Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Tony Kushner Bad for Israel?

 What constitutes acceptable criticism of Israel? This question has assumed an increasing importance over the past decade. The default mode of Israel's defenders on the right has been to allege that when X says something critical of Israel, he or she is anti-Israel or even an anti-Semite. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, for example, were roundly condemned as anti-Semitic for their book the Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. The late Tony Judt came under withering attacks for his proposal for a return to the idea of a Jewish bi-national state and was even disinvited from giving a lecture at the Polish consulate in New York, at least partly due to pressure from his detractors.

Now the famous playwright Tony Kushner has come under fire at the City University of New York. The trustees voted to bar him from receiving an honorary degree. The result has been a fresh uproar. Kushner says he was calumniated by one trustee in particular named Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld. Wiesenfeld said that Kushner was unworthy of receiving a degree because he supports a boycott of Israel and was a member of an organization called Jewish Voice for Peace that, among other things, doesn't support a security fence for Israel. Kushner says the charge that he is anti-Israel is bogus—he has always supported Israel's right to exist. But he doesn't believe that Israel should be exempt from criticism, paticularly when it comes to its conduct in 1948.

Wiesenfeld appears to have a history of trying to intervene in academic affairs on behalf of what he interprets as Israel's best interests. The Guardian reports:


Wiesenfeld has a record of acting to forward what he considers the interests of the state of Israel. A former political fixer for the then governor of New York state, George Pataki, he was instrumental earlier this year in having a temporary CUNY lecturer fired because of his views on Israel. The teacher was later reinstated.

In the wake of his intervention against Kushner, he told the New York Times that he believed the Palestinians had "developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history". He said: "People who worship death for their children are not human."


It is true that people who worship death for their children are not human. But can all Palestinians be viewed as holding such views in their totality as an ethnic group? Are the Palestinians uniquely depraved in the entire history of mankind, as Wisenfeld appears to imply? Or is Wiesenfeld not simply painting with a broad brush, but flirting with racism? At a minimum, this is very loose language indeed. It seems fair to conclude that Wiesenfeld is a guttersnipe.

The trustees have since reversed their decision, but Kushner remains aggrieved:

The playwright said he was bothered that Wiesenfeld's remarks went unchallenged by the other 11 trustees during the May 2 meeting.

"So, at a public hearing, to allow one of their members to, you know, trade in the kind of garbage that this guy Wiesenfeld was trading in, and to say nothing, is really kind of disturbing," Kushner said. "Rather than having the discussion they should have had, they simply tabled my nomination."


The episode is a revealing one. What it reveals is the code of omerta that some American Jews are trying to enforce when it comes to Israel. Kushner is undoubtedly not an admirer of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But since when is it impermissible in principle to object to the specific policies that the Israeli government is pursuing? And what relevance did Kushner's views on Israel have to his receipt of an honorary degree?

The Kushner flap is one more tedious chapter in an ongoing saga over America's relations with Israel. It is not an inspiriting one. If Israel's putative defenders had more confidence in the Jewish state, they wouldn't be resorting to such hamhanded tactics. The only thing they are exposing is themselves.

Image from TimothyHorrigan