Witch Hunts in America, Updated 1 & 2

Posted on May 8, 2011


The tempest in a tea cup regarding Tony Kushner’s views on Israel is likely to abate soon, and that’s certainly good news of a relatively new kind. As some may know, Kushner, an award winning playwright best known for “Angels in America”, was recently offered–and then denied–an honorary degree from CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The university’s board apparently and effectively struck Kushner’s name off the list because of what it claimed were his ‘extremist’ views on Israel. Now, following backlash from other luminaries, including progressive favorite and former honorary degree recipient, Barbara Ehrenreich, it looks like CUNY’s board will fold and offer the degree after all. I say this is a new kind of news, because such things usually go the other way.

I previously wrote about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s obscene and cowardly betrayal of Debra Almontaser, the director of an experimental city school that sought to work Arab language and culture into the curriculum. Almontaser had made the mistake of being captured by a video camera in a positive public statement of support for Palestinians. Behind the scenes, Bloomberg forced Almontaser’s resignation, amid a piranha’s frenzy of attacks by bigoted, but influential, organizations. Perhaps Palestinians and Arabs who also support a just and equitable resolution of the Palestinian Israeli conflict will soon find their mild rebukes of Israel and positive support of Palestinian rights equally supported, though I’m skeptical.

But I don’t want to get into that here. What struck me about this issue, despite the commendable stands by other academics in support of Kushner, was just how mild Kushner’s views really are.  Despite the absurd slander of CUNY board member Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld’s recent op-ed “Tony Kushner, an Extremist, Can’t Represent CUNY”, Kushner’s statements and his position on the board of Jewish Voice for Peace, are well within the liberal bounds of mainstream debate on Israel. At least they were as those bounds existed a little over a decade ago. Kushner’s quotes from the very well respected Israeli author Benny Morris, about the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestine in 1948 are now bland historical footnotes in Israeli discourse. Ironically, Morris has taken a radical turn toward the right in recent years, opposing negotiations with Palestinians and supporting military attacks; and yet, he still does not recant his historical work or such terms as “ethnic cleansing”.

Jewish Voice for Peace is also quite mainstream in the Jewish-American continuum of Israeli criticism, joining such other well-regarded entities as the magazine Tikkun, in calling or an end to settlements and an end to military attacks on the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Such demands are not very different from the standard, although hypocritical in their case, rubric of the US State Department.

The largest bone of contention concerning Kushner’s involvement with JVN is their use of boycotts against Israel. But this too is mischaracterization. In the first case, JVN’s boycotts are limited to companies that profit from  of the Israeli occupation, such as Caterpillar, which creates the hulking mechanical monstrosities that destroy Palestinian homes. JVP does not have a standing boycott of companies that do business with Israel. But Kushner does not even support such a conservative boycott and he has publicly disavowed it, as he did in his response to CUNY, where he stated that boycotts against Israel ignore the realities of “Jewish history and Jewish existence.”

Wiesenfeld’s op-ed is, at its base, slander, lacking quotes or citations of any kind. But his actions and writing have a  much more sinister effect on the Israel-Palestine discourse, moving the debate frame increasingly to the right. Wiesenfeld, and bigots like him, make American centrist’s opinions about Israel seem radical. In the new atmosphere created by such McCarthyesque discourse, views that may be further on the left spectrum,–and in line with international law, norms and world opinion–can be made to seem like bloodthirsty anti-Semitism. Having to fight tooth and nail to receive bare acknowledgement that Israeli colonies and Israeli military attacks are immoral and illegal, leaves little time to examine the pitiful excuses for US controlled peace proposals and negotiations. Such processes, which Kushner has supported in the past and will continue to support, institutionalize the worst aspects of the Israeli occupation under a Palestinian Authority imprimatur.

There are, of course, views about the conflict that are motivated by anti-Jewish bigotry which make an honest conversation about the conflict difficult. As a Palestinian I find them repellant, and indeed, more anti-Palestinian, than anti-Jewish in their impact.

