UPDATE: The NY Times reports that Dr. Benno Schmidt, chair of the CUNY board of trustees, is moving to reinstate Tony Kushner’s honorary degree. In the story, Schmidt acknowledges that a wrong was done to Kushner, that the board made a “mistake of principle,” and that he’s trying to right it. Thank God for common sense and decency. The executive committee will meet on Monday in special session to deliberate on the matter and it is anticipated a grave injustice will be rectified. I presume Wiesenfeld isn’t a member of the executive committee and thus won’t be able to poison the well and the playwright’s candidacy, as he did before the entire board.
Jeffrey Goldberg, in the true spirit of “if you give a man enough rope, he’ll hang himself,” has a long, illuminating interview with Jeffrey Wiesenfeld in The Atlantic. Now that Tony Kushner has exposed as a lie the CUNY trustee’s charge that the playwright supports an Israel boycott, Wiesenfeld has only one of his original smears against Kushner up his sleeve: the Nakba as ethnic cleansing.
Almost all my readers know the facts that nearly 1-million Israeli Palestinians were expelled (mostly forcibly) from their homes inside Israel before, during and after the 1948 war. Most people know that the Israeli New Historians, including Benny Morris, in fact documented this act of ethnic cleansing. Without their intensive historical research into Israeli archival sources on the subject, the charge would only rest on the claims of the victims themselves, and thus be less solid than it is.
So in the spirit of giving everyone, including Jewish idiots, a fair deal, let’s listen to the bubbe meisehs that Wiesenfeld spins in his interview:
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the bomb-throwing CUNY trustee who has blocked John Jay College from awarding the playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree, told me…that, as the child of Holocaust survivors, he has no choice but to call out Kushner for making the “blood-libel charge” that Israel has engaged in ethnic-cleansing.
“My mother would call Tony Kushner a kapo,” he said in a telephone conversation earlier this morning. “Kapos” were Jews who worked for the Germans in concentration camps. “If I’m confronted by anti-Semitism in my face, I’m going to call it out.” I asked him if he had any doubt Kushner was an anti-Semite. He said: “Anyone who accuses the Jews of ethnic-cleansing is participating in a blood libel, so yes, he’s a Jewish anti-Semite.”
…”Ethnic-cleansing is a blood libel. You’ve crossed the line if you’ve said that. It’s Darfur, Bosnia, Nazi Germany. If you say the Jewish people engaged in ethnic cleansing, then you put them in the class of the Nazis.”
…”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?”
At the end of the interview, Wiesenfeld graciously offers to support Tony Kushner’s honorary degree if he would come before the board (a right that was not accorded to him before Wiesenfeld slashed and burned his candidacy for the degree in the first place) and apologize for all the bad, bad things he’s said about Israel in the past. Imagine, it’s CUNY’s board that should be apologizing to Kushner for their stupidity, but Wiesenfeld somehow gets it all backwards.
In a separate Times interview, Wiesenfeld makes even more damaging claims that Palestinians are not human because they “worship death.” Being the Jewish ignoramus that he is, he’s unaware of the holy martyrdoms throughout Jewish history beginning with Masada, the Roman executions of the Rabbi Akiva and the nine other saintly rabbis, the deaths of tens of thousands during the Crusades which were likened to the sacrifice of Isaac and clearly seen in terms of martyrdom, followed by the deaths of Jews on the auto da fe during the Spanish Inquisition. In the Israeli context, Michael Dorfman reminded me on Facebook, that Josef Trumpeldor apocryphally said before his own martyrdom at Tel Hai: “it is good to die for one’s country.” To this day, IDF ceremonies for new recruits canonize the Masada martyrdom with the slogan: “Masada will not fall again.” Baruch Kimmerling has written definitively on the cult of martyrdom in the latter-day Israeli context.
I have an unwritten rule of thumb in dealing with the ahistorical nonsense spewed by people like Wiesenfeld: whatever smears they level against the Palestinians are vices that also characterize Jews. In other words, no one is solely guilty here. We all have sins and weaknessnesses. It is the hubris that your side is all good and the other side is all bad that gets us into profound trouble when dealing with complex historical claims of both Israelis and Palestinians. Instead of hubris, what we really and desperately need is humility. The concept that we may not know everything, that our enemy may have a legitimate claim we weren’t aware of. And that we may be able to convince him or her of a legitimate claim we may have as well.
This is the problem when you give an ignoramus power. He uses it to bully those who are smarter, better read, more articulate and more learned than he. His actions thus pollute the political discourse in a community because they aren’t based on real ideas, but rather on half-baked notions having little to do with reality.
Let’s take the idea that his mother, a Holocaust survivor, would call Kushner a “Kapo.” Without knowing his mother, I’m willing to bet that as a survivor she would do nothing of the sort. She, unlike her son, likely met real Kapos and knew the horror of what they did and the genuine suffering they caused. She likely would never call someone a Kapo for merely being a critic of Israeli policies. I have met many Holocaust survivors and I have never heard a single one use the term in any other way than to refer to that specific historical period. The notion of exploiting it in a contemporary context having nothing to do with the Holocaust comes from the pro-Israel far-right and the Kahanist crowd, which has always been obsessed with linking Israel to the Holocaust and claiming that those who oppose Israel will cause a new Holocaust.
So Wiesenfeld is exploiting the sacred imagery of the Holocaust and Jewish suffering in a contemporary context in which it does not belong. He abuses the term “Kapo” to score cheap political points against those who legitimately raise their voices out of concern that Israel’s policies are taking it down the wrong road. There is a term in Hebrew for what Wiesenfeld is: am ha’aretz. An ignorant, ahistorical, Kahanist, lying boor.
If this troubles you half as much as it does me, go to Jerry Haber’s blog and post a version of his letter to the CUNY trustees, whose e mail addresses he provides.