Thursday, 5 May 2011


(May 6)  I'm not a fan of the Queers Against Israeli Apartheid group that hijacked Gay Pride across Canada last summer. But I do believe in free speech, and so defended their right to express their opinions. As David Ben-Gurion, one of the founding fathers of Israel and that nation’s first prime minister, once said, "The test of democracy is freedom of criticism."

Tony Kushner
Photo courtesy Jay Thompson
 The latest free-speech casualty is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, who was supposed to recieve an honourary degree from John Jay College at the City University of New York.

The New York Times reports that on May 2 CUNY trustees voted to shelve Kushner's honourary degree after CUNY trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld - an investment adviser and onetime aide to former Gov. George E. Pataki and former Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato - said Kushner had tied the founding of Israel to a policy of ethnic cleansing, criticized the Israel Defense Forces and supported a boycott of Israel.

“I think it’s up to all of us to look at fairness and consider these things,” Mr. Wiesenfeld said. “Especially when the State of Israel, which is our sole democratic ally in the area, sits in the neighborhood which is almost universally dominated by administrations which are almost universally misogynist, anti-gay, anti-Christian.”

Kushner said he was “dismayed by the vicious attack and wholesale distortion of my beliefs.”

The Times reports Kusher 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."

“This has been an incredibly ugly experience,” Mr. Kushner said, “that a great public university would make a decision based on slanderous mischaracterizations without giving the person in question a chance to be heard.”

Brad Fraser
Photo courtesy Brad Fraser
Similarly, another famed playwright, Canadian Brad Fraser, also knows what it's like to have an honour debated and revoked. The Legislative Assembly of Alberta in 1994 voted against congratulating Alberta native Fraser for winning a 1994 Genie Award for best adapted screenplay for Love and Human Remains, the Denis Arcand-directed film adapted from Fraser's pro-gay 1989 play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love.

Alberta's Progressive Conservative party was in power at the time, the premier was Ralph Klein and social conservative Stockwell Day - before he became a federal Tory MP and minister - was an Alberta MLA.

"I can relate to this," free-speech advocate Fraser says of the CUNY/Kushner fiasco. "In 1994 the Alberta Government debated on the floor of the legislature whether or not they should congratulate me for winning the award because I was gay and, in the end, voted not to. Seriously. But the opposition did congratulate me."

Meanwhile, Kushner says about CUNY, "I’m sickened that this is happening in New York City. Shocked, really."

UPDATE: Salon reports that on May 9 CUNY reversed its decision to block an honor for Tony Kushner over his views on Israel, after several previous CUNY honorary degree recipients (such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Cunningham) returned their honors, or threatened to do so, in protest of the move.

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