But these are far less damaging than the kind of sleazy discourse peddled by Wiesenfeld, and supported by others within the CUNY committee. That’s because when you really look at Kushner’s views, they are little more than the established liberal consensus as it stood at the time of the Oslo Accords in 1993. And here we are struggling just to get back to a level of open discourse that led inexorably to rank injustice for Palestinians in the form of Us and Israel dominated peace processes.


Propagandist extraordinaire, Jeffrey Goldberg, weighs in on this issue in a very clever way, claiming that both Kushner and Wiesenfeld have some fair points. Here’s how Goldberg weighs Wiesenfeld’s claim that Israel could not have practiced ethnic cleansing, because a certain number of Israeli citizens are of Palestinian origin.

Wiesenfeld argued that Israel never engaged in systematic ethnic-cleansing: “The Jews never did this on a systematic basis. The Jews don’t plan genocide. If there was ethnic-cleansing, how come there are more than a million Arab citizens of Israel today?”

On this issue, both Kushner and Wiesenfeld have good, if partial, arguments. There were instances in which Arab villages in what is now Israel were forcibly cleared of their inhabitants by Israeli forces. On the other hand, these episodes occurred during a war initiated by Arabs, after they rejected the United Nations partition of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.

How is Wiesenfeld’s disingenous premise that there was no ethnic cleansing, because “there are more than a million Arab citizens of Israel today…” partially supported by Goldberg’s false statement that Arabs started the war? It’s not, obviously. Rhetorical trick number one from Goldberg.

Rhetorical trick number two: sending people, via hot-link, to CAMERA,  a notoriously mendacious propaganda organ, to view Kushner’s statement about whether or not the state of Israel should have been created. Of course, there are other places where you could view that statement, such as Kushner’s own letter to CUNY which I linked to above. But how convenient that at the CAMERA site you will find a non-stop eye-bleeding onslaught of falsehoods designed, among other things, to make very mainstream ideas about international law and human rights seem scandalously anti-Jewish. Here is on such falsehood:

He cites as his source [for the claim that Israel practiced ethnic cleansing] 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.

Morris however makes no bones about the ethnic cleansing claim, and happily repeats the claim for anyone who’s interested in his disgusting perspective on morality,  here in the LA Times

The expulsions, conducted under orders from then-Lt. Col. Yitzhak Rabin, were an element of the partial ethnic cleansing that rid Israel of the majority of its Arab inhabitants at the very moment of its birth. Earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s, a near consensus had emerged among Zionist leaders on the necessity of “transfer.” They believed that it was critical to buy out or drive out the Arab inhabitants from the areas destined for Jewish statehood, both to make way for Jewish immigrants and to remove the Arabs who opposed, often violently, the establishment of such a state…In fact, today — after looking afresh at the events of 1948 and at the context of the whole Arab-Zionist conflict from its inception in 1881 until the present day — I find myself as convinced as ever that the Israelis played a major role in ridding the country of tens of thousands of Arabs during the 1948 war, but I also believe their actions were inevitable and made sense.

and in this interview.

Q: They perpetrated ethnic cleansing.

Benny Morris: There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide—the annihilation of your people—I prefer ethnic cleansing.

Unfortunately for CAMERA, Benny Morris is now a right wing fanatical supporter of every act Israel undertakes in it’s “defense”, and he can no longer be dismissed as a left wing self-hating Jew as he once was in the US, and as other critical historians of Israel such as Ilan Pape, still are.

Update 2:

Wrapping up a couple of loose ends. Alex Kane notes that Wiesenfeld was also a board member of the Stop the Madrassa’s Campaign which was the main impetus in the withering onslaught against the Khalil Gibran Academy, and the dismissal of its founder and director by the Bloomberg Administration. In an odd coincidence, Bloomberg Admin Deputy Mayor Carol Robles Roman was also one of the board members who voted against Kushner’s honorary degree.

Wiesenfeld is facing a diverse and loud call for dismissal from the board, including the unlikely Ed Koch. Whether or not Wiesenfeld survives, this may indicate a sea change in the acceptance of pro-Palestinian discourse in the US. Though looking at recent congressional calls for pulling funding from the newly unified PA, I doubt it.