anti-Israel associations.
As it happens, the New York Times, which did so much to gang tackle Wiesenfeld, finally published one opinion today, albeit only on its website and not in the print newspaper, that put this issue in something like the proper perspective. Online columnist Stanley Fish, an academic star who is a veteran of the culture wars, wrote today about his own experience serving on committees that award honorary degrees. What went on in the forum where Wiesenfeld spoke against Kushner, was, Fish reports, par for the course. In cases where there is debate about the political or cultural views of the potential honoree, universities usually table the discussion since such awards more or less have to be a matter of consensus. There was no such consensus about Kushner.
In particular, Fish shoots down the self-righteous statement of Yeshiva University historian Ellen Schrecker who sent back her previously awarded honorary degree from CUNY’s John Jay College because she considered the snub to Kushner a violation of academic freedom. As Fish points out, this is nonsense. Kushner isn’t being censored nor were his works banned from discussion at CUNY. He was simply denied an honor because some on the board don’t approve of him. Fish may think the decision not to give the honor was “dumb,” but as he also notes, giving him the degree, especially as part of an attempt to right the “wrong” done Kushner, is equally ludicrous.
But no matter the final outcome, it is not Wiesenfeld who is in the wrong here. He challenged the cardinal rule of New York cultural life that forbids lesser mortals—especially those who don’t subscribe to leftist positions on Israel like Wiesenfeld—from attempting to hold liberal icons like Kushner to account for their positions. That Wiesenfeld would be overwhelmed by the weight of establishment opinion in the end was probably inevitable. But Wiesenfeld still deserves credit for standing up and speaking out on behalf of Israel despite the abuse that has been hurled at him. Would that there were more American Jews willing to do the same.