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BROADCAST EXCLUSIVE: Playwright Tony Kushner Speaks Out on CUNY Controversy, Academic Freedom and Israel

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In a global broadcast exclusive, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner appears on Democracy Now! to announce he will accept an honorary degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, following a controversy that sparked national attention. Last week, the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York voted to shelve the degree after one member cited Kushner’s critical views of Israeli government policies. But on Monday night, the CUNY board reversed its decision. Kushner says he is still hoping for an apology: “In lieu of an apology, I would accept what is clearly an admission of error of judgment and a lapse of responsibility on the part of the board in defending open exchange and academic freedom.” Kushner, one of the world’s leading playwrights, has long been a defender of the human rights of Palestinians and a critic of Israeli policies. “It’s impossible to shape a legitimate and successful path towards peace based on rhetoric and demagoguery and fantasy,” Kushner says. His new play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, just opened at the Public Theater in New York City. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin with a Democracy Now! global broadcast exclusive. The City University of New York has reversed a decision to block an honorary degree to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner over his support for Palestinian human rights. CUNY’s Board of Trustees had come under widespread criticism since voting to shelve the honor last week after one member cited Kushner’s critical views of Israeli government policies.

On Monday, the Board of Trustees’ executive committee convened a hastily arranged meeting to overturn its initial decision. The move followed a storm of criticism and protest. Past recipients, including the authors Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Cunningham, announced they would return their honorary degrees to CUNY in solidarity with Kushner. Even former New York Mayor Edward Koch, known for his support of Israeli government policies, called on CUNY to reverse its decision and said he thinks the trustee who led the campaign against Kushner should resign.

The trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, was absent for Monday’s vote. In an interview with the New York Times, Wiesenfeld criticized a reporter for suggesting, quote, a “moral equivalence” between Palestinians and Israelis. Wiesenfeld said, “People who worship death for their children are not human. [The Palestinians] have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history.”

Well, in a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive, I’m joined now by Tony Kushner, renowned playwright and screenwriter. He won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his play Angels in America, which was later made into an award-winning television mini-series. His latest play is called The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. It’s just opened at the Public Theater here in New York City.

We welcome you, Tony Kushner, to Democracy Now!

TONY KUSHNER: Thanks. Nice to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Your reaction to the reversal of the board’s decision that shelved your honorary degree?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, I’m very pleased that they did it. I think it’s the appropriate thing to do. I think it’s important to point out that it’s the direct and even exclusive consequence of the protest that was mounted by the CUNY community and academic community all over the United States and many, many people who are concerned with freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas. And I think the board did the right thing in reversing their decision. So I’m happy about it, and I’m happy that I’m going to accept the degree and be at the John Jay commencement on June 3rd.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you hear that the board had reversed this decision?

TONY KUSHNER: My husband, actually, went to the — I had to go give a speech at the Rubin Museum. A friend of mine, Nancy Hatch Dupree, who is an Afghan specialist and who has lived in Afghanistan for many years, was getting an award, so I went to be part of the ceremony. And meanwhile, my husband Mark went to the public meeting at CUNY and walked right in and watched and then texted me after it was over and said, “It’s over, and they gave you the degree.” I wanted to make sure that there were no advisory warnings or footnotes attached to the degree. I said that I would accept it only if it was given with exactly the same graciousness and generosity that all other honorary degrees were conferred. I didn’t want mine to be a sort of special case.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you step back for a minute and explain exactly what happened? You were called by John Jay College, one of the City University —


AMY GOODMAN: — of New York colleges, and asked if you would accept this honorary degree?

TONY KUSHNER: Right. Jeremy Travis, the president, contacted me the way this usually happens and said, “Would you accept this?” This was about two or three months ago. And I said, “Yes.” And then, I had actually no idea that the board was — I assumed the board would meet at some point and approve honorary degrees. That’s usually what happens. I had no idea that the board was meeting last Tuesday night, I think. And I got an email Tuesday night from Jeremy Travis saying, “I’m sorry to tell you this, but your nomination has been tabled. Would you call me in the morning, and we’ll discuss it?” And then, that’s when it all started.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you were told, what you understood happened. Did you view the board meeting online?

