Tag Archives: City University of New York

Role reversal: Jeffrey Wiesenfeld comes under scrutiny

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld has made it a career habit to try and marginalize anyone he perceived to be insufficiently pro-Israel and to smear Muslims and Arabs.  But in the wake of the Tony Kushner degree controversy, it is Wiesenfeld’s politics, racism and abuse of power that are coming under scrutiny.

Wiesenfeld, a trustee at the AIPAC-created think-tank called the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was a board member for the so-called Stop the Madrassa Coalition, which led the vicious anti-Arab and anti-Muslim campaign against the Khalil Gibran International Academy.  He also played a role in the short-lived firing of Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a professor at Brooklyn College whose academic scholarship focused on Palestinian identity.  And now, he has single-handedly blocked an honorary degree for playwright Tony Kushner solely for his views on Israel.

This time, though, Wiesenfeld is on the defensive, and it’s entirely his doing.  His abuse of power in nixing an honorary degree for one of the most celebrated artists in America was the first transgression.  His second one was telling the New York Times’ Jim Dwyer that, in effect, he believes that the Palestinian people are “not human.”

The double-shot to the foot has led to a piling up of calls for Wiesenfeld to resign  The New York Times upped the ante in a May 6 editorial calling for Wiesenfeld’s removal:

The trustees of the City University of New York got it exactly backward this week. They supported the political agenda of an intolerant board member and shunned one of America’s most important playwrights. They should have embraced the artist and tossed out the board member.

Wiesenfeld is also taking heat from the former mayor of New York City Ed Koch, despite the fact that Wiesenfeld served in the Koch administration and that Koch shares many of Wiesenfeld’s right-wing political views.

Activist groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations-NY and Jewish Voice for Peace are also demanding Wiesenfeld’s resignation.  Cyrus McGoldrick, the civil rights director for the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said:

The underlying issue here is a taboo on addressing the conditions of Palestinian people in the public space. Wiesenfeld may feel that his bigotry is the order of the day, but our tax dollars which support CUNY should not be utilized to dehumanize any people, and we call on CUNY to enforce this basic yet critical notion by removing or demanding the resignation of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld

Some prominent academics have renounced their honorary degrees from CUNY.

The uproar over Wiesenfeld marks an important and ongoing shift in the U.S. discourse on Israel/Palestine, as Jerry Haber writes.  Instead of Kushner being the focus of controversy, Wiesenfeld’s actions have backfired, and it is the powerful CUNY trustee who finds himself the subject of scrutiny.

The controversy will peter out in the coming weeks, as CUNY is set to award Kushner the degree Wiesenfeld sought to nix.  But if the pressure escalates on CUNY so much so that Wiesenfeld is forced to go, it would a victory for free speech and Palestine solidarity and a blow to the Israel lobby.

The upshot of the Tony Kushner muzzling

Image from Columbia.edu

The decision by the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Board of Trustees to block famous playwright Tony Kushner’s honorary degree at John Jay College is rightly being met with outrage.  But there’s also an important upshot to the controversy:  the racism that right-wing supporters of Israel deploy against Palestinians is getting an airing, as is the unrelenting attempts by powerful pro-Israel types to shut down debate on Palestine.  It’s a tiny airing, but it’s a start.

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the far-right supporter of Israel behind the decision to block Kushner’s degree, is being pilloried in the press.  For instance, while Jeffrey Goldberg minces words and refuses to call him a racist, he did write three blog posts criticizing Wiesenfeld.

The narrative that Wiesenfeld wanted to disseminate–that Kushner is an extremist and an anti-Semite–has backfired, and has turned into a story about Wiesenfeld’s politics and how one powerful supporter of the State of Israel successfully managed to block debate and smear a prominent American artist.

Wiesenfeld’s racism against Palestinians, and the shameful way Kushner was treated, was cataloged in an interview published today by the New York Times’ Jim Dwyer:

Mr. Wiesenfeld is the City University of New York trustee who rose this week at a board meeting to block an honorary degree to the playwright Tony Kushner, declaring him an “extremist” opponent and critic of Israel.

It was a startling development for a board that appeared to be on the verge of rubber-stamping a bundle of honorary degrees proposed by the colleges within the university, including one for Mr. Kushner from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Mr. Kushner was not present, and fragments of his views — which are complicated, passionate, critical — were balled up into a few pellets by Mr. Wiesenfeld, who gave a 900-word speech that was mostly devoted to other figures who he felt were radically hostile to Israel. He quoted about 75 words that he said showed that Mr. Kushner’s thinking was beyond the pale.

The trustees pulled the playwright’s name from the motion and moved on to wholesale rubber-stamping of the remaining honorary degrees.

Was this any way for one of the great public universities of the world to discuss the views of one of the leading dramatists of modern times, author of the epic “Angels in America”?

[...]

I tried to ask a question about the damage done by a short, one-sided discussion of vigorously debated aspects of Middle East politics, like the survival of Israel and the rights of the Palestinians, and which side was more callous toward human life, and who was most protective of it.

But Mr. Wiesenfeld interrupted and said the question was offensive because “the comparison sets up a moral equivalence.”

Equivalence between what and what? “Between the Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “People who worship death for their children are not human.”

Did he mean the Palestinians were not human? “They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history,” he said.

A separate New York Times article notes that this was not the first time Zionists attempted to nix an award for Kushner:

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Kushner has received 15 honorary degrees. In 2006, some pro-Zionist groups tried to block him from getting an honorary degree at Brandeis University, but the university decided to go ahead with the honor.

In response to the current episode, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a vehement supporter of Israel, has called on CUNY to fire Wiesenfeld:

Ed Koch call for the City University of New York to terminate its relationship with a trustee who engineered the denial of an honorary degree to Tony Kushner because of the playwright’s criticism of Israel…

Neither Kushner nor anyone else was invited to speak in his defense.

“Mr. Wiesenfeld and the trustees who followed his request should immediately reverse their action and urge Mr. Kushner to forgive them,” Koch wrote. “I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld’s action so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees.”

This was probably not what Wiesenfeld was expecting.  CUNY is already backpedaling.  Former Mayor Koch is airing his outrage over Wiesenfeld’s actions.  The New York Times and Jeffrey Goldberg are calling him out for his repugnant views.  Some discussion of the history of these attempts to shut down dissent over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is being heard.  What needs to happen next is an honest discussion about the facts concerning the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.