What did he hope to achieve?

By David Aaronovitch, May 13, 2011

Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld of New York must be the kind of friend who, when he comes over, people turn off the lights and hide behind the settee until he's gone again. Let me tell you what he did.

Mr Wiesenfeld is a philanthropist wealth manager, a role which involves lots of supplicant folk coming and asking you for stuff you can well afford, and then you getting to tell them yes or no. He is also, among many other things, on the Salute to Israel Day Parade Commission, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and a director of the Long Island Chapter of the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation of America.

But for this story, it's his role as one of the 17 members of the Board of Trustees of City University of New York (CUNY), which matters.

One of the things that CUNY trustees do is to vet proposals for the awarding of honorary degrees. As a member of the press, as far as I can see honorary degrees were only invented - like university societies - for the purpose of generating stories about disagreements. But I have to accept that there are other reasons for them. They are, apparently, "public declarations of esteem by the university community conveyed to the honoree; for the university, they are image-building, advertising and publicity as well."

It wobbled up there, exciting comment and attention

Those last were the words of Mr Wiesenfeld himself, writing about a contretemps at CUNY - a contretemps caused by him. The faculty at the University had decided that they wanted to confer one of these "declarations of esteem" on a chap called Tony Kushner, as well they might. Kushner is that alliterative prodigy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. In addition to be able to pick a peck of pickled peppers he wrote Angels in America and, one of my favourites, Caroline or Change.

On politics, Mr Kushner is conventionally left of centre, and on Israel he has been conventionally, hyperbolically critical of such things as the military action in Gaza. He believes, he says, that Israel has a right to exist but that, given the rather meagre and stringy geography of the two states, it may be best for them eventually to come together, if people like, which, by the way, they probably won't. Nothing you won't hear a million times over from a fair number of British Jews.

Arguably Mr Kushner's greatest crime was his authorship of the screenplay of the trivializing Spielberg film about the aftermath of the 1972 Olympics massacre, Munich. But this excess was not what led to the trouble when, ten days or so ago, the CUNY trustees sat down to discuss the nominations for honorary doctorates. When Mr Kushner's name was read out, it was Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld who made a statement opposing the tabling of the motion.

Mr Wiesenfeld's reasons were laid out by him in a subsequent article. Mr Kushner was an "extremist" with "long-held radical sentiments", who made "libelous statements against Israel" which, if made by any non-Jew would lead to that person being "correctly labeled as anti-Semitic". "CUNY", concluded Mr Wiesenfeld, confusing a university with a saloon bar, "should remain a place of comfort and welcome for all of our students, faculty and administrators - including supporters of the Jewish State."

Since the trustees usually permit honorary doctorates and degrees on the basis of unanimity, the motion was not tabled, Kushner was snubbed, and a wholly otiose balloon went bobbing gaseously into the political atmosphere.

And it wobbled up there, exciting comment and attention that could so better be attached to better subjects, until - inevitably - CUNY changed its mind. But what on earth was Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld trying to achieve?

Having spent too much of the middle 2000s battling the Walt-Mearsheimers and their comfy me-tooers on the subject of the Jewish Lobby and its supposedly uncanny influence on American public life (to recap: the Lobby convinced the US that terrorism was a problem when it wasn't; convinced US that Iranian nukes are a threat when they ain't; convinced the US to go into Iraq because it helped Israel but no-one else), absolutely the last thing I needed was a public spat centred on one guy's misguided attempt to spat another but much more famous guy who he disagreed with.

Thanks Jeffrey. Now every time someone says the Lobby wants to stop discussion, or it labels everyone an antisemite (and therefore no-one is), or it demands total pro-Israelity, or it paid for Osama Bin Laden's helicopter flight, they'll pay you in aid. And what did you gain?

    Last updated: 10:07am, May 13 2011