TONY KUSHNER: I’ve never been able to get the CUNY TV link to work, but I listened to the podcast, which is, I think, still available. And it’s an hour-and-10-minute-long meeting. And at the very end, there’s a sort of a —- you can’t exactly tell who’s talking, but I think it’s Benno Schmidt. There’s a -—

AMY GOODMAN: Benno Schmidt is the chair of the Board of Trustees.

TONY KUSHNER: Is the chairperson of the Board of Trustees.

AMY GOODMAN: Former head of Yale University.

TONY KUSHNER: Former head of Yale, yes, and a constitutional law scholar.

AMY GOODMAN: Former head of Columbia Law School.

TONY KUSHNER: Yes. So, there’s this very strange thing. He says, “We’ve got all these honorary degree candidates. Let’s approve the slate,” which is apparently what’s happened automatically every time for at least since the early 1960s. And then Jeffrey Wiesenfeld says that he wants to make a statement. And he’s a trustee, a Pataki appointee and a former fixer, I gather, for Alfonse D’Amato. And he stands up and makes a very odd speech, the first minute or so of which is devoted to trashing Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and high commissioner for human rights for the U.N., and then proceeds to talk about the fact that I’ve been quoted on Norman Finkelstein’s blog, although I actually have no association with and have never met or even visited Norman Finkelstein’s website, and then quotes the two or three quotes of mine that right-wing ostensible defenders of Israel always quote, taken out of context. And then there’s a sort of a scramble. As I counted, eight members of the board — I understand that it may have only been seven members of the board —- voted to just approve the whole slate. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the CUNY trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who led the effort against you, against Tony Kushner. This is some of what he said —

TONY KUSHNER: “Effort” is a little much. He really just got up and made, you know, an ad hoc speech. He didn’t do much in the way of —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me play a clip of what Jeffrey Wiesenfeld said before the board voted to shelve Tony Kushner’s honoree degree.

JEFFREY WIESENFELD: There is a lot of disingenuous and non-intellectual activity directed against the state of Israel on campuses throughout the country, the West generally, and oftentimes the United States, as well. And the reason I choose to address this, there have been a couple of instances — and I don’t in any way, God forbid, denigrate this university, because we are far and away better in this regard than most others, and certainly not the college in question — but I want to address, in context, the question of the granting of the degree to Tony Kushner.

I chose, with Mr. Kushner, not to look at pro-Israel websites that would give insight into his feelings of Israel. Rather, I went to the website of one Norman Finkelstein, another discredited individual, that mercifully we rid ourselves of at this university, and he pridefully displays key quotes of Mr. Kushner on his website, which are accurately reflected elsewhere and by Mr. Kushner’s record itself. And I quote Mr. Kushner.

First, why Mr. Finkelstein praises the candidate: Kushner also deplores “the brutal and illegal tactics of the IDF,” which, I might add, is the only force of its kind in the world that has the high code of ethics that the Israel Defense Forces has, and he deliberate — “the deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people.” He is also on the board of an organization which opposes the security fence, a unified Jerusalem, or military aid to Israel, recommends Norman Finkelstein’s notorious books, and supports boycotting and divesting from the state of Israel.

Now to Mr. Kushner’s quotes. Israel was “founded in a program that, if you really want to be blunt about it, was ethnic cleansing, and that today is behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people.” “I’ve never been a Zionist. I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would be better if it never [had] happened.” Kushner said, “Establishing a state means F-U-[bleep]-I-N-G people over. However, I think that people in the late 20th [and] 21st century — having seen the Holocaust, having seen the 20th century and all of its horrors — cannot be complacent in the face of that.” The Ha’aretz reporter, the Israeli reporter, questioning Mr. Kushner, says, “But you are saying [then] that the very creation of [the state of] Israel as a Jewish state was not a good idea.” And Mr. Kushner answered, “It was a mistake.” I think you get the idea. I don’t want to bore you all with the details.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the CUNY trustee who gave this speech before the board voted, for the first time in its history, to shelve an honorary degree. Tony Kushner, with us, your response?

