Across America, under mauve skies, colleges award honorary degrees to various alumni, leaders, philanthropists, politicians, entertainers, speakers, saints, and sinners. The honorary degree is a currency schools share with monarchs, who can confer noble titles. Sometimes “Consequences are unforeseen”
Each year, just as there are stories of tornados and floods, there are always stories of some group of students and alumni who decide to protest the selection of a commencement speaker or award recipient.
At Michigan, some law students are protesting the selection of Ohio’s Senator as their speaker, and undergraduates are protesting the selection of Michigan’s governor as theirs. At Seton Hall, some are outraged that the New Jersey governor will speak; and at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, students protested the choice of ExxonMobil’s CEO as their graduation speaker.
But the tepid tempest that touched the teapots of many this May was the selection of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner as an honorary degree recipient by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a part of the City University of New York in Manhattan. The Board blocked the award to Tony Kushner, last week, but has reversed its decision on the eve of Yom Ha-Atzmaut.
(Greetings, CUNY! The great work begins! The Messenger has arrived!)
Kushner, who has received fifteen honorary degrees from institutions including Brandeis, SUNY (State University of New York), Vassar, and Julliard, was nominated to receive a degree from John Jay. A trustee of the school, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, asked his fellow trustees to remove Kushner’s name from the list, and block the degree, since Wiesenfeld disagreed with Kushner’s writings about Israel.
The CUNY board, with no advance warning of Wiesenfeld’s objections, tabled the plan to award Kushner an honor, and Kushner’s name was removed. Wiesenfeld said that he did not directly read any comments by Kushner, but had seen comments attributed to Kushner on a website of Norman Finklestein. A copy of Wiesenfeld’s speech to the Board appears HERE.
(As the Roy Cohn character says in Angels in America, “You don’t know what all I know. *I* don’t know what all I know. Half this sh*t I make up and I’m still right, learned that in the 50’s.)
Many voices were heard in support of Kushner. Former New York City Mayor, Ed Koch, who will receive an honorary degree from CUNY, asked that Kushner be given the honorary degree, and he added that Wiesenfeld should resign from his position from the CUNY board. Jonathan Tobin, in Commentary magazine, wrote that the issue would become a celebrated cause among liberal NYT readers â€“ they would make a martyr of Kushner and a villain of Wiesenfeld. Tobin also criticized Koch for a lack of hubris and for making a career of just picking up PRE-humous awards around town. See Tobin’s comments HERE.
Ellen Schrecker, a Professor of History at Yeshiva University, and a specialist in McCarthyism, wrote a note to Benno Schmidt and the CUNY Board that said she she would return her CUNY honorary degree as a protest against their decision to block an award for Kushner. Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine wrote that Wiesenfeld used the wrong tactics when he implied that all Palestinians lack humanity.
(Prior Walter in Angels in America: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Hannah Pitt replies: “Well that’s a stupid thing to do.”)
Kushner, who works less than twelve blocks from John Jay College, wrote a response to the board, stating, â€œâ€¦Jeffrey S. Weisenfeld delivered a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the State of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I’ve given, the mention of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever, and the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr.Weisenfeld strongly disagreesâ€¦â€ It can be read HERE. Kushner, was also interviewed by CUNY’s student newspaper last night after the Board reinstated the honorary degree. read it HERE.Wiesenfeld, an investment professional and chair of the Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre, was, when younger, formerly a staff member in the NYC Koch administration’s traffic department, an aide to NY Senator D’Amato and other political leaders, and helped the FBI with foreign counterintelligence. For former NY Governor George Pataki, Wiesenfeld as an executive assistant and â€œpolitical fixer.â€ Pataki, before leaving public office, appointed Wiesenfeld to the CUNY board position.
Kushner is the author of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes which had a story arc about Louis Ironson, a gay neurotic Jewish man in Manhattan who learns that his boyfriend, Prior, is infected with HIV and AIDS, and must decide to stay or flee. At also contained a fantasy about Attorney Roy Cohn and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. Kushner also wrote the screenplay for the 1995 film, Munich, about Israel’s search for the Munich Olympics terrorists; â€œCaroline, or Change,â€ a musical about a young Jewish boy growing up in the South and his relationship with his family’s black housekeeper, Caroline; a translation of Bertolt Brecht’s â€œMother Courage and Her Children;â€ a translation of S. Ansky’s play â€œThe Dybbuk;â€ a screenplay based on Doris Kearns Goodwinâ€˜s book â€œTeam of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln;â€ and â€œHomebody/Kabul.â€ Currently, his play â€œThe Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scripturesâ€ is appearing on stage in New York City.
Homeless Woman (Angels in America): “In the new century, I think we will all be insane.”