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Tony Kushner and the changing discourse on Israel in the US

Acclaimed playwright was denied an honorary degrees from CUNY due to his views on Israel, but the decision generated a fierce backlash

By Jerry Haber

Tony Kushner believes that Israel engaged in ethnic cleansing at the founding of the state. He is an advisory board member of Jewish Voice for Peace, which has shown solidarity with the Global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, a movement that has been painted by its critics as aiming to destroy the State of Israel. JVP has endorsed a partial BDS campaign, focusing on the settlements. Kushner says that he opposes BDS, but he supports (and has gathered support for) the Israeli artist boycott of the settlement Ariel, together with other distinguished artists in this country. This partial boycott is taboo in the organized Jewish community and is not endorsed by the liberal Zionist group, J Street.

Because of Kushner’s views, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a CUNY trustee, who views himself as moderate on Israel, willing to support honorary degrees to moderate critics of Israel, opposed awarding Kushner an honorary degree. The other trustees, not wishing to engage in controversy, and probably looking at their watches, voted to table (in the US, that means to postpone) a decision on Kushner, effectively denying him the award this year.

The only people who have rallied so far to Wiesenfeld’s support have been hardline rightwingers like Jonathan Tobin of Commentary and Andrea Levin of CAMERA. Liberal hawks like Jeffrey Goldberg have blasted Wiesenfeld, and former New York mayor Ed Koch, who once was liberal, has called upon Wiesenfeld to resign from the Board of Trustees. And the New York Times has, in effect, started a campaign on behalf of Mr. Kushner.

Of course, it is possible to frame support for Mr. Kushner merely in terms of dividing his art from his politics. Of what relevance is his views on Israel to awarding him a degree? He is not being honored for his opinions about Israel. So what’s the big deal? Open and shut case.

But, responds the right, the issue is not so simple. Artists or intellectuals who take immoral positions (e.g., Heidegger) may be appreciated for their achievements in their field, but not necessarily honored by universities. The Israel advocates are trying to paint Kushner as a Wagner, somebody who has crossed a line when it comes to legitimate discourse. He uses a phrase like “ethnic cleansing”! He questions the foundations of the 1948 state!

Nobody’s buying it outside of the hardline Zionist community. After Benny Morris described Israel’s actions as ethnic cleansing (albeit, he claims, without a master-plan); after Israeli artists endorse a settlement boycott; after the Arab spring breathes hope of democracy; after a rightwing Israeli government passes laws and takes positions that are diametrically opposed to that of much of the American Jewish community; after the Gaza Op, Goldstone, and the Flotilla – the goalposts have changed.

Kushner, and JVP, are becoming legitimate within the liberal Zionist community (that’s where I would put the NY Times; Ed Koch was in the center of the American Jewish community once). This is new and this is huge. We are not talking about the New York Review of Books crowd supporting a Brit intellectual like Tony Judt. Mark my words – the ethnic cleansing charge, like the apartheid charge, will become more and more mainstream in the coming months.

My barometer on these things is davka Atlanta’s Jeffrey Goldberg (with whom I share many things in common, except that he writes better than I do). Goldberg is one of a shrinking breed of liberal hawks on Israel. His gut reaction to the CUNY fiasco was outrage. To provide balance for his readership, he then interviewed Wiesenfeld, after the latter had a damaging Times interview – where you can see that Goldberg is anything but enamored of his interviewee (Goldberg rarely thinks that American Jews get Israel the way he does). Here is how Goldberg handles the ethnic cleansing charge:

On this issue, both Kushner and Wiesenfeld have good, if partial, arguments. There were instances in which Arab villages in what is now Israel were forcibly cleared of their inhabitants by Israeli forces. On the other hand, these episodes occurred during a war initiated by Arabs, after they rejected the United Nations partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.

