Updated: Tony Kushner’s Anti-Israel Falsehoods Thwart CUNY Award

Tony Kushner is in the news again — and not for a theatrical opening, but for another kind of drama. Once more his radical, factually-flawed attacks on Israel have come back to haunt him. The latest controversy centers on objections to his receiving an honorary degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York (CUNY). His proposed honor was voted down when a member of the Board of Trustees, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, raised the issue of his inflammatory biases with the Trustees (see the May 4, 2011 – Subcommittee on Audit Meeting presentation here at 1:07:58).
In response to being denied the award, Kushner fired off a letter on May 4 to Chairman of the Board Benno Schmidt and the Trustees claiming he’d been subjected to a “vicious attack.” 
As in previous controversies, such as his screen-writing role on Steven Spielberg’s highly biased Munich, Kushner considers the quoting of his own words or mention of his close ties to fringe anti-Israel extremists to be unfair, “vicious,” or “McCarthyite.” In his latest letter, he repeats calumnies against Israel he’s uttered over the years, among them his frequent charge that: “the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the state of Israel was ethnic cleansing.” Of course, there’s nothing at all “incontrovertible” about this allegation. Kushner is simply repeating anti-Israel propaganda disconnected to facts. He cites as his source Benny Morris, yet Morris himself has written that the fact that “Israel emerged from the 1948 War with a 160,000-strong Arab minority” undermines charges of ethnic cleansing. Such is the caliber of the playwright’s commentary on Israel and the Palestinians.
Nor of course, does he bother to consider the work of Professor Efraim Karsh, whose book Palestine Betrayed chronicles the events leading up to and through the Israeli War of Independence and the realities about Palestinian refugees. Karsh notes the
claim of premeditated dispossession and the consequent creation of the longstanding Palestinian “refugee problem” forms, indeed, the central plank in the bill of particulars pressed by Israel’s alleged victims and their Western supporters. It is a charge that has hardly gone undisputed. As early as the mid-1950’s, the eminent American historian J.C. Hurewitz undertook a systematic refutation,and his findings were abundantly confirmed by later generations of scholars and writers. Even Benny Morris, the most influential of Israel’s revisionist “new historians,” and one who went out of his way to establish the case for Israel’s “original sin,” grudgingly stipulated that there was no “design” to displace the Palestinian Arabs.
In the unfolding controversy, the president of the Faculty Senate of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Karen Kaplowitz, has weighed in to protest the Trustees’ action. The Faculty Senate had nominated Kushner for the award originally. Kaplowitz termed Kushner “a major artist and a brilliant public intellectual” and said the Board has “maligned Mr. Kushner without just cause.”
Have Jeffrey Wiesenfeld and the Trustees who declined to honor the playwright “maligned” him?
Only if “maligned” includes reflecting the verbatim, repeated, false and biased statements made by Kushner.
In Kushner’s Own Words
1) Kushner routinely charges Israel with ethnic cleansing and dispossession of Palestinians.
 The founding of the state of Israel required the dispossession of an indigenous group, the Palestinians. 
Wrestling With Zion (Grove Press, 2003) Edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon; Introduction by the editors, p.2
[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.
Yale Israel Review (winter 2005)
(Although Kushner espouses affection for Israel in the same interview, his charge of “ethnic cleansing” is defamatory and baseless. )

2) Kushner has said repeatedly that the creation of the state of Israel was a mistake and should not have happened.

I’ve never been a Zionist. I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state. It would have been better if it never happened.
The New York Sun reporting Kushner comments made at a conference in NY(10/14/02)

Kushner: Establishing a state means fucking people over. However, I think that people in the late 20th century or early 21st century – having seen the Holocaust, having seen the 20th century and all of its horrors – cannot be complacent in the face of that.

Ha’aretz reporter: But you are saying that the very creation of Israel as a Jewish state was not a good idea.

