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Who’s afraid of Tony Kushner?
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Who’s afraid of Tony Kushner?

I’m guessing that not many of playwright Tony Kushner’s admirers even knew about his interest in the Israel debate, despite his having edited a book on the topic. But I’ll tell you one thing: They do now.

On May 9, the executive committee of the City University of New York’s board of trustees approved an honorary degree for Kushner, overturning a decision made after one trustee, Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, accused Kushner of “disingenuous and non-intellectual activity directed against the State of Israel.”

The original decision by CUNY’s trustees, to table an honorary degree that John Jay College wanted to grant Kushner, was a triumph of the “anti-Zionism is the new anti-Semitism” ideology. Formulated in the last decade, the idea recognizes that as classic anti-Semitic tropes have gone out of fashion, they have been replaced with a singling out of Israel that draws from the same poisoned well. It may be declasse to say Jews are cheap or “clannish,” but quite all right to stand up in public forums and compare the Israelis to Nazis and describe their Diaspora supporters’ “stranglehold” on Congress.

The “New Anti-Semitism” was a useful way to classify a paroxysm of anti-Jewish feeling disguised, just barely, as concern for the Palestinians. Its signature characteristics are unwillingness to recognize any of Israel’s security or emotional concerns and an obsession with singling out Israeli misdeeds in courts of law and public opinion, and, perhaps most importantly, denying even a shred of legitimacy to the idea and fact of the Jewish state. The “New Anti-Semites,” like Helen Thomas, would be happy to roll the clock back to 1947, have the Jews return to the charnel houses of Europe, and “return” Palestine to its “rightful” inhabitants.

Like every form of racism or prejudice, the New Anti-Semitism reduces its target to mere abstractions — 5.5 million human beings become an “idea” whose time has come and gone.

And yet, like many useful tools used the wrong way, analysis of the “New Anti-Semitism” can also be yielded as a blunt instrument, which was certainly the case in the Kushner brouhaha. Once you define some criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, it is tempting to define all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. There are legitimate debates to be had over the future of Israel, its relationships with the Palestinians, the contours of a Jewish state alongside that of a Palestinian state. But to raise these possibilities, even and especially when they don’t conform to the current thinking in Jerusalem, is not anti-Semitism. Israel’s own electorate is deeply divided over these issues. Its wild and wooly press includes criticism of the Israeli government and a penchant for self-criticism that would curl the toes of a typical American Zionist.

In writing about Israel and editing an anthology of leftist perspectives on the Jewish state, Kushner probably felt he was working within a tradition of Jewish self-scrutiny, not outside of it. (His best-known play, Angels in America, is in many ways a rumination on the political choices made by Jews in the 20th century, from the radicalism of the Rosenbergs to the reactionary conservatism of Roy Cohn.) The anthology, Wrestling with Zion, includes a few hair-raising Jewish critics of Israel, but also writers, including Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Ellen Willis, whose pro-Israel bona fides are unassailable. The thrust of Wrestling with Zion is not to legitimize criticism of Israel, but to create a space for debate among (mostly) Diaspora Jewish writers and thinkers.

Critics of such enterprises level the “useful idiots” charge, suggesting Jewish critics of Israel are merely providing fodder, and cover, for its enemies. In Kushner’s case, some of his least temperate comments on Israel were cherry-picked by websites that had significantly less sympathy for Israel than he has shown. I’m troubled when I see a virulent critic of Israel quote a Jew or Israeli in his or her defense, but what’s the alternative? Pretend there is no debate among Jews when it comes to Israel? Or, as happened in the Kushner affair, work hard to cast the dissident from the Jewish fold? (Kushner’s Israel anthology, tellingly, includes a section on “progressive” Jewish groups, like Breira, that were squashed by establishment pressures.) In this case, the excommunication strategy ended up backfiring on Kushner’s critics, making him the intellectual hero and them seem small-minded.

And even if you think Kushner’s views on Israel are beyond the pale, what does that have to do with his receiving an honorary degree for his theater work? It’s not as if he has been churning out plays critical of Israel.

Jews, and the Jewish state, have real enemies. They lurk in the halls of the United Nations, amass rockets on Israel’s borders with Gaza and Lebanon, plot Israel’s demise in Tehran. And yes, many of them sit on college faculties or in various parliaments where they can barely distinguish between the rights of the Palestinians and their disdain for the Jews. That’s where you’ll find the New Anti-Semitism.

But we need to stop eating our own, and labeling legitimate questions as hate crimes. The greatest rebuke to Israel’s real enemies is a Jewish polity that is big enough to embrace a wide and democratic debate.

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