TONY KUSHNER: Oh my god. I mean, you know, I wrote a letter that’s available online responding directly to some of what he said.

I don’t really think that this is an appropriate — or certainly the board meeting and Wiesenfeld’s remarks are not an occasion for me to engage in a debate with this guy about the state of Israel. Everything that he says is taken out of context. I think it’s really shocking that he says to the board, “I’m not going to bore you with the details,” as if the consideration of whether or not somebody is worthy of an honorary degree is not worthy of, you know, being, quote-unquote, “bored with details.” And, of course, what he’s doing is sparing them not boring details, but the full extent of the things that I’ve said about the state of Israel that would in fact make it clear to the board that I am in no way an enemy of the state of Israel, that I am in fact a vocal and ardent supporter of the state of Israel, but I don’t believe that criticism of state policy means that one seeks the destruction of a state. I’ve been very critical of the policies of my own government. And I think, in fact, adults should be critical of — when they look at reality, that’s sort of the job of being an adult. I think it’s amazing that no one on the board asked to see the full interview that he’s quoting from Ha’aretz or anything else that I’ve written.

It’s also interesting that he says that he chose not to go to pro-Israeli websites, which is a term that I have a lot of problems with, because it’s — I don’t think “pro-Israeli” or “anti-Israeli” is, you know, really a grown-up way to talk about these things. But he says, “I can’t go to pro-Israeli websites, so I turned to Norman Finkelstein’s website.” It’s like, well, you know, there’s a third option: you could look at what I’ve written and what I’ve actually said. You could turn to the work that I’ve done, for which I’m ostensibly being honored. That doesn’t seem to have occurred to him or to anybody else on the board as a legitimate thing.

And he prepared no one for this. No one was told that it was going to happen. I certainly wasn’t told. So it was a chance for him to get up and say whatever he wanted without anyone there to respond, and no one on the board did.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring up Kristofer Petersen-Overton. He is another person who faced a smear campaign for his views on Israel. He was going to be teaching at Brooklyn College.


AMY GOODMAN: He ultimately is —


AMY GOODMAN: — because of the same kind of response that you got. But he wrote recently, responding to the reversal of the decision in your case, Tony Kushner, “Three months ago, I found myself at the center of a similar controversy over my appointment to teach a course in Middle East Politics at Brooklyn College, a CUNY school. Lacking any evidence to support the charge, a local politician described me as 'pro-suicide bomber' [and] pressed for my dismissal. Within 48 hours and before I had held a single session of the course, the college administration intervened to cancel my appointment. My case set off a groundswell of support from academics and activists around the world and Brooklyn College eventually reinstated me just in time for classes to begin.”

Let’s talk about the groundswell of support and the response, the backlash. Did you expect that?

TONY KUSHNER: No, I mean, not at all. I wasn’t sure at first. I mean, I had some uncertainty as to whether or not this would even become a news story. It was picked up initially by a small paper, The Jewish Week, in a rather inaccurate news account of it. They didn’t call me to ask me for my response. Then that got picked up by a couple of — I think The Forward picked it up and The Jewish Chronicle in Britain. And then, from that point, it became — at that point, I sat down and wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees explaining to them my position on this and what I felt that they had done wrong. I had no idea. I think no one had any idea.

I mean, I’ve been thinking in the last few days about what it must have felt like for the board. I think that they all went home from the podcast — it sounds like they sort of shrug their shoulders and go home, imagining that their business was done and that this was all over. And I think it seems to me that, given the fact that none of them responded for several days, that they were really caught off guard.