Kushner: I think it was a mistake.
Ha’aretz (4/7/04)

Zionism aimed as the establishment of a national identity is predicated on a reading of Jewish history and an interpretation of the meaning of Jewish history I don’t share. Insofar as Zionism is an idea that the solution to the suffering of the Jewish people was the establishment of a Jewish nation, I think it is not the right answer.
Ha’aretz (4/7/04)

“I am not a Zionist, in case you haven’t noticed.” Kushner cited “the shame of American Jews” for failing to denounce Israel.
Chicago Tribune (4/10/02)

3) Kushner goes so far as to blame “the existence of Israel” for world “peril” generally:

The existence of the state of Israel, because of the terrible way that the Palestinian people have been treated, is now in great peril and the world is in peril as a consequence of it. And we have now the spectacle of Jewish people all over the world, who in the past century had an absolutely magnificent tradition of rejecting barbarism and right-wing murderous politics, rallying behind Ariel Sharon who 10 years ago would never have been acceptable anywhere.
In These Times interview (3/4/02)

4) Kushner emphatically rejects the notion that Israel represents him in any way.

Israel is a foreign country. I am no more represented by Israel than I am by Italy.
Ha’aretz (4/7/04)

I have huge problems with Zionism. As a Jew, I have always said the promised land seems to me to be the Constitution of the United States of America.
In These Times (3/4/02)

5) Kushner advocates radical policies toward Israel, contrary to the views of the mainstream in Israel and America.

The Israeli-built security wall should come down, the homeland for the Palestinians should be built up, with a strictly enforced peace, not enforced by the Israel Defense Forces, but by the United Nations.
Baltimore Jewish Times (6/4/04)

(While many Jews may support the creation of a Palestinian state under circumstances that assure the safety of Israel, few oppose construction of the protective security barrier and most reject inviting the U.N., known for its entrenched pro-Arab policies, to enforce “peace.”)

6) Kushner routinely levels incendiary and baseless accusations against Israel and its leaders.

People change. I believe deeply in the possibility of people changing. But Bush? Sharon? Nine months have passed [since September 11, 2001] and look at the mess the feckless blood-spattered plutocrat and the unindicted war criminal have wrought in the Middle East….

I deplore the brutal and illegal tactics of the Israeli Defence Forces in the occupied territories. I deplore the occupation, the forced evacuations, the settlements, the refugee camps, the whole shameful history of the dreadful suffering of the Palestinian people; Jews, of all people, with our history of suffering, should refuse to treat our fellow human beings like that.
London Times (5/7/02)

Playwright Tony Kushner said Israel is involved in ‘a deliberate destruction of Palestinian culture and a systematic attempt to destroy the identity of the Palestinian people.’
New York Sun (10/4/02)

…the savagery of Operation Defensive Shield… [launched by Israel in response to terrorist attacks in 2002].

One hardly justifies suicide bombings by pointing out that there’s also no “equivalence” between a dispossessed people resisting a thirty-six-year-old occupation and a massive military machine enforcing that repressive occupation , nor by noting that IDF attacks on civilians are themselves sometimes far less than careful or innocent. (Take the official policy of house demolitions, for example. Or Chris Hedges’s report in Harper’s magazine that he observed soldiers taunt Palestinian boys into throwing stones and then open fire.) [see CAMERA’s refutation of the fallacious Hedges account]

To avoid facing up to such atrocity, to sustain the refusal of any Israeli share in culpability, Zionism has produced a long, shameful, and debilitating history of denial…
Wrestling with Zion – Introduction p.5

7) Kushner’s ambivalence about Israel, preoccupation with his own feelings and lack of historical awareness is apparent in a typically rambling passage written as an accompanying essay for the release of a CD by the Klezmatics entitled “Possessed.”

