Jewish playwright Tony Kushner is the latest critic of Israeli government treatment of the Palestinians to come under attack by pro-Israeli hardliners. They sought to strip him of an academic award, but Kushner and his supporters managed to fight back, an opportunity that other targets have not had, reports Danny Schechter. May 10, 2011
By Danny Schechter
Editor’s Note: Criticism of Israel remains a politically dicey matter in the United States, where pro-Israeli hardliners are quick to react, denouncing adversaries in the harshest terms as “anti-Semites” or “self-hating Jews” or “conspiracy theorists.”
Often, the hardliners strip Israeli critics of awards or other measures of professional standing, essentially transforming them into pariahs, as in two cases addressed by Danny Schechter in this guest essay:
First, it was Helen Thomas.
After the veteran White House correspondent spoke inelegantly once about her feelings about Israel — and apologized, but to no effect — she was blackballed at the instigation of strident Israeli supporters and her career achievement-standing journalism awards were stripped.
She became persona non-grata with many media outlets joining in the denunciations of a colleague they had honored for decades.
Many at the time suspected the wrath was especially severe because she is an Arab-American. Right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter even asked if “that Arab” should be allowed near the President of the United States.
But now a new flap — driven by some of the same issues — involves a Jewish Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a leading academic institution in New York.
His name: Tony Kushner, best known for the brilliant “Angels in America” plays that bravely took on AIDS and the hypocrisy if not criminality of the prominent Jewish lawyer Roy Cohn, an aide to the late fanatically anti-communist symbol, Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Now McCarthy’s name has been introduced into a debate following a decision by a City University of New York to strip Kushner of an honorary degree after one conservative pro-Israel trustee took umbrage at his criticisms of the Israeli government and convinced his colleagues to take action.
Supporters of Israel have been primed by their lobby and the Israeli government to confront any and all attempts to “ delegitimate” Israel or even criticize its government.
Kushner was made into the personification of a self-hating Jew who was bashing Israel. A group of CUNY trustees deemed him an Israel hater. He became the new Helen Thomas, even though he is Jewish.
But in New York — unlike Washington which seems ruled by a conservative media elite that is frequently intimidated, if not directed, by the Israel Lobby — there was a cultural push-back against what was seen as an act of intolerance that violated freedom of thought.
Soon the New York Times was making it a big story with strong statements against the efforts of conservative Republican trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, to blackball plans to honor Kushner by John Jay College, one of the system’s schools. Wiesenfeld did not win much sympathy when he was quoted as questioning whether Palestinians were human.
Blogger MJ Rosenberg offered insight into Wiesenfeld’s didactic views:
“Here is his Wiesenfeld’s rationale for his actions, which he offered in a telephone call with the Atlantic’s Jeff Goldberg:
“‘’My mother would call Tony Kushner a kapo,’ he said in a telephone conversation earlier this morning. ‘Kapos’ were Jews who worked for the Germans in concentration camps.’
“Pretty amazing likening criticizing Israel to working with the Nazis to kill Jews. But Wiesenfeld has some strong views.”
He was also aligned with Pam Geller, the Muslim hater who led the fight against the so-called Ground Zero mosque. He is an active supporter of AIPAC, the Israel lobby.
His diatribe was seen as too severe and inflammatory by many civic leaders. Prominent supporters of Israel were soon supporting Kushner, including former Mayor Ed Koch, newspaper Publisher Mort Zuckerman and a who’s who of cultural figures.
Enter the top officials at the City University who agreed to review the decision and vowed to reverse it, On May 9, they did so, voting unanimously to restore the award.
Reported the Guardian, “The chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, addressing the board on Monday night, said he had supported the original recommendation of the award and praised Kushner’s ‘extraordinary body of work.’ He urged the board to overturn last week’s decision and to support the award.
“Some members of the board spoke, all of them voicing support for Kushner. One of them described the row as a ‘blemish’ on the university’s reputation as an upholder of freedom of expression.”
Tony Kushner had told the Times, “I have been honored many times by prominent Jewish organizations, proudly identified as a Jew and maintained a passionate support for the continuous existence of the State of Israel. … An apology should come from the Board of Trustees for not following the dictates of simple fairness and decency when this happened, and allowing someone who deserved better treatment to be treated shabbily.”
Since the CUNY board’s action, he has received an outpouring of support from peace groups, friends, and intellectual and artistic groups. “It’s completely overwhelming,” he said.
The City University’s leaders rushed to restore its honor and his, and on Monday reversed the Trustee’s decision, reinstating Kushner’s award.
Here’s how the Times put it: “Having embarrassed themselves more than was absolutely necessary in the eyes of many New Yorkers, trustees of the City University of New York are … to undo the damage.”
In an earlier statement, Kushner, who has edited a collection of essays critical of Israel, said, “It’s been my experience that truth eventually triumphs over SoundBites spin and defamation, and that reason, honest inquiry, and courage, which are more appealing and more persuasive than demagoguery, will carry the day.”
His story went from the Jewish press to the pages of the New York Times, and quickly became an international free speech issue.
But even if his status is rehabilitated, the Times asks, “Will a reversal end the affair? Not necessarily. Closing a self-inflicted wound can be tough.”
The problem, of course, is that Kushner’s status earned him reconsideration; other less well-known personages critical of Israel, including academic and political analysts, are often targeted in ways that generate less attention and debate. Many conclude it’s just not worth it to speak up about Israeli policy less they became targeted and smeared, and even lose their jobs.
Meanwhile, Helen Thomas continues to live defensively as an exile in the straitlaced Washington media world in which she was once a luminary.
A group of journalists is now lobbying the Society of Professional Journalists to reinstate her status, but, at age 90, she has no major newspapers and high-profile politically acceptable people behind her.
Perhaps Tony Kushner could do a play about how Thomas has suffered the slings and arrows of unfair slurs and demonization.
Danny Schechter, “the News Dissector,” edits Mediachannel.org. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org