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Free Brooklyn College: Sign the Petition to Support Academic Freedom at CUNY

6:47 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

Brooklyn College campus [hdr image]

If you live in Brooklyn, you have probably heard of the threat from members of the New York City Council against Brooklyn College.  If you live elsewhere, chances are that, unless you are involved in the struggle for Palestinian rights, or the struggle against them, you’ve missed his one.

In a nutshell, in late January a controversy arose over the political science department at Brooklyn College sponsoring an upcoming appearance there by two advocates of Global BDS.  That movement, now in its ninth year, advocates putting pressures upon the increasingly apartheid Israeli state, similar to the sanctions imposed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, against the increasingly apartheid South African state.  Here is a description of the controversy, from a friendly point of view:

At Brooklyn College, a student chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine organized a forthcoming panel with Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti to discuss the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The political science department agreed to co-sponsor it. When certain individuals hostile to BDS heard about this event they raised an outcry. The outcry started with Alan Dershowitz, who demanded that the political science department either withdraw its sponsorship or ‘balance’ it with a voice – namely his – that is critical of the panelists. Very quickly this became a city and state-wide issue, and various politicians, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, began to make the same demands. Now, quite disturbingly, the New York City Council is threatening to withhold future funding for CUNY unless the political science department either cancels the event or withdraws its sponsorship.

Advocates for the college’s position have emerged, including constitutional attorney, Glenn Greenwald, Palestinian rights advocate Andrew Sullivan, and – surprisingly – MSNBC‘s Chris Hayes (as described by Phil Weiss):

A “who’s who” list of New York politicians is trying to shut down the conversation. Hayes mentions Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler. “I understand why there’s an outcry” from those who find BDS odious — he says, covering his bases. But Hayes is clear about the academic-freedom principle and about the highly “selective” concern for balance in this instance and not others. What if the University of Alabama tried to disinvite a gay speaker? Hayes says that some of those politicians “browbeating” the college have been on his show. Good liberals. Yes: Progressive Except Palestine, PEP.

Greenwald has written several columns now on the threats against the college. Most recently, he centered on comments by NYC council member, Lew Fidler, whose threats against Brooklyn College funding seem to have been the most explicit yet.  Greenwald:

How can anyone not be seriously alarmed by this? These threats are infinitely more destructive than any single academic event could ever possibly be…Plainly, this entire controversy has only one ‘principle’ and one purpose: to threaten, intimidate and bully professors, school administrators and academic institutions out of any involvement in criticisms of Israel.

Fidler’s chilling letter to BC President Karen Gould can be read here (scribd).

One speaker at the upcoming event, prominent feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, has defended herself many times against specious “anti-semitism” charges (Butler is Jewish), most notably, in her profound essay on anti-semitism, in the London Review of Books, eleven years ago:

In holding out for a distinction to be made between Israel and Jews, I am calling for a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate; but I am also opposing anti-semitic reductions of Jewishness to Israeli interests. The ‘Jew’ is no more defined by Israel than by anti-semitism. The ‘Jew’ exceeds both determinations, and is to be found, substantively, as a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos. Once the distinction is made, discussion of both Zionism and anti-semitism can begin, since it will be as important to understand the legacy of Zionism and to debate its future as to oppose anti-semitism wherever we find it.

The other main speaker in the upcoming BC event is Palestinian, Omar Barghouti, echoed Butler in a 2011 interview with The Guardian on Global BDS, which he helped found:

Here is what the petition in support of Brooklyn College’s position states:

We the undersigned write in support of the decision by Brooklyn College’s political science department to co-sponsor a panel discussion with Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti. We urge CUNY President Karen Gould to resist attempts by those who have attempted to intimidate CUNY into canceling, changing, or withdrawing its sponsorship for the panel. We are especially concerned that the New York City Council has threatened to withhold further money for CUNY if it does not either cancel the event or withdraw its sponsorship. This is a grave threat to academic freedom and sets a terrible precedent for the future.

You can sign it here.

The goal was 500 signatures. It currently as 1,612.

(If you click “SIGN’” button, you can leave the page without hitting the “pay” buttons on the succeeding page.  I didn’t pay, and my name now shows up.)

I signed – as a college professor in favor of free speech.

Will you sign?

CUNY To Hold Special Executive Session Monday to Reconsider Withholding Honorary Degree from Tony Kushner

2:25 pm in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

I predicted it yesterday.  Here’s the announcement (PDF).  Here’s an article that quotes from the statement:

Under mounting pressure from supporters of the playwright Tony Kushner, the chairman of the board of the City University of New York has called an executive committee session for Monday to reconsider awarding Mr. Kushner an honorary degree.

Benno C. Schmidt Jr., the chairman of CUNY since 2003, issued a statement on Friday afternoon saying that he believed that board members had “made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy” in failing to award the degree to Mr. Kushner earlier this week.

“Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name,” Mr. Schmidt wrote, referring to the opposition that had been expressed by one trustee, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, toward Mr. Kushner’s political views.

“But it is not right for the board to consider politics in connection with the award of honorary degrees except in extreme cases not presented by the facts here,” he wrote. “The proposed honorary degree for Mr. Kushner would recognize him for his extraordinary talent and contribution to the American theater. Like other honorary degrees, it is not intended to reflect approval or disapproval for political views not relevant to the field for which the recipient is being honored.”

My diary about this, posted at MyFDL yesterday, and explaining fully how this went down – Kushner was being sanctioned for advocating Palestinian rights in the past –  is here.  Commenters at most articles on this debacle are not being kind to board of trustees member Wiesenfeld, whose views about the supposed natural inferiority of Arabs and Blacks have given pause in the past.  Former NYC mayor, Ed Koch has asked for the ouster of Wiesenfeld:

“Mr. Wiesenfeld and the trustees who followed his request should immediately reverse their action and urge Mr. Kushner to forgive them,” Koch wrote. “I consider Mr. Wiesenfeld’s action so outrageous as to be an abuse of power on his part requiring his resignation or removal from the Board of Trustees.”

Had CUNY tried to go through with the commencement ceremony with no action past last Monday’s decision to withhold Kushner’s honorary doctorate, the ceremony might have seen some of those to be honored this year refusing to accept the award, possibly demonstrations by graduating students.  Already, America’s leading scholar on the McCarthy era, Ellen Schrecker, had informed CUNY that she was returning her honorary doctorate, and the doctoral hood (!) over what she termed the board’s “negat[ing] the sacred mission of higher education in a democratic society.”

It is not clear yet whether or not Kushner will accept the degree.

Tony Kushner Blocked from Honorary Doctorate at CUNY for Supporting Palestinian Justice – Updated

11:42 am in Uncategorized by EdwardTeller

The Jewish Week broke the story on Tuesday that Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner was tabled rejected from receiving an honorary doctorate from City University of New York’s John Jay College, upon the baseless accusations of one of CUNY’s board of trustees members, investment banker Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld:

Wiesenfeld, a board member of several Jewish organizations and an activist in conservative circles, spoke out against plans to honor Kushner, who, like others receiving honorary degrees, may have spoken at the graduation ceremony.

Wiesenfeld cited what he believed were some of Kushner’s anti-Israel statements, all of which he said he found on the website of Norman Finkelstein, another figure known for his vehemently anti-Israel views.

When people identify themselves with “these types of viewpoints,” Wiesenfeld told his fellow trustees, “it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things,” especially when Israel sits in such a hostile neighborhood. “There’s a lot of disingenuousness and non-intellectual activity directed against the State of Israel on campuses across the country,” he said, adding that CUNY has had its share of such activity, although it’s far better than most universities.

Following Wiesenfeld’s comments, a majority of CUNY board members voted to remove Kushner’s name from the list of this year’s honorees, and then voted unanimously to table, or put off, the honor to the playwright, according to CUNY spokesman Michael Arena. The move, though, effectively kills the honor, because the next scheduled board meeting is at the end of June, after John Jay’s June 3 commencement ceremony.

On Wednesday, the blog Mondoweiss was among the first to pick up this important story, and Kushner responded Wednesday with a letter to the CUNY board.  Here’s an excerpt of his understated communication to this body, which Kushner described yesterday as “indulging in ‘McCarthyite nonsense.’”

I wasn’t told in advance that my willingness to accept an honorary doctorate from John Jay would require my presence at a meeting to defend myself. As far as I know, no one who might have spoken on my behalf was notified in advance. I’m not a difficult person to find, nor am I lacking in articulate colleagues and friends who would have responded. For all his posturing as a street-tough scrapper for causes he believes in, Mr.Weisenfeld, like most bullies, prefers an unfair fight.

But far more dismaying than Mr. Weisenfeld’s diatribe is the silence of the other eleven board members. [emphasis added]

Did any of you feel that your responsibilities as trustees of an august institution of higher learning included even briefly discussing the appropriateness of Mr. Weisenfeld’s using a public board meeting as a platform for deriding the political opinions of someone with whom he disagrees?

Did none of you feel any responsibility towards me, whose name was before you, and hence available as a target for Mr. Weisenfeld’s slander, entirely because I’d been nominated for an honor by the faculty and administration of one of your colleges?

I can’t adequately describe my dismay at thefact that none of you felt stirred enough by ordinary fairness to demand of one of your members that, if he was going to mount a vicious attack, he ought to adhere to standards higher than those of internet gossip. Mr. Weisenfeld declared to you that, rather than turn to “pro-Israel” websites, he’d gleaned his insights into my politics from the website of  Norman Finkelstein. I find it appalling that he failed to consider a third option: familiarizing himself with any of the work I’ve done, my plays, screenplays, essays and speeches, for which, I assume, the faculty and administration of John Jay nominated me for an honor.