This is what I might call “Benny Morris lite.” were it even Benny Morris. The exodus of Palestinians from villages began months before the war initiated by Arabs, unless Goldberg means by that the civil war between Jews and Arabs that began months before the end of the mandate, during which the main exodus of Palestinians from their villages began. That was a civil war that the Zionists claim was “initiated” by Arabs, but which the world saw as just that – a civil war that was inevitable, no matter who shot the first bullet (If Mr. Goldberg were correct, then one would expect some international condemnation of the Arabs for initiating the war, but both sides were roundly – and rightly — condemned.)

More importantly, however, the real “ethnic cleansing” occurred when the State of Israel barred the return of the Arab refugees to their homes. By forbidding the return of the native Arabs to their homes and villages, against the opposition of the United Nations and Zionists like Judah Magnes and Simon Rawidowicz , the new State of Israel effectively cleansed Palestine of the majority of its Palestinian inhabitants.

But here’s my point – whatever one feels about Kushner’s claims, it is now legitimate among liberal Zionists to discuss them without dismissing their advocate as anti-Semitic. They are worthy of being discussed – which means that the dissatisfaction with the Jewish state founded in 1948 can be expressed publicly without always incurring the marginalization that has been the fate of critical folks like Kushner up until now.

I think Goldberg realizes this. Not wanting to diss Tony Kushner, he has to reclaim his position in the “middle “by bashing former Ambassador Chas Freeman for his “anti-Semitic invective,” by placing him in a multiple choice quiz with Khaled Meshal, David Duke, Louis Farakkhan, and an Islamic terrorist – and why? Apparently, Freeman made the unoriginal claim that current day Palestinians are descended from ancient Jews, who converted to Islam and Christianity. Whatever one thinks about the history –it is prima facie not whacky- and the relevance of the point to today, it certainly doesn’t qualify as anti-Semitic invective. If Goldberg was referring to something else that Freeman said, he cites no examples.

For Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, Tony Kushner is anti-Semitic (or would be, if he were gentile.) For Jeffrey Goldberg, Kushner is kosher but Chas Freeman is anti-Semitic. The difference between Jeffrey Wiesenfeld and Jeffrey Goldberg, and who they consider to be anti-Semitic, teaches us about the weakening of the Zionist narrative in this country, a weakening that will continue as more Israelis and Palestinians struggle with confronting their past and planning alternative models for living together in the future. (It also teaches us about what is legitimate for gentiles to say about Israel — but we knew that already, didn’t we?)

And by the way — neither Tony Kushner nor Chas Freeman has an anti-Semitic bone in his respective body. It won’t take long before gentiles realize that – and shortly after, I pray that Jews will, too.

Jeremiah (Jerry) Haber is the nom de plume of an orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor, who divides his time between Israel and the US. This article was published on Jerry’s blog, The Magnes Zionist. It is reposted here with the author’s permission.

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    COMMENTS

    1. RichardNYC

      “the ethnic cleansing charge, like the apartheid charge, will become more and more mainstream in the coming months”

      The ethnic cleansing charge has been around for decades, and so has the historical debate. Pretending that it hasn’t for the sake of looking forward to a brighter day when everyone sees “the truth” about 1948 sidesteps the reality of the discourse –> both “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid” have encountered a critical mass of opposition from public/intellectual figures. It is not possible change the status quo w/o the kind of moral consensus that will never exist vis a vis these issues.

      Reply to Comment
    2. It is honorable to criticize Israeli policy in the occupied territories, but it is dishonorable to be a board member of the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). That organization purports to support a “just peace” for both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, but in fact presents a barrage of shrill, one-sided condemnation of anything and everything about the State of Israel. For my documentation of JVP’s distorted perspective, see “No Peace from the Jewish Voice for Peace” at http://www.tennisplayerintelaviv.blogspot.com
      I conclude that JVP’s “unrelenting hostility [toward Israel] distressingly echoes the daily anti-zionist polemic seeking to deligitimize Israel.” Mr. Kushner might deserve an honorary degree for artistic accomplishment, but he also deserves dishonorable mention for his allegiance to JVP.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Kesler

      Laugh of the day: “the weakening of the Zionist narrative in this country, a weakening that will continue as more Israelis and Palestinians struggle with confronting their past and planning alternative models for living together in the future.”
      Tell me when the Palestinians arrive at the party.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Self-determination for the Palestinians and ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land are only starting points toward peace. Discriminatory laws within Israel must be viewed as a human-rights issue, not just within a religious perspective. After all, most of the world is not Jewish! hardly! Israel must become more democratic, even if it means losing it’s ‘Jewish-only’ character.

