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Agitprop in America

The tempest has subsided, and the playwright Tony Kushner will receive his honorary doctorate from the City University of New York after all. After a single trustee convinced the majority of his fellow board members to deny the award on the basis of Kushner's viciously negative pronouncements about Israel, the weight of almost the entire New York cultural apparatus was brought to bear, and in short order the board's chairman called, successfully, for the decision to be overruled. The whole uproar, brief but ferocious, was an object lesson in the present state of cultural and intellectual politics in America.

Relevant Links
Tony Kushner's Anti-Israel Falsehoods  Andrea Levin, CAMERA. An annotated compendium of the playwright’s inflammatory and radically biased attacks on the Jewish state.
The Kushner Flap  Stanley Fish, New York Times. Refusing to grant an honorary degree is not a violation of academic freedom or censorship; nor is receiving one a right.

Kushner is best known for his epic morality play, Angels in America. In that sprawling seven-hour extravaganza, a gay New York Jew learns that his lover has AIDS; a closeted Republican Mormon realizes he is gay; and Roy Cohn, a prosecutor in the Rosenberg espionage trial and later chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, lies dying of AIDS and is comforted by the ghost of his nemesis, Ethel Rosenberg. From this overwrought piece of anti-American agitprop, Kushner went on to write the screenplay for the Steven Spielberg film Munich, in which Israeli assassins track down the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre, then redeem their (yes, their) inhuman actions by suffering breakdowns, alienation from Israel, and crushing guilt.

These pretentious, cliché-ridden, and wildly overrated successes aside, the remainder of Kushner's oeuvre consists of dramas and essays largely unproduced and unread. Declining to award him an honorary degree on these grounds alone would have been amply justified. As it happens, though, the explosion was caused by the audacity of the lone trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, whose crime lay in daring to point to Kushner's actual words about Israel.

By now those words have been widely quoted, and documenting the playwright's deep-seated animus against the Jewish state is an easy and straightforward task. More important is that Wiesenfeld was entirely within his rights to object to awarding the degree, and the board entirely within theirs to vote to withhold it.

None of this, however, figured in the reaction to the decision by the New York academic and cultural elite, captured in a thundering New York Times editorial charging that the CUNY trustees had "supported the political agenda of an intolerant board member and shunned one of America's most important playwrights. They should have embraced the artist and tossed out the board member." Even if Kushner "were a lesser artist," the Times added, "it still would have been outrageous for CUNY to deny his honorary degree for political reasons."  Bad art, in other words, is still art, and bad political art is sacrosanct—at least, as long as the politics are shared by the editors of the New York Times.   

The board's chairman, Benno Schmidt, added a Pavlovian stinker to the mix by reaching for today's all-purpose academic excuse: "Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name." Passed over by this former law professor and First Amendment scholar was the incontrovertible fact that Kushner's freedom of thought and expression was nowhere at issue and remained wholly intact, while the freedom of a dissenting trustee, and of those who had the inexcusable effrontery to agree with him, was being impugned from all sides.

Individual responses were equally knee-jerk. The historian Ellen Schrecker announced she was returning her own honorary CUNY degree, implying that the trustees had been guilty of, no less, McCarthyism. (Schrecker's worldview and entire academic career have been based on repetitious treatments of the McCarthy era and accusations that another such era is imminently upon us.) One faculty member was darkly threatening; "This is a faculty whose intelligence you should not insult." Karen Kaplowitz, the head of the faculty committee that nominated Kushner, scolded, "This is not how the academy works, and it should not be how the trustees of a great university operate." Evidently so. In the end, not only did the trustees shut up, wag their tails, and approve the degree, but moves are afoot to disbar the heretic Wiesenfeld from the CUNY board.

It was left to Stanley Fish, writing in a New York Times blog—not the actual newspaper—to eviscerate the hysteria of Schrecker et al. Pointing out the obvious, Fish noted that Kushner was not an academic and hence had no "academic freedom" to be trampled, that there was no "censorship" involved, that honorary degrees are always political in one sense or another, and that no one is automatically entitled to one.

At least three lessons may be learned from this affair. The first is that for the New York cultural elite, which may be caricatured in this case as an interlocking directorate of playwright, pundits, and professors, the presumption of impunity is absolute. Academia, in particular, has a "sacred mission," to be defined solely by the faculty and under no circumstances to be questioned. That the faculties themselves tend to be monolithic in their political and ideological orientation may help to explain their wild overreaction in the present instance and others like it. Delusions of infallibility combined with well-deserved insecurity and profound authoritarianism make for a potent brew.

