Anger as playwright is denied award over his views on Israel

  • @adamsherwin10

A New York university has withdrawn its offer of an honorary degree to the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner after a row over his views on Israel descended into accusations of slander.

Faculty and staff members at the City University of New York (CUNY) have protested against the decision, which exposed the faultline that exists within the city's academic and artistic communities over public criticism of Israel.

Kushner, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his AIDS drama Angels In America, had been nominated for an honorary degree by the University's Criminal Justice College.

But trustees voted to block the degree after one board member, who had been campaigning to remove the playwright's name from the list of honorees, raised Kushner's criticisms of Israel.

Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, an investment banker and former Republican Party aide, said that Kushner had described the removal of Palestinians in order to create Israel as an act of ethnic cleansing and supported a boycott of the state.

Wiesenfeld urged colleagues to consider these things "especially when Israel sits in the neighbourhood which is almost universally dominated by administrations which are almost universally misogynist, anti-gay, anti-Christian".

Wiesenfeld succeeded in getting Kushner's name removed in a vote of trustees. The Jewish playwright was furious over the accusations, which were made public in a podcast of the board meeting.

Kushner accused Wiesenfeld of a "grotesque caricature" of his views. The playwright said he was proud to be Jewish and accused the board of slandering him in his absence. He said he wouldn't accept the degree now, even if the board changed its mind. In a letter to the board, Kushner wrote: "My opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel's right to exist. I believe in the absolute good of public debate, and I feel that silence on the part of Jews who have questions is injurious to the life of the Jewish people."

Kushner was a member of the advisory board for Jewish Voice for Peace, an organisation which "defends activists' right to use the full range of boycott, divestments and sanctions tactics" against Israel. But he denied personally supporting an Israel boycott.

Kushner added: "That a great public university would make a decision based on slanderous mischaracterisations without giving the person in question a chance to be heard. I'm sickened that this is happening in New York City."

Staff and faculty members called upon CUNY to reverse its decision. Jay Hershenson, CUNY's senior vice-chancellor, said: "The CUNY board of trustees acted independently and exercised its authority."

The New York-born Kushner, 54, won Pulitzer and Tony awards for Angels In America, his 1993 seven-hour play which depicted the impact of AIDS on the gay community in Reagan-era America.

The Zionist Organisation of America unsuccessfully lobbied against the award of an honorary doctorate to Kushner by a Massachusetts university in 2006, in protest at his criticism of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.