      Reply to Comment
    5. directrob

      Richard,
      Ignore the process and the propaganda war…
      .
      After 1950 there were 700k civilian persons outside Israel that were in 1945 inside Israel. The group is denied ROR by Israel. That by definition is ethnic cleansing.
      .
      In the West Bank there are two sets of laws, one for Palestinians and one for Israeli. That is by definition apartheid.
      .
      If you do not like the terms ethnic cleansing and apartheid you could also call it violating Universal Human Rights.
      .
      It is really quite clear, not much to debate about.

      Reply to Comment
    6. RichardNYC

      “That by definition is ethnic cleansing”

      According to who, you? Ilan “the Iraqi Jews chose to leave” Pappe? My point wasn’t about the substance of the argument, it was about the fact that the argument is not new –> people who lose the argument always have the incentive to say “once the truth has come out, things will change”, but “the truth” has already come out, and its murky. Murkiness means no moral consensus means nothing will change. Scholars have been debating 1948 for decades. Its not a new debate.

      Reply to Comment
    7. directrob

      Norman, your case would be stronger if you did not point to your own blog which contains just opinions and no exact citations.
      .
      Lets point to the real source and let people make up their own mind:
      http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ben Israel

      The so-called “Jewish Voice For Peace” is a radical anti-Israel organization. Its “Rabbinical Council” includes Brant Rosen of Evanston, Illinois who posted this piece in which he approvingly quotes a terrorist from the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade who is complaining that there aren’t enough “effect armed resistance” actions against Israel.
      Brant does express a preference for not including mass suicide bombings but he does agree with the sentiment. Read here:

      http://rabbibrant.com/2010/11/15/reading-material-to-clear-your-sinuses/

      Reply to Comment
    9. Louis

      This is yet another chapter in a being written by the right wing, pro-occupation overseas Jewish community. Their effort are getting increasingly desperate as they feel themselves backed into a corner esp. in the coming September resolution. In Israel the problem is that these same political contemporaries are in power. They are making laws that would legally ban dissent and allow ethnic discrimination. In NYC it was only the Board of Trustees of CUNY In Israel it is the Legislature and Government…

      Reply to Comment
    10. CUNY’s action (about to be overturned, praise be) is an example of BDS used against intellectuals, something that CUNY’s anti-Kushner trustees seemed find reprehensible. Oh well, we’re well used to such BDS here in America, where academia has been subject to well-monied attacks on pro-Palestinian professors for a long time. (And performers, such as Vanessa Redgrave hired and then fired by the Boston Symphony in PLO-tinged circumstances).

      The difference is: their BDS is speech suppressive, whereas our BDS is pro-human-rights.

      Reply to Comment
    11. directrob

      Ben, Thank you for the link to this nice blog. The “offending” Al-Jazeera article is by the way a good read.
      .
      I do not think you are perfectly honest towards Brant Rosen.
      .
      In answer to a question of Y. Ben-David he writes:
      .
      “… Of course I don’t condone suicide bombings against civilians. To say I feel this article provides a powerful view of life in one West Bank city doesn’t not mean I agree with every single comment made by every interviewee…”
      .
      Your remark about the quote “productive armed resistance” or “effective armed resistance” is simply not true.

      Reply to Comment
    12. While I enjoyed this piece, I don’t think Jeffrey Goldberg is a particularly sound barometer for measuring how “liberal Zionists” discuss Israel in the U.S.

      Reply to Comment
    13. C. Paulson

      What I find most reprehensible is Weisenfeld’s characterization of Palestinians as “subhuman.”