I want the State of Israel to exist (since it does anyway) and I want the cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs honored and I want to shokl with Jews at the Wailing Wall and at the same time (and I’m afraid this won’t help sales of your CD) I think the founding of the State of Israel was for the Jewish people a historical, moral, political calamity. Contemplating the possible destruction of Israel (civil war?) I feel at times if I could ever kill for a nationalist cause, I might kill for that one but at the same time I wish modern Israel hadn’t been born; I am a diasporan Jew, not a Zionist; and I say this feeling that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, is, its Zionist agenda and homophobia notwithstanding, Jewish history’s best most eloquent single answer to Hitler and the Holocaust; and is so because it is in Jerusalem but I wish Jerusalem was an international city under a U.N. protectorate; and I wish the Museum of the Holocaust in Washington was a Museum of the Jewish-American Experience instead, with a holocaust wing, and I wish it stood on the Mall alongside museums devoted to the sufferings and triumphs of other ethnic-American groups.

Kushner’s Ties to Radical, anti-Israel Groups

♦ Kushner sits on the Board of Advisors of the “Jewish Voice for Peace,” which advocates divestment and boycott campaigns against Israel. His name appears on JVP letterhead, including on a letter “salut[ing]” the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) for its move toward divesting from companies that do business with Israel. The letter posted on the JVP Web site not only applauds selective divestment focused on particular companies as proposed by the Presbyterians but says “we absolutely reject the accusation that general divestment or boycott campaigns are inherently anti-Semitic.” 

JVP also posted a related statement saying:

Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the largest grassroots Jewish peace group of its kind in the United States, applauds the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) for its recent vote to explore divesting from companies who profit from the harming of “innocent people, Palestinian or Israeli.”

This is a position anathema not only to politically centrist, mainstream Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, ADL, American Jewish Congress, the Wiesenthal Center, all major synagogue groups and the United Jewish Communities (an umbrella group representing 155 Jewish Federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America), but it is also opposed by left-leaning groups such as Americans for Peace Now; Brit Tzedek v’Shalom: The Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace; Meretz USA: For Israeli Civil Rights and Peace; Ameinu/Our People: Liberal Values, Progressive Israel; the Shefa Fund. For instance, commenting on the Presbyterian divestment issue, Americans for Peace Now said they:

strongly oppose one-sided actions and statements, including divestment, that appear to solely blame Israel for the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. These types of initiatives are morally and historically inappropriate and destructive to reconciliation between the Jewish state of Israel and Palestinian statehood.

The Anti-Defamation League issued a detailed response to the Presbyterian move, saying among other things that:

Divestment … validates and supports Palestinian intransigence by giving hope that, ultimately, the world will allow Israel to be destroyed and Palestinian extremist dreams realized. Most Israelis feel, and we agree, that much terrorism is grounded in a rejection of Israel’s right to exist – one reason why attacks increased during the period following the signing of the Oslo Accords. Palestinian terrorism, before 1967 and since, has targeted schools, buses, cafes, discos, hotels – places where innocents, particularly children and families, congregate.

Jewish Voice for Peace also helped spearhead the campaign aimed at intimidating the Caterpillar company into refusing to sell bulldozers to Israel.

Its “Action Center Homepage” calls on the public to “Urge the Caterpillar board of directors to stop selling bulldozers to Israel.” Although a shareholder effort failed to win support, JVP indicates it will renew similar efforts in the future.

JVP’s Web site contains additional examples of its anti-Israel activity as well as press releases denouncing Israel in distorted and unbalanced language. JVP opposes Israel’s construction of a security barrier in the West Bank, opposes military aid to Israel, opposes a unified Jerusalem, recommends the notorious Norman Finkelstein’s books and much more.

In a press release apparently removed from the Web site was published on the occasion of Yasir Arafat’s death, JVP condemned Israel for not fulfilling his burial wishes, mentioning only briefly that the Palestinian leader was associated with violence. Although Arafat is the father of modern terrorism, with a grisly record that includes the killing of innocent men, women and children in Israel and beyond, his seminal role in this global scourge was omitted.

The group wrote:

JVP also expresses the hope that Arafat’s legacy will not remain mired in the unfair and false accusation that he and he alone was responsible for the failure of the Camp David process of 2000 and the beginning of the second intifada.

It should be noted that often news sto ries referring to JVP’s involvement in anti-Israel activity make special mention of Tony Kushner as a member of the Board of Advisors.