Then there is the key role played by the media, and preeminently by the Times, which no longer bothers to make even a pretense of dividing news from opinion, or opinion from insult, misrepresentation, and naked advocacy. On certain subjects, anyone getting the "news" from such a source might as well be reading leaflets handed out by the crank on the street corner. Only through a constant process of reading and tacking among multiple sources can one establish even the basic facts of who said what to whom.

But by far the most important lesson is the degree to which the state of Israel has indeed become the third rail of American cultural and intellectual politics. An individual wishing to be considered respectable by the interlocking directorate and its ancillary institutions and adjuncts is permitted only an extremely narrow slice of views on the Jewish state: the spectrum ranges from, roughly, seeing the country as basically legitimate but uniquely flawed to seeing it as wholly illegitimate and irretrievable. To wander from these parameters is to court the dreaded epithet of "right-wing," and to question the playwrights and professors who hold such views, or even to decline to honor them, puts one decisively beyond the pale.

In the end, the Kushner brouhaha also shows exactly who is responsible for placing the Israel "question" at the forefront of the American agenda. The answer is not evangelical Christians, or AIPAC, or "neoconservatives." It is the academic and cultural Left, along with its bedfellows on the isolationist Right, for whom the demonization of Israel is the cause of the day. There is cause for gratitude that, outside those precincts, the Kushner affair seems to have had no resonance whatsoever. There is cause for profound anxiety that the demonization has proceeded so far and infected so many in positions of power and influence. 

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. 

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Jon on May 12, 2011 at 3:35 am (Reply)
Nice try, but you're just dissembling here. The fact is that that Wiesenfeld screwed the dog here, the cause of Israel takes a black eye due to right wing overreaching, and instead of manning up you're blaming the "elite." which sounds a lot like code for "Jews" in another context.

If the goal is to help Israel, you need PR wins, not losses. You need them more than you need tobe right about what academic freedom is.

You might start by attacking other Jews last, if at all, since they are more likely to be helpful with Israel.

How long will this approach fail before someone wonders if its time to change.
Yosef Blau on May 12, 2011 at 9:46 am (Reply)
In the struggle against the delegitimization of Israel introducing the issue when no one had seen the granting of an honrary degree to Tony Kushner as an endorsement of his politics was counterproductive. This article unfortunately reflects a mentality that broadens the category of delegitamizers to include those whose positions are expressed in Israel by journalists and opposition politicians. In a battle of ideas the goal should be win over those in the middle. Interestingly, Joffe ignored the statement of former mayor Koch hardly an opponent of Israel.
Marshall on May 12, 2011 at 11:19 am (Reply)
This is a ludicrous screed that I was wondering how to characterize when the author provided exactly the right language: it "no longer bothers to make even a pretense of dividing news from opinion, or opinion from insult, misrepresentation, and naked advocacy. On certain subjects, anyone getting the "news" from such a source might as well be reading leaflets handed out by the crank on the street corner."

This Joffe starts with a flagrant misunderstanding and mischaracterization of Angels in America and ends with the laughably absurd notion that opposition to Israel is required to participate in American intellectual life.

I always wonder what the supposed audience is for this faux-intellectual crap, because anyone who has read or seen Angels in America or has the remotest contact with American intellectual life would recognize these absurdities for what they are. Is there a population that reads a column like this and says "oh, Angels in America must be terrible! American intellectuals require opposition to Israel!" and so justifies its lack of interaction with either?
david Reuveni on May 12, 2011 at 1:27 pm (Reply)
What is emerging in the American Jewish community is a fifth column of culturally elitist wannabe WASPs very similar to the wannabe Germans among the Jews of the Nineteen-twenties and thirties who imagined themselves superior to their less affluent and sophisticated Eastern European coreligionists. This pathologically self-hating and reflexively seditious Jewish-American fifth column is undermining and rotting out core American values and institutions and threatens the survival of the Jewish state. What to do?

First and foremost be skeptical and don't confuse self-serving leftist hype with fact.

Tony Kushner is a mediocre playwright. By comparison to Kushner, even the deservedly all but forgotten Clifford Odets was a Shakespeare. CUNY is a mediocre institution comparable to the pre-open-admissions CUNY of generations ago in name only. Likewise the contemporary activist New York Times that promotes leftist hacks and shlockmeisters like Kushner.