      Reply to Comment
    14. Ben Israel

      Directrob-
      I don’t know what you are talking about. He is lamenting the fact that the political divisions among the Palestinians are preventing “productive armed resistance”.

      The Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade is a terrorist organization that carried out the majority of the suicide bombings in Israel. That Brant would approving quote him, even if he has reservations with SOME of his positions is appalling and explains why Israelis have rejected the extreme Left as represented by organizations such as the JVP.

      Reply to Comment
    15. aristeides

      Ben Israel, do you deny that an occupied population has the right of armed resistance against the occupying power?

      Reply to Comment
    16. max

      aristeides, how disingenuous! Do you claim that a just cause is a good justification for terrorism, targeting of civilians?

      Reply to Comment
    17. directrob

      @ben,
      Please give me the full quote.
      .
      I checked the article, I can not find the quote as something Brant Rosen used. You probable confuse “shirin” in his discussion with “richard kahn” with Rabbi Brant Rosen.

      Reply to Comment
    18. aristeides

      I claim, Max, according to international law, that an occupied population has the right of armed resistance against the occupying power. As for example when the Jewish Yishuv claimed this right when engaged in armed resistance against the British.

      Those are the words I used, not others that you like to insert into people’s mouths.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Ben Israel

      Directrob-
      Look for this section in Brant’s column:
      ——————————————-

      Palestinian novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab documents the reality on the ground in the northern West Bank city of Nablus. Powerful, profound, and highly recommended.
      ——————————————-

      This includes a hypertext link to another article, which as Brant says is “highly recommended” and “powerful and profound”.
      This is where the quote from Jamal Hwayil lamenting the lack of armed resistance.
      Brant, in his response to the comment by Y. Ben-David mentions that on the issue of suicide bombings, he disagrees with Hwayil, otherwise he is fine and good and we should listen to him and respect him. As I said, the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade is a TERRORIST organization, under the direct aegis of FATAH which is the party that signed the Oslo Agreements and took orders from Arafat at the time.
      Brant’s words speak for themselves. He agrees with Aristeides and Hwayil, except that maybe suicide bombings are not such a good idea. This, from the ‘Rabbinical council head’ of the JVP.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Rashid Ali

      Dont besmirch Mr Kushner by calling him a zionist. Mr Kushner would be insulted, and has stated in the past that the creation of the zionist entity was a terrible mistake

      Reply to Comment
    21. directrob

      @ben,
      Ok, a new issue, I still think you are pushing the truth …
      .
      What we have here is Brant Rosen recommending an article by Rabin Yassin-Kassab. In this article among others Jamal Hwayil is quoted.
      .
      Rabin Yassin-Kassab quotes Jamal Hwayil two times:
      .
      “Political arrests are wrong. Wrong in Gaza and wrong in the West Bank. Political arrests have no place in a liberation struggle.”
      .
      “There can be neither meaningful negotiations nor productive armed resistance so long as the political leadership is divided.”
      .
      If you call this “lamenting the lack of armed resistance” it is a bit of a jump. Anyway Rabin Yassin-Kassab just reports, these are not his words.
      .
      Now (ignoring “Wow”) Rabbi Brant Rosen reacts twice:
      .
      .
      First:

      Re the quote from Jamal Hwayil:
      .
      It feels silly to have to reply to this, but you seem to be asking the question in seriousness:
      .
      Of course I don’t condone suicide bombings against civilians. To say I feel this article provides a powerful view of life in one West Bank city doesn’t not mean I agree with every single comment made by every interviewee.

      .
      .
      Second:

      This was a thoughtful article about important, notable divisions in Palestinian society. The quote in question was made during a conversation between a group of Palestinians discussing the issue of armed vs. nonviolent resistance (a central and much-debated issue in Palestinian society).
      .
      To say this article “calls for terrorism” is simply ludicrous. Did you even read it?

      .
      .
      To interpret this as Brant Rosen writes about Jamal Hwayil in the sense “otherwise he is fine and good and we should listen to him and respect him” or to write “Brant’s words speak for themselves. He agrees with Aristeides and Hwayil, except that maybe suicide bombings are not such a good idea.” is in my opinion outright slander.

