Kushner and His Defenders–the Empire Strikes Back

The New York Times reports that on Monday, the executive committee of the City University of New York Board of Trustees will likely approve Tony Kushner for an honorary degree. If I were on the board, I’d endorse the position articulated by Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld and oppose the motion. It seems to me hypocritical, as a policy matter, for an institution of higher learning to award an honorary degree to someone who’s endorsed at least one cultural boycott against Israelis and who serves on the advisory board of an organization that supports the boycott/divestment/sanctions scheme. But I understand the Board’s action–CUNY is a public institution, reliant on public support, and the academic and New York media establishment have made Kushner getting his honorary degree a cause célèbre. From a tactical standpoint, the decision is defensible, if not desirable.

The likely outcome, however, should not be allowed to obscure the poisonous nature of the pro-Kushner movement in this affair. In a devastating post, Jonathan Tobin examined how the New York Times–which demonstrated its “objectivity” on matters near and dear to the academic establishment in its coverage of the Duke lacrosse case–has led the way.

Among the academic press, the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed featured furious op-eds on the issue, the latter penned by Ellen Schrecker. This purported expert on McCarthyism has made a career out of suggesting that virtually anyone who criticizes the current academic majority is a McCarthyite, a tactic to which she returned in the Kushner affair. And yet Schrecker’s piece unintentionally confirmed the wisdom of Wiesenfeld’s initial action. The awarding of honorary degrees, she wrote, constitutes a “quasi-official statement” by a university.  And so, by Schrecker’s own standard, the board granting Kushner an honorary degree constitutes a “quasi-official statement” of endorsing Kushner’s affiliation with groups advocating a cultural boycott of Israel. Schrecker, obviously, has no problem with the board sending that message.

The Kushner story spread beyond normal coverage of academic affairs to engage typical critics of Israel and Israeli national security policies. Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan, for instance, once stoutly defended Israel, but after the Gaza war he changed his position to such an extent that he triggered a debate as to whether he had embraced anti-Semitism or merely carelessly employed ideas traditionally associated with anti-Semitism in his myriad attacks on the Jewish state. On Friday, Sullivan offered a long diatribe against Wiesenfeld capped off by a chilling description regarding former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir: “Until you grasp the fundamental belief of some pro-Israel extremists that Palestinians are collectively sub-human, or cockroaches, as Yitzhak Shamir once called them . . .” The only problem? As Noah Pollak pointed out, Shamir said no such thing about “Palestinians . . . collectively,” and Sullivan appears to have conducted his research on an anti-Semitic website. (In a post Saturday afternoon, Sullivan has refused to retract his comment, or to apologize for his description of Shamir.)

J Street even got into the act, releasing a letter urging that Kushner obtain his degree. Some might think that a so-called “pro-Israel” organization would have a hard time defending someone who had described the founding of Israel as a historical mistake. But, then again, from concealing major funding from anti-Zionist George Soros to attacking Queens Democratic congressman Gary Ackerman for his pro-Israel views, J Street seems to have done everything possible since its founding to call into question its “pro-Israel” credentials.

For defenders of the academic status quo, getting Kushner his degree is no longer enough. At CUNY, both the University Faculty Senate and the fanatically anti-Israel faculty union have been—in the name of academic freedom, no less!—calling for Wiesenfeld to resign. The clear message: “academic freedom” demands not merely that those who share the views of the current academic majority should be able to say or do whatever they please to advance the common cause, but those who challenge them need to be silenced, permanently.

Alas, the pattern that we’ve seen at CUNY this academic year—three separate policy decisions by faculty committees advancing anti-Israel agendas (the Bayoumi common reader, the Petersen-Overton appointment, and now the Kushner honorary degree), followed by ferocious, and successful, counter-attacks when administrators tried to step in and restore some balance—suggests that, in the end, administrators have little power to contain the most extreme voices among their faculty, at least on matters related to Israel.

KC Johnson

KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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