Kushner has found predictable defenders from among those who openly espouse justice for Palestinians.  This disturbing action has also pushed some who are just now beginning to question the Zionist expansionist meme.  Here’s UCLA professor for public policy Mark Kleiman yesterday:

[T]oday I learn that Tony Kushner – whose views about Israel seem roughly to track mine – has been denied an honorary degree by a minority of the trustees of the City University of New York, based on a typical cowardly wingnut smear job, launched without warning in a way that gave Kushner no chance to defend himself.

I know most Israelis don’t deserve their worst American defenders, but if the result of having to defend Israel is that Jews start acting like bullies and sounding like Nazis, at some point the price gets to be too high.

Like Beinart, I support the continued existence of a democratic and Jewish Israel within, roughly, its 1967 boundaries; unlike him, I can no longer count myself a Zionist.* In the immortal words of Sam Goldwyn, “Include me out.”

Kushner, who has long battled against prejudicial stereotypes against gays, is going to put up a great fight on this – one that will bear watching closely.  Philip Weiss writes today:

A leading artist is afraid when someone says that he has disparaged a foreign country. I’d point out that back in January, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation organized a bigwigs’ letter that urged Obama to condemn Israeli settlement-building in the U.N. Security Council– a letter that of course failed– and that Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post derided Clemons as an “Israel-basher.”

The comment unnerved Clemons, who is a leading Washington Democrat,and much as Kushner has appealed to CUNY, Clemons called on The Washington Post to retract the charge. He wrote:

Calling someone an Israel-basher is akin to calling them an anti-Semite or a bigot, and that can’t go without response.

And here is Kushner, per the Times:

Kushner… said that he was “dismayed by the vicious attack and wholesale distortion of my beliefs.” He has criticized policies and actions by Israel in the past, and said that he believed — based on research by Israeli historians — that the forcible removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of Israel was ethnic cleansing. But he added that he was a strong supporter of Israel’s right to exist, that he had never supported a boycott of the country, and that his views were shared by many Jews and supporters of Israel.

Kushner has also found support from Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic:

This is just unconscionably stupid. Where to begin? Actually I can’t begin now, I’m running out to something, but really, denying Tony Kushner an honorary degree because a former aide to George Pataki thinks he is anti-Israel? Kushner is critical of Israel, yes, and I don’t think he actually understands much about the Middle East, but I’m not sure this is the business of the City University of New York. In any case, Kushner is obsessed, in his own way, with the Jewish condition, and he views himself, I’m reasonably sure, as inhabiting the age-old role of the laceratingly self-critical Jewish dissident. He strikes me, from a distance, as one of those sons-of-the-people who wakes up worrying about the Jews, and goes to sleep worrying about the Jews. I think his discomfort with Jewish power is mainly misplaced, but turning him into a free-speech martyr? Is that what a handful of Jews want to do with their political power? In any case, if those Jews on the right are trying to marginalize his opinions, this is certainly not the way to do it.

Bozos.

Goldberg got that right.  Something tells me that CUNY will end up giving Tony his degree, and apologizing for how they’ve treated one of our most important living artists.

Update: Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the CUNY board of trustees member who opposed an honorary doctorate for Tony Kushner was interviewed yesterday for today’s New York Times.  The interview contains a remarkable exchange between Wiesenfeld and NYT reporter Jim Dwyer:

On Thursday afternoon, Mr. Wiesenfeld took a phone call about the events at the board meeting, and said he was surprised to get enough support from other trustees to block the Kushner degree. He had thought, he said, that he was going to register his dissent for the record and move on.

I tried to ask a question about the damage done by a short, one-sided discussion of vigorously debated aspects of Middle East politics, like the survival of Israel and the rights of  the Palestinians, and which side was more callous toward human life, and who was most protective of it.

But Mr. Wiesenfeld interrupted and said the question was offensive because “the comparison sets up a moral equivalence.”

Equivalence between what and what? “Between the Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “People who worship death for their children are not human.”

Did he mean the Palestinians were not human? “They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history,” he said.

I know scores of Palestinians, and they all seem to love their children as dearly as I love mine.  Some might even be willing to give their own life to save Mr. Wiesenfeld’s kids, should such an unlikely situation actually occur.  The guy seems more like a batshit crazy racist every time he’s put in front of a microphone or qwerty keyboard.

In the comments to this diary there are several updates, as supporters for Mr. Kushner have come forward from many universities and from some unlikely places.  Kushner is being supported by ex-NYC mayor Ed Koch, for instance.  Koch wants CUNY to give Wiesenfeld the boot.