♦ Kushner is involved with a radical anti-war group, “Not In Our Name” (NION), that opposes U.S. policy in Iraq and “Palestine.” NION places newspaper ads, such as one in 2002 for which Tony Kushner was both a signer and a member of the “statement Advisory Board.”

It included the following:

The brutal repercussions [of Bush policies] have been felt from the Philippines to Palestine, where Israeli tanks and bulldozers have left a terrible trail of death and destruction.

According to a Chicago Sun Times report (10/20/02):

The group was started and is being run by founders of a New York-based radical group called Refuse & Resist, who are closely tied to the Maoist-inspired Revolutionary Communist Party.

NION’s various chapters sponsor demonstrations with extreme anti-Israel themes, such as one in San Francisco a year after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “Tear Down The Israeli Apartheid Wall” was the slogan on a banner bearing the NION label and logo.

50,000 people jammed the streets of San Francisco one year after the invasion of Iraq to say no to endless war and occupation. The Not in Our Name Earth Flag Contingent teamed up if the Loco Bloco Drum and Dance Ensemble to make some noise.
At the same demonstration, “Free Palestine” marchers carried PLO flags and a banner saying “We shall return.”

At NION rally in San Francisco

An October 7, 2002 story in The New York Sun was headlined “Park Peace Protest Is Riddled with Anti-Semitism.” It reported on many anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements at an anti-war demonstration in Central Park sponsored by Not in Our Name.
NION demonstration,  Central Park, October 6, 2002

The Sun reported:

[One attendee said Bush] is a puppet of the Zionists [who] control the media, the government and the economy. The Jews' book - the Protocols of the Elders of Zion - explains how they control the world and how they make people fight against each other." His reference was to a notorious Russian forgery that has been a centerpiece of anti-Semitism since Czarist times. “The American government,” Mr. Asawa said, uttering another allegation frequently heard from anti-Semites, “is controlled by corporations and the corporations are controlled by Zionism.”

By no means all of the protestors in Central Park bought into the kinds of theories Mr. Asawa was pushing. But many expressed hostility to the Jewish state while opposing the nascent war against Iraq. Pete Rupert, for one, said his condemnation of Israel was simple. “I know a lot of Palestinians, and I've hung around with too many Jews. I'm not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israel.”

Another, Karen McCarthy of Staten Island, said “America's support of Israel is unconscionable.” She said she didn't “want my tax dollars spent going towards Israel's disenfranchisement of the Palestinians.”

A protester from Atlanta, Janx Morris, who was also wearing a kaffiyeh, said, “Israel is and has been an outpost of US imperialism throughout the region - culturally, economically and politically.”

“Bush has to deal with the Israeli lobby. These corporations and business interests in the U.S. influence Bush... they try to persuade Bush to totally push the Palestinian people out of Israel. They have lots of money and have more or less bought out Bush,” said Todd Wilkerson of Queens.

“Israel is the bully of the whole neighborhood,” said one protester, Nihaya Dugan, a Palestinian Arab who moved to New York in 1998.
Kushner charges McCarthyism (for being quoted verbatim)

Playwright Tony Kushner responded to questions about his many extreme comments regarding Israel with an outlandish claim in the New York Sun (April 25, 2006) that his “past statements have been taken out of context by groups using ‘McCarthyite’ tactics to portray him as an extremist.”

“McCarthyite” suggests misrepresenting the facts to smear by innuendo. In this instance, the facts are undeniable. The numerous quotes noted above reiterate again and again the notion that Israel's conduct is abhorrent and its very existence a “mistake,” and are not, of course, taken out of context at all. Each citation includes specific reference to the original text — should there be any do ubt about the “context” and intent of the assertion.

An additional statement by Kushner about Israel from an interview in 1994 confirms how longstanding have been his attitudes. Tony Kushner in Conversation, an edited collection of interviews with the writer published by the University of Michigan Press (1998) includes an exchange with Bruce McLeod that appeared in the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies. The following passages appear there:

Kushner: Yeah. I feel that I'm very much a product of what I consider the most important tradition – I'm not a religious Jew and I think the Diasporan Jewish culture has a magnificent history of progressive involvement with the cultures that Jews have found themselves in and interacting with. It's very much a part of who I am. So yes.

