CUNY chairman: Reconsider Kushner denial

(JTA) — The City University of New York’s board of trustees should reconsider its decision not to grant Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree over his views about Israel, its board chairman said.

"I would not ordinarily ask for reconsideration of a decision so recently taken," Benno Schmidt said in a statement posted Friday on the CUNY website. "But when the board has made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy, review is appropriate and, indeed, mandatory."

CUNY’s board on May 2 struck the playright’s name from a list of those scheduled to receive honorary degrees at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice after a university trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, attacked Kushner as anti-Israel. Wiesenfeld, a Republican appointee to the board, quoted from several Kushner statements in his appeal to the CUNY board to remove the playwright’s name.

The board’s decision to exclude Kushner has drawn an outpouring of public criticism.

Kushner later said the statements were taken out of context, wrongly casting him as opposing Israel’s existence and supporting boycotts, and he objected to not having been given the opportunity to defend himself before the decision was taken.

Schmidt said he would ask the board’s secretary to convene its smaller executive committee so it could reconsider the matter. The board otherwise would not have met until after the college’s June 3 graduation ceremonies.

"If it were appropriate for us to take politics into account in deciding whether to approve an honorary degree, I might agree with Trustee Wiesenfeld, whose political views on the matters in controversy are not far distant from my own," Schmidt said. "But it is not right for the Board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here. The proposed honorary degree for Mr. Kushner would recognize him for his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater.

"The objection arose at the eleventh hour without any opportunity for research and preparation necessary for the presentation of a full and balanced appraisal," he added.  "Accordingly, the Chancellor and I agree that reconsideration of the motion to table the honorary degree for Mr. Kushner is not only the right thing to do, but is our obligation."

Matthew Goldstein is CUNY’s chancellor.

Earlier, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch had called for CUNY to terminate its relationship with Wiesenfeld.

"I can’t think of a dumber academic action," Koch, one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, said in a letter May 5 to Schmidt. "What does Kushner receiving an award have to do with criticism of the State of Israel? I am a well-known supporter of that nation. What if I were denied an honorary degree because of my strong support for that state? That would make as much sense as denying Mr. Kushner a degree."

He concluded, "I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld’s action so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees."

The New York Times reported that Ellen Schrecker, a Yeshiva University history professor, planned to return her 2008 honorary degree in solidarity with Kushner.

Kushner has said that Israel was "founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing." Kushner also has said that "it would have been better" had the Jewish state never been created.

Wiesenfeld told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that he would be willing to vote for giving Kushner an honorary degree if he repudiates his past statements about Israel.

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