Now that the City University of New York board of trustees has reversed course and approved an honorary degree for Tony Kushner, it is time for the Jewish establishment to reflect upon its failure to speak out. Jewish history tells us that silence is complicity. While individual Jews and progressive Jewish organizations, such as Jews Say No!, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Against Islamophobia, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Shalom Center, and J Street joined those protesting CUNY’s earlier decision to withdraw its initial offer of an honorary degree to Kushner, not one of the mainstream Jewish organizations seemed to think the trustees did anything wrong in punishing someone for his dissenting views on Israel. Neither the American Jewish Committee nor Congress, not the Anti-Defamation League, not the Jewish Community Relations Council, not Hillel.
It is not the first time. Prior to the Kushner fiasco, two front-page controversies erupted in recent years over actions by New York public officials against persons believed to be critical of Israel. In each case, the major Jewish organizations were either actively complicit or, by their silence, tacitly complicit, reflecting a mindset that dissent on Israel is bad for Israel and bad for the Jews. The position is wrong as a matter of strategy. More important, it is wrong morally, and represents a profound betrayal of the Jewish ethical commitment to open inquiry and to justice.
The first controversy involved Debbie Almontaser, an esteemed educator who was selected by the city’s department of education in 2007 to head the new Khalil Gibran International Academy, the nation’s first Arabic dual-language school. Because she was an Arab and a Muslim, she was subjected to a relentless, bigoted smear campaign. Nevertheless, her supporters remained firm, until a front-page New York Post article appeared describing the sale of “Intifada NYC” T-shirts. Although it was clear that Almontaser had no connection to the T-shirts, she was pursued by a Post reporter, who asked her for the root of the word “intifada.” She said that its Arabic root is a word meaning “shaking off.”
The next day, August 6, 2007, the Post published an article headlined “City Principal Is ‘Revolting,'” which reported that Almontaser had “defended” the “pro-violence shirt.” The JCRC and the ADL, which had previously admired Almontaser’s work, weighed in against her. Teachers union president Randi Weingarten questioned Almontaser’s fitness to be a school principal because she had not condemned the intifada, an unprecedented suggestion that a New York City educator be required to take a pro-Israel loyalty oath. By the end of the week, the mayor and the schools chancellor had demanded her resignation.
A respected educator lost her job only because she was thought to be insufficiently supportive of Israel. No mainstream Jewish organization said a word in protest. To the contrary.
A footnote to that story: CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who led the opposition to the Kushner award, was an overwrought opponent of KGIA as well. When a KGIA supporter, a rabbi, angrily differed with him at a public rally, Wiesenfeld suggested that the rabbi “get yourself a suicide bomb and go blow yourself up.” So much for the man who thought Tony Kushner’s views on Israel were not rational.
Then earlier this year there was the case of Kristofer Petersen-Overton, a Brooklyn College adjunct professor hired by the political science department to teach a course on the Middle East. Although the department had approved Petersen-Overton’s credentials and the proposed course, NY State Assemblyman Dov Hikind wrote the college that Petersen-Overton was “an overt supporter of terrorism.” The college promptly canceled the course. After letters of protest poured in from around the world, it was reinstated. Although the college’s capitulation to Hikind represented a serious assault on academic freedom in the name of pro-Israel orthodoxy, not a single mainstream Jewish organization spoke out.
And now Tony Kushner’s honorary degree. The CUNY trustees, after a firestorm of criticism, have admitted error. But how did it happen in the first place? Wiesenfeld is only one vote. What accounts for the initial acquiescence of Benno Schmidt, CUNY’s board chair, who, as a former president of Yale and a First Amendment scholar, knows the stifling impact on academic freedom when universities capitulate to demands of political orthodoxy? There is a clue in his statement calling for the reinstatement of Kushner’s honorary degree. While acknowledging that a candidate’s political views are irrelevant to the awarding of honorary degrees, Schmidt gratuitously added, “If it were appropriate for us to take politics into account in deciding whether to approve an honorary degree, I might agree with Trustee Wiesenfeld, whose political views on the matters in controversy are not far distant from my own.” Having said that Wiesenfeld’s extremist political views are irrelevant, he proceeded to establish his own pro-Israel orthodoxy. That the board chair of a distinguished university is compelled to establish that he is “sufficiently pro-Israel” says that something is terribly wrong with the current climate of discourse about Israel and its policies.
Two Jews, three opinions, is the old adage. On “everything but Israel,” is the present reality. Despite its belief to the contrary, neither the Jewish community nor Israel is well-served by that reality. Mainstream Jewry is dishonored by having the likes of Wiesenfeld and Hikind be its public voice on such matters, and by insisting that unquestioning and irrational loyalty to Israel substitute for rational debate and a commitment to what is just.
* Alan Levine, a New York civil rights lawyer, represented Debbie Almontaser in her suit against the NYC Department of Education. This article was originally published in Ha’aretz.