It's a very distressing thing to me that American Jews have lost contact with the traditions of socialism and humanism – I don't consider myself a humanist but I probably am – but there are important progressive and radical European traditions that arrived with Jews in the U.S. from Germany to Russia that really informed American Jewish consciousness all the way up to the 1950's, and Roy [Cohn's] generation is really the generation that succeeded in beginning the severance of that. It still continued in a very lively way which manifested itself most obviously in Jewish support for the Civil Rights movement, but at the same time that that was happening there was this tremendous support for Israel and that's been part of this calamity– it's driven international Jewish culture from its progressive base. I don't know what's to be done about it, what recourse progressive Jews have to call...I'm sort of floundering for words because I don't know what to call us at this point. I mean we're not a religion, it makes everyone uneasy to think of us a race, including Jews, it's very odd; we've wound up being the oddest phenomenon in modern history."

Jerusalem is...it's very, very hard. It's hard every Passover. Jews all over the world for the last 2,000 years say: next year in Jerusalem, and that's both literal and nonliteral. A lot of progressives get rid of it because of the obvious Zionist, imperialist implications of it. It's tremendously complicated– I really believe that the Israel lobby has pulled American Jews into bed with some really awful people is undeniably the case. The biggest supporters of Israel are the most repulsive members of the Jewish community and Israel itself has got this disgraceful record ... but anti-Semitism is alive and well and Jews do occupy a very precarious position in the world. For all the wealth and cultural clout that they have accumulated in this country I still believe that we are a definable target and as such ... I don't know what I'm trying to say except that I feel incapable of unambivalently rejecting a Jewish yearning for a homeland, although I can unambivalently say that I think that it's a terrible historical problem that modern Israel came into existence.

When I was in Israel and you go to the Holocaust Museum – you were talking about public spaces earlier – the entire museum is very subtly on a ramp that leads you through the whole history of anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution, and it leads you up this ramp without you noticing that you are going uphill until you've gone up five stories and you are on this balcony overlooking modern Jerusalem: this is sort of the end point, the logical conclusion, this is what all that suffering was for, so that we could be – of course not looking toward East Jerusalem – the occupiers of this land again. And that's appalling, and you can look at that and go, 'Oh for God's sake,' and no matter how moved you are by some of the things in Yad Vashem you feel sort of sick at it. But then I went to the Wailing Wall and it is astonishing, you can't not feel as a Jew tremendously moved by a Jewish presence at the Wall. And above the Wall on the Temple Square is a six-branch menorah, each light representing one of the six million that died in the Holocaust, and more than anything else that I saw, the presence of that menorah made it feel like — that was the refutation of the success of the European attempt at genocide. But that sounds horrible too! Most Palestinians would probably hate me for saying that. The progressive Israelis that I met would describe a vision of what Israel ought to be and it sounded exactly like the position the Jews occupied in the ghettoes in Europe in the Middle Ages – a kind of buffer zone, a sort of financial hub – we'll handle the money between the Arab world and the West. Well, if that didn't work in the Middle Ages it isn't going to work here. And they don't need that buffer zone now, nobody wants it, it's all in computers and it will happen in nanoseconds– it's a fantasy and it's a fantasy of ultimate powerlessness because Israel is a creation of the U.S., bought and paid for. There are lots of beautiful little orange groves and olive groves which the Palestinians had before the Jews were there, and some very attractive European-looking cities, but there's no real country there. I don't know.

Update: May 10, 2011  CUNY Board of Trustees Reverse Decision and Grant Kushner Honorary Degree
Reacting to criticism of CUNY's initial vote against an honorary degree for Kushner, CUNY President Benno Shmidt hastily called a meeting of the board to reverse the decision. The board voted to award Kushner with the degree.

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