This handsome devil is Jeffery Wiesnfeld.
Photo by Michael Appleton for The New York Times
The story so far: Jeffery Wiesnfeld, a City University of New York trustee and semi-professional Zionist, got his knickers twisted over the inclusion of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner among a stack of proposed recipients of honorary degrees to be rubber stamped by its Board. After an impassioned, if factually dubious, recounting of Kushner's criticisms of Israel, (among other things Kushner is the Co-Editor of Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict) the Board caved like a... I'd like to think of a clever metaphor here but currently there is nothing that caves as fast or completely as the CUNY Board of Directors.
What ensued has been a fairly predictable push and pull: Kushner responded. Former honorees Barbara Ehrenreich and Michael Cunningham have returned their honorary degrees to CUNY in solidarity with Kushner. And Wiesenfeld responded to Kushner's response. In the New York Times Jim Dwyer tried to get a defensive Wiesenfeld to clarify his position, which he did by asserting that the Palestinian people aren't human.
I tried to ask a question about the damage done by a short, one-sided discussion of vigorously debated aspects of Middle East politics, like the survival of Israel and the rights of the Palestinians, and which side was more callous toward human life, and who was most protective of it.
But Mr. Wiesenfeld interrupted and said the question was offensive because “the comparison sets up a moral equivalence.”
Equivalence between what and what? “Between the Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “People who worship death for their children are not human.”
Did he mean the Palestinians were not human? “They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history,” he said.
To paraphrase one of my favorite bloggers, Shark-Fu of Angry Black Bitch:
Blink.Right. So how do you engage with someone who believes (and reports that belief to the New York Times) that people like you aren't human? Short answer: you don't.
Like their Evangelical Christian brethren (who also do their level best to bend US civil discourse to suit their political concerns) it is pointless to engage rationally with Zionists. So rather than answer the various–-frankly ridiculously inaccurate and/or sensationally distorted–-racist and Islamophobic claims of various post Kushner-kerfuffle commenters (or of Wiesenfeld himself) I’d like to make three points:
1) The particular context of this debate aside, it should be clear that this incident sets a dangerous precedent at CUNY. Our universities are settings for the rehearsal of such arguments–to the great benefit of their students. The threat implicit in Wiesenfeld’s objection is premised on the potential economic consequences for CUNY based on public opinion, which is not fixed. If I were a Zionist I’d be very wary of opening this particular door. The times they are a-changin'.
2) The cultural behaviors, religious beliefs and legal policies of the various nations of the Arab world (and/ or Muslims in general) are utterly beside the point: the actions of the State of Israel toward the Palestinians are still wrong. They are not *less* wrong (or even somehow “right”) because some of the Palestinians do things that you (or Wiesenfeld, or even I) don’t like. Period. Ethnic cleansing doesn’t magically become justifiable when you use it against people with whom you disagree. In other words we don’t say “Well, slavery was okay because we don’t like the way the Africans treated women or gays.” We say, “Slavery is wrong.” Period.
3) This action–described by Wiesenfeld as “boycotting the boycotters”–has achieved nothing except to betray Zionist fear over the growing international influence of the cultural boycott of Israel. Bad move. I have never been more convinced that the Boycott is working than I am at this moment.
If they cannot see that this is not a Zionist “moral” victory but rather a sloppy, public misstep then they are kidding themselves.