Friday, May 6, 2011

CUNY can't honor Tony Kushner? Really?

A member of CUNY's board of trustees, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, has blocked Tony Kushner from receiving that university's honors.  In what is usually a pro-forma vote, the rubber stamp was stolen by a trustee with an ideological agenda and an inflated sense of his own importance.  That trustee clearly misunderstands both his own role and that of the university in such matters.

The trustee who blocked Kushner's  honorary degree did so because he disagrees with Kushner's anti-Israel activism.  While he may have an argument to make against Kushner's views, that argument hardly negates Kushner's considerable achievements.  More importantly, as every other trustee in the history of CUNY has understood, this is not the appropriate forum to make such arguments.  By making agreement about politics a litmus test for receiving the university's honors, the trustee has created a terrible precedent for CUNY.  If this is allowed to stand, the university's trustees will not only be free to dictate that recipients of the university's honors agree with each trustee's political views, they can blackball any honoree who offends their sensibilities in any manner.

When a university confers an honor upon a worthy recipient, it also confers honor upon itself.  Conversely, by first offering then refusing to confer such an honor, the university dishonors itself.   Wiesenfeld, whose knowledge of Kushner's work appears to derive from out of context quotes he found via Google on an anti-Israel website, has usurped the authority of a committee of professors with real expertise about Kushner's work.  The fact that he has so misunderstood his role as a trustee says a great deal about Wiesenfeld's poor judgement and inflated ego.

I have both great respect for Tony Kushner as a playwright, and great disagreements with his politics and his own sense of the appropriate forum to promote them.  I heard Kushner speak at a 1999 forum on the contemporary role of Yiddish language, literature and culture which happened to have been held at what was then the CUNY Graduate Center on 42nd Street.  Kushner was on a panel with Cynthia Ozick and a scholar of Yiddish linguistics (possibly Paul Wexler).  Departing from the event's subject matter, Kushner devoted his presentation to his opposition to the creation of the State of Israel, which he depicted as the death knell of Yiddish language and culture.  Personally, I found Kushner's actions at that event to be  an unwelcome diversion from a neglected subject.  Whereas the audience and other panelists found the subject of Yiddish to be truly important, Kushner's statement treated Yiddish merely as a symbol of Jewish identity in order to propound a particular political agenda.  He yearned for a mythical golden age of non-Zionist Jewish culture, and argued that the living culture of Jews was somehow in opposition to this ideal.  Interestingly, Kushner's contribution to this discussion of Yiddish failed to actually engage the subject in any way except to characterize it as victim of Zionism, on the one hand, and American assimilationism on the other.  While those are issues that are worthy of discussion, they hardly merit being the sole focus of the rare conference devoted to looking at the thing itself.  Moreover, Kushner also used his presentation to lecture the audience that Israel was unnecessary for Jewish survival, arguing that, by helping to undo traditional Yiddish culture, Israel actually worked against Jewish survival.  One was left to wonder how it would survive if no Jews were left alive to speak it. I wondered whether the audience, which included survivors both of the Holocaust and of Soviet oppression found Kushner's assertions on this matter convincing.  (An  inaccurate depiction of Kushner's statement at this event and Cynthia Ozick's response to it appears in the book From the Lower East Side to Hollywood; Jews in American Popular Culture by Paul Buhle.    Read here.  Contrary to Buhle's depiction, Ozick, while strongly disagreeing with Kushner, spoke supportively of Kushner's right to express his views and praised his engagement with Jewish issues.)

In another instance where Tony Kushner used an inappropriate forum to promote anti-Zionism, the statement by Louis, the protagonist of Kushner's masterpiece "Angels in America", which occurs in that play's concluding scene at Bethesda Fountain, seems to me to be unconvincing and oddly out of place.  The fact that that statement stands out like stray nail in a finely crafted cabinet says a great deal about Kushner's conflicts about the subject.  In a way, that was his intention.  He has problems with Zionism and confusions about Jewishness that he is trying to resolve through Louis.  So that weirdly out of place declaration of anti-Zionism by Louis, wedged into that play's concluding moments, says a lot about Kushner's own difficulties with Zionism.  It also says what his statement at the CUNY Graduate Center said, that it is sometimes difficult for him to find an appropriate forum to work out these problems.

Now, strangely enough, an inappropriate forum for such a conversation has found him.  Even the most ardent Zionist must completely support Kushner, not in his anti-Zionism, but in his right to not only express his opinions, but to work out his issues with Israel.  One may disagree with him, but one must completely support his intellectual engagement with Israel and Jewish culture, both in his work as a playwright and in his political writings.  This engagement with ideas stands in stark contrast to the anti-intellectual CUNY trustee who would silence Kushner's ideas.  (Wiesenfeld has now stooped so low as to slander Kushner as a Nazi collaborator.  Read here.)  If Wiesenfeld  wishes to engage Kushner in a debate, let him do so by debating.  If  Wiesenfeld is incapable of debate, then let him be quiet and let Kushner and CUNY receive their honors.

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