And Mr. Wiesenfeld, who has since this meeting called me, basically said that I was an anti-Semite, that I was guilty of blood libel against the Jewish people, that I was a capo, seems to think that if he keeps, you know, ringing the same bell louder and louder, it will eventually get the response he hopes it’ll get. And I think he seems sort of confused. He now has a spokesman, which is a kind of an amusing development. He’s not speaking directly to the press, as far as I can tell.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your views on Israel, because you’ve said they’ve been so seriously mischaracterized. You’re on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace.

TONY KUSHNER: Right. And I think that Jewish Voice for Peace is a remarkable organization. I’m on the advisory board. I don’t agree with them about a lot of things, and I’ve given them advice that they’ve chosen not to take. I don’t support a boycott of the state of Israel, and I never have. I can go into reasons for that. I can talk about the comments that I’ve made over the years when asked about the founding of the state of Israel, whether or not I feel that it was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do, whether it was wise for the Jewish people or not wise. These are really complicated issues. I have never said — and I passionately believe that the state of Israel exists and should continue to exist and should be defended. I think that there should be a peaceable two-state solution to the crisis in the Middle East.

But I think that a policy in the Middle East in this country, based on right-wing fantasies and theocratic fantasies and scripture-based fantasies of what history and on-the-ground reality is telling us, is catastrophic and is going to lead to the destruction of the state of Israel. These people are not defending it. They’re not supporting it. They’re in fact, I think, causing a distortion of U.S. policy regarding Israel and a distortion of the internal politics of Israel itself, because they exert a tremendous influence in Israel and support right-wing politicians who I think have led the country into a very dark and dangerous place. And, you know, I think, at the moment, Israel has many, many more serious problems than me. And I think that if people like Jeffrey Wiesenfeld were really concerned about the continued existence of Israel, they should take a look at what has happened in the past, going all the way back to '47 and ’48, and what actually happened when the state of Israel was founded, and to try and understand the reality that the country faces now and to, you know, understand the realities that the Palestinian people face, because it's impossible to shape a legitimate and successful path towards peace based on rhetoric and demagoguery and fantasy.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you felt pressured not to speak? Have you been afraid to speak out? Do you feel —

TONY KUSHNER: Yeah, I mean —

AMY GOODMAN: — criticizing Israel is different from even criticizing your own country?

TONY KUSHNER: Oh, absolutely. And I feel that because I’m Jewish. I’m very proud to be a Jew. And I, like Jeffrey Wiesenfeld and people who think that I’m wrong to speak out about Israel when I feel that Israel has made mistakes, I am very aware of the existence of anti-Semitism in the world. I think it’s still a virulent and serious threat to the existence of the Jewish people. And I think that it is very difficult, for that reason, to discuss what feel like sort of inter-family politics and political choices and strategies in a world that feels, I think legitimately, you know, hostile to the continued existence of the Jewish people. I think anti-Semitism is something that has to be taken very, very seriously.

But I don’t think that it’s at all consonant with the precepts of Jewish ethical inquiry, which is, to me, one of the great glories of Jewish culture and of Judaism itself, to remain silent and to lie about reality. I think that being a Jew is in part trying to find within yourself the courage to confront reality and to speak articulately about it and to engage in debate and discussion. And I think it’s part of the Jewish way of being in the world, to have conversation. And, you know, when you hear this man say in that clip — I hadn’t actually seen him speaking live, that was an interesting moment — you know, that they were fortunate to get rid of Norman Finkelstein, you know, it’s a — the language is, you know, sort of — it’s hard to avoid terms like “McCarthyite” and “Stalinist.” It’s a kind of a scary assumption of what an academic institution should be. So, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that Jeffrey Wiesenfeld should be forced to resign from the Board of Trustees of CUNY?

TONY KUSHNER: I don’t know. I don’t like the term “forced to resign.” I think that there are serious questions that have been raised about the uses and misuses of a position as a trustee of a university. I think it’s a very, very weighty and responsible position, and I don’t think it should be held by people who don’t have, first and foremost, the interests of CUNY at heart. And I think that there is evidence, from this event and from previous events, including what happened to Mr. Overton, that Wiesenfeld is using his position on the board to create a public platform for airing his political opinions and also really for speaking — I don’t want to — if it’s legal — if this is a legal issue or not — you know, defaming people, which is what he’s done in the days since.

