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Danny Schechter
Danny Schechter
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel1.org. He is the author of The Crime of Our Time.
Is Tony Kushner the new Helen Thomas?
Jewish playright's honorary degree is restored after it was stripped from him for being "too critical of Israel".
Last Modified: 10 May 2011 16:10
Helen Thomas, an award-winning journalist whose career spanned that of ten US presidents, was blacklisted in the media world after saying Jews in Israel 'should go back to Poland' [EPA]

First they came for Helen Thomas.

After the veteran White House correspondent once spoke inelegantly about her feelings toward Israel - and apologised, to no effect - she was blackballed at the instigation of strident Israeli supporters and her career achievement-standing journalism awards were stripped. She became persona non-grata with many media outlets joining in the denunciations of a colleague they honoured for decades. Many at the time suspected the wrath was especially severe because she is an Arab-American.

Right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter even asked if "that Arab" should be allowed near the president.

But, now a new flap driven by some of the same issues involves a Jewish Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a leading academic institution in New York.

His name: Tony Kushner, best known for the brilliant "Angels in America" plays that bravely took on AIDS and the hypocrisy, if not criminality, of the prominent Jewish lawyer Roy Cohn - who was an aide to the late fanatically anti-communist symbol, Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Now McCarthy’s name has been introduced into a debate following a decision by City University of New York (CUNY) to strip Kushner of an honorary degree, after one conservative pro-Israel trustee took umbrage at his criticisms of the Israeli government and convinced his colleagues to take action.

Supporters of Israel have been primed by their lobby and the Israeli government to confront any and all attempts to "deligitimise" Israel - or even to criticise its government.

Kushner became the symbol of those closet "anti-Semites" or "self-hating Jews" who bash Israel. And so a group of trustees turned him into an Israel hater. He became a new Helen Thomas, even though he is Jewish.

But in New York - unlike Washington, which seems ruled by a conservative media elite that is frequently intimidated, if not directed, by the Israel Lobby - there was a cultural fight back against what was seen as an act of intolerance that violated freedom of thought.

Soon the New York Times was making it a big story, with strong statements against the efforts of conservative Republican trustee Jeffrey S Wiesenfeld, to blackball plans to honour Kushner by John Jay College, one of the system's schools. Wiesenfeld did not win much sympathy when he was quoted as previously questioning whether Palestinians were human.

Blogger MJ Rosenberg offered insight into Wiesenfeld's didactic views:

"Here is Wiesenfeld's rationale for his actions, which he offered in a telephone call with the Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg:

"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.

Pretty amazing, likening criticising Israel to working with the Nazis to kill Jews. But Wiesenfeld has some strong views. He was also aligned with Pam Geller, the Muslim hater who led the fight against the so-called Ground Zero mosque. He is also an active supporter of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby."

His diatribe was seen as too severe and inflammatory by many civic leaders. Prominent supporters of Israel were soon supporting Kushner, including former Mayor Ed Koch, newspaper publisher Mort Zuckerman and a veritable who's who of cultural figures.

Enter the top officials at CUNY who agreed to review the decision and vowed to reverse it. On May 9 they did so - voting unanimously to restore the award.

The Guardian reported: "The chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, addressing the board on Monday night, said he had supported the original recommendation of the award and praised Kushner's 'extraordinary body of work'. He urged the board to overturn last week's decision and to support the award."

Some members of the board spoke, all of them voicing support for Kushner. One of them described the row as a "blemish" on the university's reputation as an upholder of freedom of expression.

Here's how the Times put it: "Having embarrassed themselves more than was absolutely necessary in the eyes of many New Yorkers, trustees of the City University of New York are…to undo the damage."

Tony Kushner told the Times in an interview, "I have been honoured many times by prominent Jewish organisations, proudly identified as a Jew and maintained a passionate support for the continuous existence of the State of Israel."

"An apology should come from the Board of Trustees for not following the dictates of simple fairness and decency when this happened, and allowing someone who deserved better treatment to be treated shabbily."

Since the action of the CUNY board, he has received an outpouring of support from peace groups, friends, and intellectual and artistic groups. "It’s completely overwhelming," he said.

In an earlier statement, Kushner, who has edited a collection of essays critical of Israel, said: "It's been my experience that truth eventually triumphs over sound bites, spin and defamation. And that reason, honest inquiry and courage, which are more appealing and more persuasive than demagoguery, will carry the day."

His story went from the Jewish press to the pages of the New York Times, and quickly became an international free speech issue.

But even if his status is rehabilitated, the Times asks: "Will a reversal end the affair? Not necessarily. Closing a self-inflicted wound can be tough."

The problem, of course, is that Kushner's status earned him reconsideration; other less well-known personages critical of Israel, including academic and political analysts, are often targeted in ways that generate less attention and debate.

Many conclude it's just not worth it to speak up about Israeli policy, less they became targeted and smeared - and even lose their jobs.

Meanwhile, Helen Thomas continues to live defensively as an exile in the strait-laced Washington media world in which she was once a luminary. A group of journalists are now lobbying the Society of Professional Journalists to reinstate her status but, aged 90, she has no major newspapers or high-profile politically acceptable people behind her.

Perhaps, next, Tony Kushner could write a play about how Thomas has suffered the slings and arrows of unfair slurs and demonisation.

News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. He is the author of When News Lies: Media Complicity and the Iraq War. Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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