May 5, 2011

Tony Kushner denied honorary degree


In what’s sure to be a hugely contentious move, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner has been blocked from receiving an honorary degree from John Jay College by the trustees of CUNY (which overseas John Jay) after a single trustee, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, claimed that Kushner had “disparaged the State of Israel.” In an interview with the New York Times, Kushner said “he believed the trustees had slandered him and owed him an apology” and added that even if CUNY reverses its decision, he would not accept the honorary degree.

According to the Times, “9 of the 12 trustees was needed to move forward a full slate of honorary degrees, including Mr. Kushner’s, according to state law. Seven trustees indicated support for the full slate, and five opposed. After that, Mr. Kushner’s name was removed from the slate of degrees, and it passed overwhelmingly. The trustees then voted, 11 to 1, to table the Kushner degree.”

Proving that old controversies don’t die: CUNY trustee Wiesenfeld cited Kushner comments in particular that appeared on the website of the Israel critic and political scientist Norman Finkelstein, who was formerly a professor at Hunter College (another CUNY campus), which forced Finkelstein out in 2001 by reducing his salary and teaching load.

Again according to the Times, Kushner said he was

“dismayed by the vicious attack and wholesale distortion of my beliefs.” He has criticized policies and actions by Israel in the past, and said that he believed — based on research by Israeli historians — that the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of Israel was ethnic cleansing. But he added that he was a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist, that he had never supported a boycott of the country, and that his views were shared by many Jews and supporters of Israel.

Since 1961, no other honorary degree nomination had been tabled after reaching the CUNY board.

Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.