No accident that Kushner was nominated for his award by Michael Meerpol, elder son of the despicable Stalinist spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. No accident that the New York Times, a dying bastion of the establishment left, devoted no less than than four articles to supporting Kushner's nomination. Inevitable that a Palestinian
flag will be flown at the CUNY commencement honoring Kushner, an oleaginous liar and propagandist who, like the Palestinians he supports, has cleverly managed to position himself as a victim.

The United States missed an opportunity after the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Soviet archives. Long-time American supporters of the evil regime should have been placed in the dock and forced to publicly recant their positions. Had that been done, the Sulzbergers, the Meerpols and the Kushners couldn't raise their heads today.

Perish their name and memory, one and all.
Joseph Kaplan on May 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm (Reply)
There is a fourth lesson to be learned: that the law of unintended consequences is alive and well. In attempting to bar Kushner from the award (a position I agree with), Wiesenfeld's action ended up making Kushner into a martyr and a hero -- and he's still is getting the honorary degree! While Wiesenfeld may have been right on substance, his action showed, at the least, poor judgment. We have to learn to pick our battles. And, BTW, it's inaccurate to say "a single trustee convinced the majority of his fellow board members to deny the award." In fact the vote was 7-5 to award the degree, but a 3/4 vote (9 trustees) was needed.
Rachel Golem on May 12, 2011 at 4:35 pm (Reply)
One Jew complained about another Jew and somehow it is getting more airtime than the Syrian civil war.

Did anyone hear that two Coptic Christian churches were burned down in Cairo this week?

sam on May 12, 2011 at 5:23 pm (Reply)
This is nonsense. Kushner would fit in very well in Tel Aviv. I saw Munich in Israel and no one there seemed to have a problem with it. Joffe should learn that pro-Israel is not the same a right-wing. people like him are going to turn Zionism into something most Jews cannot and will not support. He thinks he is doing Israel a favor, but he is doing more damage than he understands. Either that, or his right-wing politics comes before his comitment to the Jewish state.
Jacob Arnon on May 12, 2011 at 7:10 pm (Reply)
sam “This is nonsense. Kushner would fit in very well in Tel Aviv. I saw Munich in Israel and no one there seemed to have a problem with it.”

Sam, like other critics of Alex Joffe, assumes that his point of view is right rather than argue for it.

First the film Munich:

How is it right wing to kill terrorist who were responsible for the murder of many Israelis in Munich? Is Obama right wing because he orders the killing of terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen?

Kushner is a pretentious man who thinks that his moral sensibility it the only just one when in fact it is based on a pacifism which allows killers to get away with murder. Of course Kushner like many of his friends can adopt his pacifism because they are in no danger of being targeted by terrorists.

Joffe is also right for condemning the anti-Israel views of the NY Times. That paper has never been a friend to the Jewish community: not during the Holocaust, and not now. They rarely print articles about attacks on Jews in Europe nor would one know that during the recent demonstrations in Egypt the chant death to the Jewish was on many lips and printed on the walls. Jewish readers would do well to be more critical of that paper.
Jacob Arnon on May 13, 2011 at 11:40 am (Reply)
Given some of the reactions to Mr. Joffe’s article as “right wing” it is important to remember that there has always been a large dose of hypocrisy when dealing with Israel’s right to defend itself and to punish terrorists who kill its citizens.

The British philosopher Norman Geras made this clear recently in his comments on an article:

“Tom Gross compares reactions (scroll down) to Israel's killing of Ahmed Yassin and the killing of Osama bin Laden:

Israel's killing of Ahmed Yassin:

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: "I condemn the targeted assassination of Ahmed Yassin. Such actions are not only contrary to international law but they do not help the search for a peaceful solution."

Killing Bin Laden:

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed Osama bin Laden's death as a key turning point in the struggle against terrorism.”

There is more. Read it here:
Ellen on May 13, 2011 at 11:59 am (Reply)
The comment that this tempest in a pathetic little teapot (the much disrespected world of the academic left, which has almost no influence on American public opinion) is getting more attention than the Syrian civil war is a fitting commentary on the desperation of the very small pro-Palestinian lobby in the US. They are losing the battle against Israel because the whole foundation of their ideology is being destroyed by the much fabled Arab street.

