The decision of the City University of New York Board to deny an honorary doctorate to Tony Kushner due to his views on Israel is so blatantly wrong, so operatically idiotic, that the correct response initially feels like going nowhere near it. How, for example, is one to react to the statement by Jeffrey Wiesenfeld—the conservative trustee who led the charge against Kushner—that he had learned of Kushner’s opinions from Norman Finkelstein’s website? Should one note that when making serious charges, it might be best to go beyond URLs and, say, read books, such as, say, Kushner’s own Wrestling with Zion, which, to all but the silliest or most hateful critics, is very far from being (I’m quoting Wiesenfeld here) “disingenuous and non-intellectual activity directed against the state of Israel”? This is all too painfully obvious.
Let me, then, try a different approach. Denying Kushner the honorary degree, Wiesenfeld acknowledged, could be said to have a chilling effect, but, he added, “I think it’s up to all of us to look at fairness.” Rock on, sir! Let’s look at fairness, then. Let’s observe the 2005 Baruch College honoree, William F. Aldinger III? As the head of the predatory subprime lender Household International, Aldinger was sued by financial regulators and attorneys general of 19 states and the District of Columbia in 2002; he ended up paying $484 million in restitution, the largest settlement ever obtained by state AGs in any consumer protection case in American history.
Or what about the 2003 honorary degree bestowed on Dorothy Rabinowitz, one of very few journalists working for respectable news organizations who supported Juanita Broaddrick’s 1998 allegations that she had been raped by President Clinton two decades earlier. “To encounter this woman,” Rabinowitz wrote at the time, “to hear the details of her story and the statements of the corroborating witnesses, was to understand that this was in fact an event that took place.” In fact, no court or other official investigation could ever prove this took place. You may file such wild and baseless drivel under “disingenuous” and “non-intellectual.”
Honorable, too, is Alan Dershowitz (Brooklyn College honorary doctorate, 2008), whose public statements on Israel—such as claiming that “the fault for all civilian casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies exclusively with the Palestinian terrorists”—frequently fail to meet the rigid standards of accuracy any self-respecting academic institution should fiercely defend. At the very, very least—and the very, very least is often the most we have any right to expect these days—one could hardly accuse Kushner of being substantially further away from the center of the spectrum of views on the Mideast conflict than Dershowitz is.
Rather than merely cry McCarthyism, as Kushner justifiably has, let us instead follow the example of one of our more renowned scholars of the McCarthy period, Yeshiva University historian Ellen Schrecker. “I assume that no one within CUNY’s Board of Trustees or administration wants a repeat of those dark days,” she wrote yesterday, returning her honorary CUNY degree in protest of the Kushner affair. Let us demand answers from this public institution. Let us ask why narrow-mindedness was so effortlessly allowed to triumph over scholarship and introspection. And let us demand (with former Mayor Ed Koch) the immediate removal of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld from the Board of Trustees. Anything less would be just another act in the farce.
Earlier: Kushner Denied Honorary Degree
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.