Plays with Politics

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner talks about the controversy around his upcoming honorary degree from John Jay College amidst allegations from CUNY trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld that Kushner is an anti-Semite, and the resulting calls for Wiesenfeld to step down from his position on the board.


The saga of Tony Kushner's honorary degree is messy, and President Obama's recent speech on the Middle East only heightened scrutiny on the politicized drama. Kushner says that he is a strong defender of the state of Israel, even if he thinks the world situation would have been better if the Jewish state had never come into existence. "What has happened in history has occurred and you can't go back in time and change anything," he said.

I have a big problem with states that have specific ethnic or religious identities, I think that's going to cause problems for any state in the long run, in terms of becoming or maintaining itself as a real democracy. And I don't believe that the problems minorities face can be solved through tribal or state solutions, I believe they are solved by legal instruments like the 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution, to the extent they can be solved at all.

Justifying his criticism of Israel, while rooting for Israel

Kushner rejected the black and white 'you're either 100 percent with us or you're against us' approach that some Israel defenders insist on.

The thought of Israel being destroyed is monstrous. I believe that being willing to speak out loud when one feels critical of the policies of the Israeli government you are actually making the state more secure, not less, I believe that about the American government as well. I believe that silence in the face of government misbehavior endangers the health of any democracy.

On Obama and the 1967 borders

Kushner said the way people have latched onto Obama's comments about the 1967 borders is disturbing, because it really isn't a radical proposal even though it is being treated as such. The legal, internationally recognized boundaries of the state of Israel are the 1967 boundaries so Kushner believes it makes sense for them to be the starting point of negotiations, with land swaps and concessions on both sides.

There's a strategic reason for making this declaration now which is to try to rationalize the process of making peace in the Middle East before the meeting of the UN in September, heading off a possibly premature recognition of the Palestinian state before it actually exists, before it's been negotiated into existence.

Should Wiesenfeld be kicked off the CUNY Board of trustees?

Kushner didn't directly answer this question but said it is time for some soul searching. He said he found Wiesenfeld's behavior appalling but acknowledged that the trustee's statements had been exaggerated, just as his own had been.

I think what people need to look at with somebody like Wiesenfeld is whether or not he's using his position as a trustee of a great institution of higher learning as a platform for his own political opinions, and if he is if that's appropriate behavior for a trustee, especially doing it in board meetings.