The intellectual left and its artistic cadres was largely discredited by the horrendous record of the Soviet Union and its eventual collapse. The only remaining cause left for them that arouses these dinosaurs from their beds in the morning is the anti-Israel cause. Unfortunately that was also based on the Big Lie that all the problems of the Middle East were the result of the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

It turns out that 99% of the problems of the Middle East were the result of Arab and Muslim despotism and that the Arab masses don't give a fig about the Palestinians afterall. They are now very ardently trying to overthrow the regimes that invented the Palestinian problem and kept in on page 1 of the newspaper, and as the main cause du jour in academia for the past 40 years. I wish them well. When these regimes are gone, the chaos that ensues subsequently will make Tony Kushner and other ex-Jews of his ilk look like antiquities in the "Yesterday's News" department.
Jerold S. Auerbach on May 13, 2011 at 12:34 pm (Reply)
Kudos to Alex Joffe for "Agitprop in America." As a 45-year veteran of academic warfare (now retired), I am all too familiar with political correctness and the maligning of Israel. I applaud his evisceration of the CUNY faculty, trustees and administration for its Kushner cave-in. But why am I not surprised?
sam on May 13, 2011 at 4:33 pm (Reply)
jacob arnon,

i think it is you who are assuming, in that you assume i am somehow against targeting terrorists. i also think you are wrong to assume that's the message of the movie Munich. the message was simply that people feel and should feel troubled by killing other human beings, not that it is always wrong to do so.

it was nesisary to kill ahmed yassin and bin laden. but that does not mean we should be happy about it. that is the standard left-wing zionist position, as when Rabin said to the egyptians, "we can fogive you for killing our sons, but we cannot forgive you for forcing us to kill yours." This is the statement of an Israeli hero. its obviously not an-anti israel argument, even if those on the right would like to portray it as such. in fact that is the type of argument that zionists like ben gurion, rabin, and Israel's other founders stood for. Ben Gurion would be roling in his grave if he read post like this. He hated the likud's parent organization, Herut, and he called for an withdrawl from the West Bank right after 67. today people like Jaffe would smear him and rabin as anti-israel, and that, i am sorry to say, shows that these arguments are nonsense.
Jacob Arnon on May 13, 2011 at 7:10 pm (Reply)
Sam: “i think it is you who are assuming, in that you assume i am somehow against targeting terrorists. i also think you are wrong to assume that's the message of the movie Munich. the message was simply that people feel and should feel troubled by killing other human beings, not that it is always wrong to do so.”

If that were its message (and I saw the film twice) then neither the director nor the screen writer were able to successfully present it

I also don’t see why it’s wrong to feel satisfied when a terrorist who has been killing people and threatening to kill many more has been himself killed.

This is also called felling relieved that some sire threat to your life has been removed.

Your view is little different from the Christian view of turning the other cheek. It may be a satisfying moral principle but it contradicts the principle of natural law.

Moreover, had Kushner written about the need to feel guilty when a murdered is killed on other occasions, I wouldn’t see him as an anti-Israel writer. To ask Jews to hold to some higher moral principle than other people is to see Jews as either superior (answering to a higher law) or inferior (they can’t be trusted to act morally.)

I have been reading Debra Lipstadt’s book on the Eichmann Trial: (Lipstadt, Deborah E. (2011). The Eichmann Trial. New York: Nextbook Press/ Schocken) and she shows unambiguously that the much of the world intellectual community held Israel to some higher moral standard in that they criticized that country for trying someone that had committed crimes against the Jewish people and could therefore not be fair since the judges themselves had relatives killed by Eichmann.

This line of reasoning didn’t come up when Poles, or French or other countries put on trial Nazis that had committed crimes while occupying their country.

Btw: stop bringing up Ben Gurion since when he was alive the level of terrorism while bad enough was never as bad or as common as it later became. There were no suicide bombers when he was in office.
Again, you are assuming that all conflicts can be reduced to a “right wing left wing” dichotomy. Were it that simple.

Begin who was never my favorite politician was able to make peace with Egypt something that even Ben Gurion (whom I respect for being both tough and tender when needed) could not do. Different historical times allow for different approaches to problems. There is a time for making war and a time for making peace.

Kushner’s and your approach is a historical. It’s moralistic without being moral.

The Munich massacre was a horrific assault on innocent people and killing those who carried it out acted was an heroic and moral deed even if some of them became disturbed by having to do so.

What they needed from us is support for their acts of self defense and not condmnation.

Soldiers in all wars become traumatized that doesn't mean that those who fought the Nazis or to free the Slaves in our country were immoral. Nor were Lincolns, or Roosevelt's decision to fight back wrong.

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