For City University of New York trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the furor over his recent push to deny playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree because of his views on Israel is just the latest in a career full of high-profile public brawls.
The son of two Holocaust survivors, Wiesenfeld, 52, grew up on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. And from the start, friends say, the future FBI agent, political operative and Wall Street investment consultant was a tough kid.
He “grew up in a world where Jews that weren’t tough paid a price,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a prominent Democratic political consultant and longtime friend. “When the Irish were still there, they beat him up because he was a Jew, and when the Puerto Ricans took over from the Irish, they beat him up, too, because he was a Jew still in the neighborhood, and they thought he had money.”
Decades later and a borough away, Wiesenfeld remains ever ready for a fight — often over Israel, a topic with which one friend called him “obsessed.”
But the fireworks Wiesenfeld set off in some of his previous brawls are a handful of sparklers next to the barrage that he inadvertently launched May 2, when he delivered a short speech to his fellow CUNY trustees, calling on them to reject a proposed honorary degree to Kushner over his alleged attitudes toward Israel — specifically, a quote attributed to Kushner in which he said it would have been better had Israel not been created.
In a written response to the board, the renowned Jewish playwright condemned Wiesenfeld’s characterization of his positions as distortions. Kushner further complained that he hadn’t been alerted to the objection by the board or afforded an opportunity to defend himself against Wiesenfeld’s charges.
The ensuing debate has grown into what looks to be the biggest fight of Wiesenfeld’s career. On May 9, the CUNY board reversed the decision it took in response to Wiesenfeld’s protest at its May 2 meeting to effectively deny Kushner his honorary doctorate.
And now it is Wiesenfeld’s own head that many — including his friend, former New York City mayor Ed Koch and the union representing CUNY faculty — are calling for in the wake of the conflagration.
Characteristically, Wiesenfeld stands unbowed. “I am proud to represent this great university on its board of trustees,” he said in an e-mail sent out after the rise of demands by prominent figures for his resignation from the CUNY board. “My service, by law,” he noted pointedly, “expires following 14 years of service on June 30, 2013.”
Over the past two decades, Wiesenfeld has made a name for himself as a sharp-elbowed political operator as skilled at making friends as exacting retribution against his enemies. Before he took on Kushner, his most famous bout was a showdown with a controversial New York City councilman at a public ceremony in Downtown Manhattan in front of a crowd full of children and reporters.
“You’re a hoodlum!” Wiesenfeld told Charles Barron, a former Black Panther and current city councilman, from his front-row seat at a CUNY event. In reply, Barron, who had commandeered the podium, called Wiesenfeld a “disgraceful racist.”
Wiesenfeld declined to speak to the Forward for this story, referring all questions to Sheinkopf.
“There are people who don’t like the fact that there are tough Jews,” Sheinkopf said. “I’ve been a tough Jew all my life. They don’t like it. They think we should be accountants and lawyers and get smacked around.”
Wiesenfeld was of a generation of working-class sons of Holocaust survivors growing up in New York’s outer boroughs who struggled to reconcile their parents’ persecution with their own experiences on the city’s rough-and-tumble streets. His mother was from Romania and survived a Transnistria concentration camp; his father, from Poland, spent the war in a Soviet slave labor camp.
Wiesenfeld’s first language was Yiddish. As a college student, he took a brief turn as a Yiddish actor, appearing in a production of an operetta by the Yiddish playwright Abraham Goldfaden called the Kishufmacheren , or the Sorceress. Wiesenfeld played the role of Hotsmakh the peddler, a “swindler with a heart of gold,” according to Joel Berkowitz, director of the Sam and Helen Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Though he never returned to the stage, Wiesenfeld has served for nearly a decade as the chair of the board of New York’s Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre — an ironic association in light of his current clash with one of the country’s most prominent Jewish playwrights. Beck Lee, a spokesman for the Folksbiene, said that Wiesenfeld doesn’t hide his politics, but that he also doesn’t impose them on the theatre.
In 1981, at the age of 23, Wiesenfeld joined the FBI. According to Sheinkopf, he worked in surveillance and counterintelligence, leaving the agency in 1985. But Wiesenfeld’s success in this most American of milieus signaled no turn away from Jewish life.
