Groups Plan To Protest Kushner’s Commencement Speech



More than a dozen pro-Israel groups on the right, including the Zionist Organization of America, Z Street and the Jewish Action Alliance, are planning to protest the conferral of an honorary degree Friday to Tony Kushner — the subject of a heated controversy last month.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright will receive the degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice during its morning commencement ceremony at the Javits Center in Manhattan, an event scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m. He plans to speak during that event and the college’s afternoon commencement ceremony, also at the Javits Center, according to a John Jay spokeswoman.

The controversy flared early last month after the City University of New York’s board of trustees voted to block the degree, a story first reported by The Jewish Week. That move, which came as a surprise, followed remarks by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a CUNY trustee, in which he slammed Kushner for comments he described as anti-Israel.

But the board’s executive committee voted a week later to reverse the decision after mounting pressure from several quarters, including CUNY’s own faculty senate. Meanwhile, Kushner disputed Wiesenfeld’s characterization of his views, calling them grotesquely distorted and cherry-picked, and a rising chorus of voices called for the trustee’s removal or resignation.

It’s in that context that several groups and individuals “got together and said someone should be out there,” to protest the playwright’s appearance, said Beth Gilinsky, founder of the Jewish Action Alliance and an organizer of the rally. The protest will take place at 10 a.m., at 11th Avenue between 36th and 37th Streets, across the street from the Javits Center.

The groups planning the rally are concerned by “the increase in anti-Israel activity on college campuses” throughout the country, Gilinsky said. In addition, she continued, they’re equally concerned with the “chilling effect” they believe that attacks on Wiesenfeld will have on students, faculty members and administrators disturbed by an anti-Israel bias in lectures and curricula.

“It seems to be getting easier and easier to say outrageous things about Israel,” Gilinsky said, adding that, in her view, President Obama’s recent speech at the State Department is part of that trend.

In that speech, the president, citing what has been U.S. policy for years, stated that the basis for renewed talks between Israelis and Palestinians should be the 1967 border, with agreed upon land swaps.

As for “chilling effects,” Gilinsky said, “If anyone has had his freedom of speech violated, it’s not Tony Kushner.”

There was no indication Thursday afternoon of what Kushner might say in his speech or of whether it would touch on last month’s controversy. John Jay officials advise honorary-degree recipients that each has only a few minutes to speak, the college spokeswoman said, and the playwright failed to respond to questions sent to his e-mail address.