And I think it’s up to the CUNY community to decide. I do think that the CUNY community should have a real voice in the constitution of its board of trustees. And I think it’s regrettable that there is a history, apparently, of this board being completely composed of political appointees, or almost entirely composed of political appointees, who are not people who really have a history of involvement in academia or in the support of academia. And that’s, I think, a legitimate thing, a cause of concern. And I hope that this has — I mean, this has absolutely sparked a debate about it, and I hope that that debate continues, and I hope it has consequences.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the CUNY board should issue an apology to you, in addition to reversing its decision?

TONY KUSHNER: You know, I said to the chancellor, Matt Goldstein, when he called me on Friday, that I would like that. I think I am owed an apology. I don’t think I’m ever going to get one from the Board of Trustees. And I decided, after reading Benno Schmidt’s public statement on the CUNY website, which appeared on Friday after my conversation with Matthew Goldstein, that in lieu of an apology, I would accept what is clearly an admission of error of judgment and a lapse of responsibility on the part of the board in defending open exchange and academic freedom.

I don’t understand why it’s so difficult to express public regret. This has cost me a lot of time and effort. And, you know, unfortunately, I’m sure that there’s a part of the Jewish American community, and even the Jewish community worldwide, that is willing to listen to the things that somebody like Jeffrey Wiesenfeld says and not ask many questions. And this does damage to my reputation in the Jewish community, which is a reputation that is immensely important to me. So, I feel that an expression of regret would be appropriate.

I didn’t actually hear the transcript — or the podcast of the meeting last night. I understand that some regret was expressed there. And I’m willing to accept that as being enough for now. This is really not about me. I think the exciting thing about what’s happened in the last few days is what it’s opened up in terms of a discussion about the relationship of CUNY community to the Board of Trustees, academic freedom, and also Middle East policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your play opened at the same time —


AMY GOODMAN: — as this firestorm, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. What impact has this had on that? And do you see some of what you have experienced played out in your play?

TONY KUSHNER: No, I mean, I really don’t. You know, the play opened. I think it got some really great reviews, and audiences really seem to be held by it. I think it’s a complicated and difficult work of which I’m enormously proud. I think it’s a fantastic production with a wonderful cast. I think it’s entertaining. And it plays at the Public Theater through the middle of June, so I hope people will come and see it.

And it’s been a very weird experience to be dealing with this stuff. Opening night was Thursday night, which was about the moment that this really blew up in an enormous way. And that was very complicating. But when I got to the Public Theater on opening night, there was a group of people standing outside with picket signs. And as I was approaching, I thought, “Oh, God, no. It’s going to be one of those, you know, groups calling me an anti-Semite or something, with those sort of horrible pickets.” And I got up there, and it was —- there were faculty members from various schools at CUNY, political science professors, about eight or nine of them -—


TONY KUSHNER: Yes, the PSC union. Barbara Bowen has been so amazing during all of this. And they were there picketing against Wiesenfeld and what had happened on the Board of Trustees. And that was a lovely and heartening thing. And since the play deals with labor unions and pickets, it was sort of — there was a certain consonance there.

AMY GOODMAN: And that union has called for the resignation of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the Professional Staff Congress —


AMY GOODMAN: — a union of CUNY. Well, I want to thank you very much.

TONY KUSHNER: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: I am so sorry we can’t talk further about your play and your work and your career. I know you have to go now, but we want to have you back to talk about that work.

TONY KUSHNER: Any time. Thanks very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Kushner, renowned playwright and screenwriter, won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his play Angels in America, later made into an award-winning television mini-series. His latest play, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to [the Scriptures], opened at the Public Theater. He will be getting an honorary degree from John Jay College, which is part of the CUNY, the City University of New York, system.

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