'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tony Kushner and Academic Zionism 

You've probably heard about it already. City University of New York planned to give playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree, until one of its vociferous, Zionist board members, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, condemned it:

According to a podcast of the Monday meeting and accounts from two CUNY officials who attended it, one of the 12 trustees present, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, objected to John Jay College’s submission of Mr. Kushner for an honorary degree. Mr. Wiesenfeld described viewpoints and comments, which he ascribed to Mr. Kushner, that he had found on the Web site of Norman Finkelstein, a political scientist and critic of Israel.

Mr. Wiesenfeld, an investment adviser and onetime aide to former Gov. George E. Pataki and former Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, said that Mr. Kushner had tied the founding of Israel to a policy of ethnic cleansing, criticized the Israel Defense Forces and supported a boycott of Israel.

I think it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things, Mr. Wiesenfeld said. Especially when the State of Israel, which is our sole democratic ally in the area, sits in the neighborhood which is almost universally dominated by administrations which are almost universally misogynist, antigay, anti-Christian.

Unable to approve the entire list of honorees with the inclusion of Kushner, the trustees removed his name.

Wiesenfeld then maligned the Palestinians in a subsequent public statement:

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.

The situation became a cause celebre in academic and entertainment circles, with some past recipients of the degrees, such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Cunningham, renouncing them. Yesterday, the trustees reversed their decision and awarded the degree to Kushner. But, sadly, Kushner's defense of his political perspective merely reinforced the Zionist narrative about the creation of the state of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians:

- My questions and reservations regarding the founding of the state of Israel are connected to my conviction, drawn from my reading of American history, that democratic government must be free of ethnic or religious affiliation, and that the solution to the problems of oppressed minorities are to be found in pluralist democracy and in legal instruments like the 14th Amendment; these solutions are, like all solutions, imperfect, but they seem to me more rational, and have had a far better record of success in terms of minorities being protected from majoritarian tyranny, than have national or tribal solutions. I am very proud of being Jewish, and discussing this issue publicly has been hard; but I believe in the absolute good of public debate, and I feel that silence on the part of Jews who have questions is injurious to the life of the Jewish people. My opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel’s right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr. Weisenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks.

- I believe that the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the state of Israel was ethnic cleansing, a conclusion I reached mainly by reading the work of Benny Morris, an acclaimed and conservative Israeli historian whose political opinions are much more in accord with Mr. Weisenfeld’s than with mine; Mr. Morris differs from Mr. Weisenfeld in bringing to his examination of history a scholar’s rigor, integrity, seriousness of purpose and commitment to telling the truth.

With all due respect to Kushner, who is, by all accounts, a brilliant playwright, this makes no sense. There is no way to square his embrace of secular democratic values and institutions with the creation of Israel. From its inception, Israel has provided a privileged status to Jews to the detriment of the rest of the indigenous, non-Jewish population, and, as part of the process by which the country was founded, ethnically cleansed Palestinians, which it still does. One cannot separate the existence of Israel from Zionism, which, in its political manifestations, is centered around the forcible removal of Palestinians from Palestine and the erasure of their social and cultural experience.

Consistent with this illogical line of reasoning, Kushner concludes his support for secular democratic principles with this declaration:

My opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel’s right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr. Weisenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks.

So, despite his acknowledgement that Israel came into existence through the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, Kushner not only supports Israel's right to exist, but ardently wishes that it continue to do so. One suspects that he agrees with Benny Morris, a scholar that he cites in reference to the nakhba in 1948, in regard to the suitability of it, but is unwilling to say so publicly. After admitting that the evidence established that the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians occurred, Morris has expressed the opinion that it was regrettably necessary for Israel to come into existence, and that, as a Zionist, he accepts it. Indeed, Morris has said that David Ben-Gurion did not go far enough, and that it would have been better if he had expelled the entire Arab population, although I doubt that Kushner, the good liberal that he is, would go this far. Not surprisingly, Morris is now an advocate for a first strike upon Iran.

Meanwhile, in regard to academia, there is nothing positive about the fact that CUNY reversed its decision and awarded the degree to Kushner. Kushner successfully resisted the attempt by Wiesenfeld to deprive him of it by accepting Wiesenfeld's underlying premises, that it is illegitimate to object to the existence of Israel and that support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is implicitly anti-semitic. He was so sensitive on these points that he vehemently asserted that Wiesenfeld has engaged in slanderous mischaracterizations against him, while, as already noted, embracing Israel's right to exist and disassociating himself from his friends in the BDS effort:

- I am on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, and have remained there even though I disagree with the organization about a number of issues, including the boycott. I remain affiliated because the women and men of JVP are courageous, committed people who work very hard serving the interests of peace and justice and the Jewish people, and I’m honored by my association with them. I have a capacity Mr. Weisenfeld lacks, namely the ability to tolerate and even value disagreement. Furthermore, resigning from the advisory board of JVP, or any organization, to escape the noisy censure of likes of Mr. Weisenfeld is repellent to me.

Note how skillfully Kushner seeks to placate Weisenfeld by distancing himself from Jewish Voice for Peace while still empathizing with the people involved in it. If I was a participant in JVP, I'd submit a motion to kick him off the Board, but I guess that would just make me intolerant and incapable of valuing disagreement. In any event, Kushner provided Wiesenfeld with a great victory, one that is likely to resonate in similar conflicts in the future. The outcome is one in which the boundaries of acceptable public discourse are delineated by standards imposed as a result of internecine struggle between conservative and liberal Zionists.

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