Louis Brandeis may be rolling over in his grave — the question is, which way: left or right?
A flap over an honorary degree at Brandeis University is pitting Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, an iconic voice of the Jewish left, against Zionist activist Morton Klein, a leading American opponent of Israeli territorial concessions, with both men essentially laying claim to the legacy of America’s first Jewish Supreme Court justice and most important early Zionist leader.
Klein and his group, the Zionist Organization of America, are waging a campaign to get the university to reverse its decision to grant an honorary degree to Kushner, author of the Tony Award-winning “Angels in America.” The ZOA, which claims Brandeis as a past honorary president and has named its top award after him, is circulating a collection of quotes from Kushner in an effort to make its case.
Kushner, co-author of Steven Spielberg’s screenplay for “Munich,” came under fire last year from some in the Jewish world who felt that the film drew a moral equivalence between Palestinian terrorists and Mossad assassins.
“It is outrageous that such a pro-Israel university — named after one of the greatest Zionists of the 20th century — would consider giving an award to such a vocal critic of Israel,” Klein told the Forward. “It’s as if Howard University chose to honor David Duke.”
The ZOA quotes Kushner as saying Israel was founded amid “ethnic cleansing” and that the creation of the Jewish state was “a mistake.” In speaking with the Forward this week, Kushner did not deny his earlier comments. However, he said that extremists” who would wish to “excommunicate” him for his stance toward Israel were taking him out of context.
Kushner portrayed the controversy as an attempt to marginalize those Jews who speak out against Israeli policies. “The biggest lie that is being promulgated is that I represent a tiny fringe viewpoint,” Kushner told the Forward. “But in my doubts and reservations and anguish about the situation in the Middle East, I am but one of an enormous number in the Jewish community.”
Kushner, who considers the late Supreme Court justice a hero, declined to speculate on what Brandeis himself would make of the university’s decision to grant him the honorary degree. He did, however, note that “some of what’s going on in Israel today might concern Louis Brandeis. He had an incredible understanding of disenfranchised people living under oppression.”
In an April 25 letter to Brandeis’s president, Jehuda Reinharz, Kushner discussed his love of Israel and his support for a two-state solution and, at the same time, registered his objections to various Israeli policies. Brandeis, he wrote in the letter (which can be viewed at www.forward.com/Kushner-Letter), had not asked him to “earn this degree by clearing my name or by doing a better job than I’ve done already articulating my opinions about Israel.”
“I’ve been willing to explain myself, not in defense or apology, but because I know that the world is not a safe place for Jews, Anti-Semitism is very real and very threatening, and we’re all entitled — wise, in fact — to be vigilant,” Kushner wrote. “So even though I think critical thinking is necessary, even in times of danger, I understand that my criticism of Israel raises alarms. I want to be understood — not agreed with, but understood.”
A university spokesman said that the school has no plans to reconsider or withdraw the award. “The decision to grant Tony Kushner the honorary degree was based exclusively on the fact that he is a giant in his field and the most acclaimed playwright of his generation,” the spokesman said.