CUNY Board Nixes Honorary Degree For Playwright Tony Kushner


Updated Wednesday, May 4, 5 p.m.: Today playwright Tony Kushner responded to the CUNY board of trustees. Read his letter here.

In what is believed to be a rare move, the City University of New York has turned down a request by one of its colleges to honor Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner at its commencement ceremony this spring, The Jewish Week has learned.

The action was taken presumably because of the author’s critical comments concerning the State of Israel.

The move took place at a meeting of CUNY’s board of trustees Monday night after one of its members, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, raised objections to plans to honor Kushner by John Jay College, one of the system’s schools.

The outcome may have been the first time in CUNY’s history that its board of trustees vetoed an honorary-degree candidate proposed by one of its schools, according to a source with knowledge of the university.

Each college within CUNY chooses its own honorary-degree candidates and sends those names to the CUNY board, which then normally approves the entire list of candidates, from all the system’s schools, as a package.

This year, that list included former Mayor Edward Koch and Bernard Spitzer, the father of former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, both of whom will receive Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from the City College of New York; Joel Klein, the city’s former schools chancellor, who will receive the same honorary degree from CUNY; and Judith S. Kaye, the state’s former chief judge and John Jay College’s other honorary-degree candidate.

But Wiesenfeld, a board member of several Jewish organizations and an activist in conservative circles, spoke out against plans to honor Kushner, who, like others receiving honorary degrees, may have spoken at the graduation ceremony.

Wiesenfeld cited what he believed were some of Kushner’s anti-Israel statements, all of which he said he found on the website of Norman Finkelstein, another figure known for his vehemently anti-Israel views.

When people identify themselves with "these types of viewpoints," Wiesenfeld told his fellow trustees, "it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things," especially when Israel sits in such a hostile neighborhood. "There’s a lot of disingenuousness and non-intellectual activity directed against the State of Israel on campuses across the country," he said, adding that CUNY has had its share of such activity, although it’s far better than most universities.

Following Wiesenfeld’s comments, a majority of CUNY board members voted to remove Kushner’s name from the list of this year’s honorees, and then voted unanimously to table, or put off, the honor to the playwright, according to CUNY spokesman Michael Arena. The move, though, effectively kills the honor, because the next scheduled board meeting is at the end of June, after John Jay’s June 3 commencement ceremony.

Kushner, who won the Pulitzer for his epic play about AIDS, "Angels in America," has written that Israel was "founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing." He has also said that "it would have been better" had the State of Israel never been created and that Israel is involved in the "deliberate destruction" of Palestinian culture and identity.

He has also been active with organizations, including Jewish Voice for Peace, that have endorsed the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions campaign against Israel.

Kushner told The Jewish Week Wednesday, "There’s never been a moment in my entire life when I haven’t expressed complete and full support of the State of Israel."

In a 2007 interview with The Jewish Independent, a Canadian newspaper serving British Columbia, he is quoted as saying, "I want the State of Israel to continue to exist. I have always said that. I’ve never said anything else. My positions have been lied about and misrepresented in so many ways. People claim that I’m for a one-state solution, which is not true." In the same interview he said, "In terms of the Palestinian situation, as I’ve always said, I’m in favor of a two-state solution."

Kushner also attacked Wiesenfeld as a right-wing extremist.

Brandeis University granted Kushner an honorary degree in 2006, over opposition from the Jewish right.

Contacted by The Jewish Week Tuesday night, Wiesenfeld said the board’s action demonstrates that those who don’t necessarily "go with the flow" can make a difference. "Boycotters can also be boycotted."

Earlier this year, Wiesenfeld and Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind tried to force Brooklyn College to fire an adjunct professor they believed held strongly anti-Israel views. The university initially fired the professor, Kristopher Peterson-Overton, but soon rehired him, saying it believed the criticism by Wiesenfeld and Hikind was politically motivated.