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.