On Monday, the City University of New York’s Board denied its John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s plan to award playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree due to Kushner’s vocal criticism of Israel. The 12 CUNY trustees voted on the full slate of honorary degrees, and only seven voted “yea,” short of the necessary nine; then the Board voted 11-1 to table Kushner’s degree. The prime person responsible? Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a finance guy, an old New York state Republican political hand, and a trustee at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He accused Kushner of abetting the “disingenuous and non-intellectual activity directed against the state of Israel on campuses throughout the country, the West generally, and oftentimes the United States as well,” including through allegedly supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. (UPDATE: Wisenfeld writes this morning, “If his libelous statements against Israel were made by anyone outside the Jewish community, that person would be correctly labeled an anti-Semite.”)
We don’t have to suppose what Kushner thinks about Israel, because, in a lengthy response to the CUNY board, he lays it out. You could fairly describe him as pretty harsh on Israel’s actions; I think contributing editor Jeff Goldberg gets it right when he guesses, “He strikes me, from a distance, as one of those sons-of-the-people who wakes up worrying about the Jews, and goes to sleep worrying about the Jews. I think his discomfort with Jewish power is mainly misplaced.” But he is plainly not an anti-Zionist, much less someone with a hateful heart; and, equally plainly, withholding the degree based on his political views is, as Kushner put it, “McCarthyite nonsense.”
Personally, I’m proud to have graduated from an institution from which Kushner holds both undergraduate and honorary degrees. In fact, it is worth revisiting the speech he gave at Columbia’s Class Day several years ago, in which he instructed graduates not how to think but merely to think:
This is the Columbia dialectic, the New York City dialectic, all this spectacular symmetry, all this Euclidean geometry, all this rational griddage is a lattice entwined with floribund, uncontrolled and uncontrollable vines, shoots, roots, fruits, leaves, bees, busily cross-pollinating. This box, this machine, this is a crystal incubatory whence comes the fluid, the protean, the revolutionary, the non-mechanical, the non-commodified, the non-fetishized, the human. The air this morning is electric. You have fed, you have sated, you’re ready; and every step you take from this point on counts. This is your Code Orange: Life and its terrors, terrible and splendid, awaits. I know I speak for Jon, Warren and Justice Ruth—seek the truth; when you find it, speak the truth; interrogate mercilessly the truth you’ve found; and act, act, act. The world is hungry for you, the world has waited for you, the world has a place for you. Take it. Mazel tov. Change the world.
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.