Jim Dwyer
The New York Times
May 5, 2011 - 12:00am

“I want to say something,” Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld said. “The question is offensive. Before you even finish.”

Mr. Wiesenfeld is the City University of New York trustee who rose this week at a board meeting to block an honorary degree to the playwright Tony Kushner, declaring him an “extremist” opponent and critic of Israel.

It was a startling development for a board that appeared to be on the verge of rubber-stamping a bundle of honorary degrees proposed by the colleges within the university, including one for Mr. Kushner from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Mr. Kushner was not present, and fragments of his views — which are complicated, passionate, critical — were balled up into a few pellets by Mr. Wiesenfeld, who gave a 900-word speech that was mostly devoted to other figures who he felt were radically hostile to Israel. He quoted about 75 words that he said showed that Mr. Kushner’s thinking was beyond the pale.

The trustees pulled the playwright’s name from the motion and moved on to wholesale rubber-stamping of the remaining honorary degrees.

Was this any way for one of the great public universities of the world to discuss the views of one of the leading dramatists of modern times, author of the epic “Angels in America”?

“I have no idea who Mr. Kushner is; I don’t know his issues,” said Valerie Lancaster Beal, a trustee who said she felt the board should not have singled him out. “To me, it should have been all or none.”

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.

But is there no reason to hear from Tony Kushner, or have a more thorough airing of his views? “Tell you what,” Mr. Wiesenfeld said. “Your question tells me — and I am saying this not to insult you — tells me that you don’t know” what you are talking about.

Two years ago, John Jay gave a medal to Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and human rights commissioner with the United Nations. Many who see the world as Mr. Wiesenfeld does also revile Ms. Robinson for having presided over a conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, at which a number of delegates were unabashedly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

Mr. Wiesenfeld said he had confronted Jeremy Travis, the president of John Jay. “I said, ‘Jeremy, this is crazy. Mary Robinson? The woman who oversaw this disgrace that the United States pulled out of. You can’t have a tin ear.’ He said, ‘Well, many people see it differently,’ ” Mr. Wiesenfeld said. Mr. Travis could not be reached on Thursday, his office said.

(During the Durban conference, The Jerusalem Post reported that Ms. Robinson had spoken out at a major dinner when she was presented with a book of anti-Semitic cartoons. “When I see the racism in this cartoon booklet, of the Arab Lawyers’ Union, I must say that I am a Jew — for those victims are hurting,” Ms. Robinson was quoted as saying. “I know that you people will not understand easily, but you are my friends, so I tell you that I am a Jew, and I will not accept this fractiousness to torpedo the conference.”)

Mr. Wiesenfeld was appointed a trustee of City University in the late 1990s by Gov. George E. Pataki, for whom he worked in the 1990s as a political fixer, an essential and often honorable function that can lead scrupulous people into a blizzard of trouble. In Mr. Wiesenfeld’s case, his work, and his actions, put him at the center of a scandal over paroles that had allegedly been sold to campaign contributors. He was never charged and said he had done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, a federal prosecutor described a memo Mr. Wiesenfeld had written urging leniency for a prisoner as “outrageous.”

Did Mr. Wiesenfeld see no comparison between what had happened to him and his characterizing of Mr. Kushner’s views without giving his target a chance for rebuttal?


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