Friday, May 6, 2011

The ultra-reactionary chokehold

Playwright Tony Kushner has done some good work. His most famous plays, the Angels in America cycle, were some of the first mainstream drama to draw attention to how the AIDS crisis was devastating the gay community in this country. His musical Caroline, or Change, which I saw in 2004 during its all too brief Broadway run starring the soaring, searing Tonya Pinkins and the incandescent Anika Noni Rose, is an honest, tough-minded yet tender treatment of race, racism, and Black-Jewish relations in the 1960s South. Kushner is not a radical. He is thoroughly at home in the mainstream. Basically he is a left social democrat, a devotee of what he sees as the potential of bourgeois democracy while acknowledging its shortcomings, and also aware of other possibilities and even of the ubiquitousness of anti-communism in this country and how it has damaged and distorted culture. This brief take on his political sensibilities, based on having read a number of his pieces and interviews with him over the years, is offered to lead in to commenting on the current dust-up drawing much notice here in New York.

At its meeting this past Monday, the board of trustees of the City University of New York voted to cancel the honorary degree that John Jay College had planned to bestow on Tony Kushner at this month's graduation ceremony. The reason: the playwright is not sufficiently rabidly racistly violently Zionist.

He is a Zionist. A left-liberal Zionist, the sort who says "I love Israel" and expresses his "strong support for Israel's right to exist," but does oppose the occupation and criticize what he sees as its worst extremes in the treatment of the indigenous Palestinian population. Kushner has acknowledged at least some of the crimes committed during the creation of the state of Israel. Yet "the occupation" that he opposes is the post-1967 occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, not the larger occupation—that is, the theft of the entire land of Palestine, on which is imposed the Zionist state, a state that is by definition racist, exclusionist and illegitimate.

Never forget this: Tony Kushner, or I, or any U.S. Jew, can move to Israel at any time and get automatic citizenship. Simply because we're Jews (and, by the way, regardless of religious practice, smart move since most Jews are atheists). By contrast, no Palestinian-American—not a young person whose parent or grandparent was forced out of the family home, nor an elder who was herself/himself driven out of the house by the terrorist thugs whose murderous ethnic cleansing campaigns were crucial to the creation of a Jewish state—not a single Palestinian is permitted to return home to live. Think about that. I, someone with no tie whatsoever to "Israel," someone whose ancestry goes back to Eastern Europe for hundreds of years and to Spain for hundreds of years before that, could pack up and move there tomorrow. And be welcomed as an automatic citizen. But my Palestinian sister whose parents still keep the key to their stolen home in a precious box, who still yearn for home, who still grieve over their forcible expulsion from the land their people had lived on for untold generations—she is barred from returning. (Here I'll point again, for any who have not yet read it, to Susan Abulhawa's wonderful novel Mornings in Jenin, which conveys this reality in a gripping literary tour de force.)

So. Here's a famous playwright who despite all that proclaims his love for Israel. Who says he is "moved and excited by its culture, its meaning in Jewish history" (which is to my way of thinking a reprehensible sentiment since its meaning in Jewish history is a blot, a shame, a stain, a crime against humanity, a turning away from a tradition of righteous struggle and solidarity against oppression). Who does criticize some of its crimes, as indeed do many Israelis, but does not at all part ways with Zionism itself, or with a fundamental support for the Zionist state's right to exist. Who, furthermore, explicitly does not support the BDS—Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions—movement, an international effort to bring pressure on Israel to end the 1967 occupation even though that in itself is a moderate demand and the BDS tactic a time-honored one honed during the struggle against that earlier apartheid state, South Africa; but no, even so, Kushner opposes BDS. Here, in other words, is a friend to Israel. But in the landscape of U.S. culture, where the ultra-right has an ever tighter grip on consciousness and culture, even that is not good enough.

And so CUNY pulls his honor. And Kushner cries foul. In his letter to the board expressing his dismay at the action, he asserts his "strong statement of support for Israel's right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so." He decries the BDS movement, explaining: "I have never supported a boycott of the state of Israel. I don't believe it will accomplish anything positive in terms of resolving the crisis. I believe that the call for a boycott is predicated on an equation of this crisis with other situations, contemporary and historical, that is fundamentally false, the consequence of a failure of political understanding of a full and compassionate engagement with Jewish history and Jewish existence." You can read his whole letter here. I've included these several sentences, with which I could not disagree more—and the latter of which seems to me to smack shockingly of a Jewish exceptionalism that objectively aligns with the base racism of the Zionist ideology rather than conveying any meaningful point about the history of European persecution of the Jews to which he's obviously referring and to which Zionism was and remains a backward, reactionary response; his view, apparently, is that apartheid in Israel cannot be compared to apartheid in South Africa because those imposing apartheid in Israel had terrible things happen to their grandparents in Europe—I include his own words expressing his unfortunate views to show how far from anti-Israel Kushner is. As he indeed took pains to show. Which underscores how extreme is the chokehold of reaction in every realm of this culture.

Now Facebook groups spring up. PEN, that bastion of anti-communist bourgeois liberalism, enters the fray. No one asks why reactionary investment bankers and bosses sit in control over CUNY, the college of New York's working class funded by the workers' taxes; why the majority of the board is white when most students are people of color; why tuition is no longer free and is in fact about to go up drastically again, making college an unreachable dream for more young workers.

CUNY should belong to the people of New York City. Militant students are right now organizing to take it back, fighting alongside staff and teachers against the vicious funding cuts and layoffs dictated by the banks. This will be a long, hard struggle, but it can be won. When it is, when CUNY is in the hands of the working class, I'll love to see who that new improved CUNY chooses to receive its honorary degrees.