To say I am embarrassed to be defending Tony Kushner is an understatement. I was one of very few gay men with HIV who found Angels in America to be pretentious, boring propaganda, and like most propaganda, endless and laden with stereotypes and cartoon figures. In the internecine fights in the gay movement in the 1990s, we were on opposite sides. I'd rather have pins stuck in my eyes than attend his new play, ominously titled "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures," which like other Important Plays, clocks in at four hours. His sad attempt to exonerate traitors like the Rosenbergs was once perverse; now it just seems at odds with reality. I have no beef with him personally, I should add, although after writing all that, he may feel somewhat differently toward me.
Nonetheless, I really despise the way he has been used by an extremist who has no business being on any board at CUNY. It's only about an honorary degree, and Kushner must be able to wallpaper his living room with them by now. But it's also about a mindset and an argument that truly need to be debunked and tackled and refuted.
The argument is that any criticism of Israel is extremist and a function of anti-Semitism if you are a goy and self-hatred if you are Jewish.
Given the growing religious radicalism in Israel, its corrupting refusal to give up land conquered in war, its insistence on populating that land with its own people, and its brutal bombardment of Gaza two and a half years ago … how on earth can criticism of these actions and policies be self-evidently motivated by anti-Semitism or extremism?
And yet they are if you subscribe to Mr Wiesenfeld's worldview. This is a critical part of it, relayed in a conversation with the NYT's Jim Dwyer:
I tried to ask a question about the damage done by a short, one-sided discussion of vigorously debated aspects of Middle East politics, like the survival of Israel and the rights of the Palestinians, and which side was more callous toward human life, and who was most protective of it. But Mr. Wiesenfeld interrupted and said the question was offensive because “the comparison sets up a moral equivalence.”
Equivalence between what and what? “Between the Palestinians and Israelis,” he said. “People who worship death for their children are not human.” Did he mean the Palestinians were not human? “They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history,” he said.
Until you grasp the fundamental belief of some pro-Israel extremists that Palestinians are collectively sub-human, or cockroaches, as Yitzhak Shamir once called them, you never fully understand the mindset that is pushing Israel into an existential crisis. I mean: how can you negotiate with subhumans? Then notice this astonishing hyperbole:
They have developed a culture which is unprecedented in human history.
You mean they are worse than the Boers or the Nazis or the Communists or the Hutus and Tutsis or the Mayans? Or any population in human history? Only once you grasp that worldview can you see how the killing of hundreds of women and children in dense urban areas, as Israel did in Gaza, can be justified. The deaths of Palestinians are not to be mourned, because the Palestinians aren't fully human.
Wiesenfeld is not alone in this viewpoint. Here is Yitzhak Shamir in 1988:
'Anybody who wants to damage this fortress and other fortresses we are establishing will have his head smashed against the boulders and walls.'' … In remarks aimed at Arab rioters, the Prime Minister said: ''We say to them from the heights of this mountain and from the perspective of thousands of years of history that they are like grasshoppers compared to us.''*
Here is Raphael Eitan, Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, in 1983:
"When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle."
Here are some popular military t-shirts at the time of the Gaza war:
The t-shirt on the right celebrates killing a pregnant woman because two Palestinians are killed at once.
All of this is a deliberate and sustained dehumanization of an entire people. It's important to see its full context – the cultural PTSD and understandable paranoia of Israelis, and the traumatizing psychological impact of the Holocaust, even now. And I am not saying that this kind of thing isn't also common throughout the Arab and Muslim world with respect to Jews, who are demonized, dehumanized and lied about on a regular basis. It is extremely common; it is far more prevalent than its opposite; and the hideous history of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century makes eliminationist language about the Jewish people and their absolute right to a homeleand repellent in every way. But we would not allow such anti-Semites to sit on university boards judging the work of writers, based on their politics, would we?
So why is Wiesenfeld not just on such a board but capable of commanding instant assent from his peers? How has American public discourse on this question been so thoroughly distorted by the unhinged tribalism of a few maniacs? And when will we begin to stand up to these bullies?
* This quote has been corrected from the first version, which was a tuncation.