      Reply to Comment
    22. AllenIbiza

      This comment has been edited for foul language
      .
      All this back stabbing…lets get down to basics and ask all of you to advocate a solution. Stand up and be counted, express your formula for a peaceful settlement for all the peoples of Palestine and Israel. Assuming that is, that you are all in agreement as to that the “right of return” being applicable to one and all.

      Then consider which extension of neighboring lands might be incorporated to accommodate. I’ll start the ball rolling by suggesting that Jerusalem become a shared capital, that the formation of a Palestinian state incorporate land on both sides of the Golan Heights where new towns would resolve the problems of several million refugees and form a controlled border crossing.

      Now that’s being positive, put your money where your mouth is and help put an end to apartheid if that’s what believe the root cause to be.

      The 3rd Intafada is fast approaching, you have until May 15th to voice your opinion and help find a positive solution.

      Reply to Comment
    23. aristeides

      Lies of omission, Ben Israel. Brandt said “Productive” armed resistance. That is, effective armed resistance, not armed resistance unlikely to produce the intended effect.

      But are we to infer that you do not accept the right to armed resistance to an occupying power, as prescribed by international law? That you will stand up and condemn the armed resistance, including acts of terrorism, committed by the Jewish armed resistance against the British Mandate?

      Or are we to infer that you are only opposed to armed resistance as committed by Palestinians against the illegal Israeli occupation?

      Reply to Comment
    24. Israel is just like South Africa, except we don’t have an 18% HIV infection rate.

      Reply to Comment
    25. Rashid Ali

      Rachel, you should move from ziostan.

      Reply to Comment
    26. tikkunolam613

      PRAYER FOR PALESTINE FROM A JEW: Let us help them to create something extraordinary,just as we have for ourselves-it is in our best interest to do so! Let us help them to build a home they will love with all their hearts, as we love Israel! It is foolish to damage that which is precious.We are both great nations…let us never forget this.Let us nurture peace with both our enemies and our friends, and recognize that they are a mirror…reflecting light unto the nations.

      Reply to Comment
    27. tikkunolam613

      We have a moral obligation to be creative in the ways we bring about peace. The “Arab Spring” we are now living through brings with it great dangers and great opportunities for peace in Israel/Palestine. We must find a way to be partners with each other. We cannot afford a failure of imagination this time around. It is a non-zero sum game. We must find a way to have our cake, and share it too.

      Reply to Comment
    28. Stuart A Blander

      In the debate about “ethnic cleansing”, the justice/injustice of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and the like, one thing is left out. Nobody ever discusses whether, eg, Pakistan or India was created in original sin, even though it resulted in the expulsion of tens of millions, and the death of (more or less) one million. How come? Could it have something to do with a particular uneasiness (on the part of both Jews and non-Jews) about the exercise of Jewish power and sovereignty (ie, a comfortable feeling about Jewish victimhood and the Diaspora, as if that is the natural state of things)? One of the definitions of anti-semitism is focusing on faults which are generally applicable and distributed among all types of people (whether it is dishonesty in business or population transfers as part of nation building, the norm in the 20th Century-after both World Wars)and applying them only to the Jews. With respect to Israel (both its founding and its defense policies) that is precisely the case. Happy Yom HaAtzmaoot!

      Reply to Comment
    29. Borg

      If a famous artist denied there should be a Palestinian state and was consequently denied an honorary degree from CUNY, would anyone from 972 magazine. The only claim to fame of Mr Kushner is his anti-zionism, which distinguishes this mediocre artist from tens of thousands of other mediocre artists

      Reply to Comment
    30. directrob

      @borg, Mr Kushner mediocre? Your standards are high!

      Reply to Comment
    31. […] by trustees of New York City University to refuse an honorary degree from playwright Tony Kushner because he associated the term ethnic cleansing with the birth of Israel. And a few months ago, the Palestine Papers revealed that the US State Secretary of State […]

      Reply to Comment
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