Behind the Board's original decision and its reversal are three stories.
T he first: There has been a concerted attack against the best traditions of open debate and exploration of opinion in academia and in Jewish life, when it comes to criticism of the Israeli government. The second story: There is a new wave of bold resistance to such arrogance, in the world and in the Jewish community. The third: The Middle East is on the dizzying verge of an opening toward peace -- and that infuriates some hawks on both sides of the barricades.
1. Mr. Trustee Wiesenfeld, who swept the CUNY Board into its unprecedented refusal to honor someone nominated by the faculty of one of its constituent campuses, was not just attacking Tony Kushner in some momentary outburst.
He had earlier temporarily won the dismissal of a Brooklyn College professor (later reversed by the college) for the same reasons; he had led the fight to squash the first Arabic-language charter school in New York, reviling its professional educator Debby Almontaser; he opposed the right of Muslims to create a community center/ mosque in Lower Manhattan. And a network of such bigots has been haunting academia for several years.
2. The new story is that this time, a wave of outrage stopped this bigotry in its tracks. Jews committed to Jewish values, intellectuals, artists, academics, joined in condemning the Board's action. (We at The Shalom Center were among the earliest to respond. And we admire the swift and vigorous response of Jewish Voice for Peace.)
This uprising -- which we should take honorable joy in -- is why Benno C. Schmidt Jr., chairman of the CUNY board since 2003 and a former president of Yale University, told the Times that the board had "made a mistake of principle, and not merely of policy," in failing to approve Tony Kushner's degree, at its meeting last Monday. "Freedom of thought and expression is the bedrock of any university worthy of the name," said Mr. Schmidt.
Duhhh! -- It's not likely that Mr. Schmidt was fast asleep and snoring so loud he couldn't hear Mr. Trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld's "impassioned speech" against a made-up caricature of the real Tony Kushner, when the issue came before the Board last week.
It's more likely Chairman Schmidt was thinking that bigots like Wiesenfeld have more money, more glower, and more power, than gay playwrights, wimpy professors, and soft-hearted peaceniks. If so, he was awakened by the wave of outrage that swept over the CUNY Board.
Five years ago, or even five weeks ago, many of those who rose up might well have rolled their eyes but kept their mouths shut.
Why now? For one thing, a new sense of ferment is bubbling, from Tahrir Square to Madison, Wisconsin. God is troubling the Waters.
3. And the third story: The REALLY New Middle East is challenging Israel to think anew. Its government might respond by making new wars, or seeking a newer, broader peace.
Whichever direction it now takes, those Jews who disagree will be tenser than ever, more fearful that the old path or any new one spells disaster. Expect bitter fights, expect less room for shrugging off the struggle, expect more efforts to "excommunicate" the critics.
In the last two weeks, we have seen the tiny openings for a possible though perilous passage toward peace between Israel and Palestine.
In Israel, for the first time in years those committed to peace have raised their voices with serious proposals for a two-state solution. Thirty crucial veteran leaders of the military / security establishment (not the usual peacenik suspects) have put forward a detailed plan. Hundreds of writers, artists, scholars who are the usual suspects but have for years now kept their mouth shut -- the intellectual flower of Israel -- have also called for action to that end.
Among the Palestinians, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Fatah have all agreed to halt attacks on Israel and create a caretaker government of national unity, led by technocrats rather than political figures. Some leaders of Hamas have said that if a majority of the Palestinian people votes for peace with Israel, Hamas will set aside its original framework calling for the abolition of the state of Israel.