“He’s obsessed. He’s obsessed with the issue of Israel,” said Koch, who publicly criticized Wiesenfeld’s stand against Kushner. “I’m a very big supporter of the State of Israel, but I understand that there is dissent on a whole host of issues. It isn’t evil to be supportive of the Palestinian cause…. He’s a nice guy, but he’s obsessed.”
Koch, known for holding generally conservative positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has clashed publicly with Wiesenfeld twice over related issues in recent years. Wiesenfeld was a major opponent of the plan to open a dual-language Arabic public school in New York City — a plan that Koch supported. Wiesenfeld served as New York chair of the Stop the Madrassa: A Community Coalition, the group that spearheaded the drive against the school.
Debbie Almontaser, who was slated to be principal of the school before being removed at the last minute by the Department of Education, alleged that Wiesenfeld was motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment. “Jeffrey Wiesenfeld opposed the idea of having an Arabic dual-language school in New York City based on his own personal hatred for anything Arab or Muslim,” Almontaser said. “His argument was that [the school] would radicalize students and therefore shouldn’t be permitted to open.”
Sheinkopf said Wiesenfeld was not animated by hatred. “Taking the point of view that he was really anti-Arab is absurd and ridiculous. What he was opposed to was Shariah law,” Sheinkopf said. “He was opposed to the madrassas because he felt that Shariah law would be imposed.”
The public school’s curriculum, however, was dictated by the city’s DOE and was entirely secular.
On the Kushner issue, as with the school, Wiesenfeld has parted ways with his friend Koch. After the former mayor issued a letter calling for Wiesenfeld to resign or be removed from the CUNY board, Wiesenfeld called him on the phone. “He said, ‘I still love you,’” Koch reported, adding, “I don’t retreat from my criticism.”
The two go way back. Wiesenfeld got his start in politics as a volunteer in Koch’s first mayoral campaign in 1977 and served in Koch’s administration as chief of staff of the traffic division of the Department of Transportation. Wiesenfeld went on to serve as a senior political aide to Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato and Governor George Pataki. His duties for both men included working as their liaisons with the Jewish community.
Wiesenfeld never ran for office himself, though he briefly considered a try for the congressional seat vacated by Chuck Schumer in 1998.
“I can tell you that Jeff Wiesenfeld is absolutely unsuited for election to public office,” Sheinkopf said. “His sense of principle will always outweigh the political.”
Instead, he has operated in the background, both as a close and powerful aide and as a sometimes controversial political operative.
In 1999, Wiesenfeld’s name was linked to a Pataki administration scandal involving alleged political manipulation of the state parole board. Wiesenfeld was never charged with any crime, but federal officials probed allegations that a Pataki fundraiser had passed names of prisoners coming up for parole to Wiesenfeld, who sent inquiries — and, in at least one instance, a letter of recommendation on the governor’s stationery — to the parole board.
And then there are the brawls. Among the longest standing, perhaps, was his war with Alan Hevesi, the former New York City and New York State comptroller, the scion of a prominent Jewish family who now sits in jail on a corruption conviction.
Sheinkopf said that it went back to a political turf war in Queens, where both men launched their political careers.
“Hevesi wanted Wiesenfeld out of the way, he was worried,” said Sheinkopf. “It became a battle over right wing, left wing, who was a better Jew, who was a worse Jew.”
The long-running feud even carried over to Hevesi’s son, Daniel, a state senator who in 1999 attempted to block Pataki’s appointment of Wiesenfeld to the CUNY Board of Trustees. The younger Hevesi cited a New York Post report that Wiesenfeld had called blacks “savages” and Hasidic Jews “thieves” in private conversation. The New York Times reported then that Wiesenfeld refused to respond directly to the allegation, but said they had come from a source motivated by a personal grudge.
Wiesenfeld didn’t forget Daniel Hevesi’s slight. In 2002, when Hevesi’s state senate district was merged with that of another state senator during decennial redistricting, Wiesenfeld called a reporter at Newsday to take credit.
“Daniel Hevesi was the lone dissenter in the Senate when my confirmation [to CUNY] came up,” Wiesenfeld said, according to a Newsday column on March 1, 2002. “I kept quiet. I held my peace. But I remember you, pal, and now I got your number.”
A column the following week quoted Dean Skelos, then the State Senate’s deputy majority leader, saying that Wiesenfeld had had no input in the redistricting process.
Asked about the incident, Sheinkopf said: “I guess Wiesenfeld is human and his anger got the better of him.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.