CUNY, or Change: The Jeffrey Wiesenfeld Guide to Campuses and Anti-Semitism With a Key to Board Politics

Longtime Wiesenfeld-watchers suspect that this, as much as any worries about the complacency of the Jewish people, motivates him. They know to look for his name in the papers if they have not seen it for a while, and point to, after a brief lull, his all-out assault on the Kahil Gilbran International Academy, an Arabic-themed school in Brooklyn that he labeled “a madrassa.”

“He gets ahead of himself,” said one former associate. “Jeff feels that CUNY gives him an opportunity to comment on everything.”

The appearance of Mr. Kushner before the CUNY board was the perfect opening. If Mr. Wiesenfeld had actually wanted to derail the nomination, he could have quietly lobbied his fellow board members in the days and weeks leading up to the final vote, convincing them of the righteousness of his cause. Instead, the point was to make a stand, and let the pieces fall where they may.

“Jeff sees himself as a check on the left higher education model you see all over the country, where liberals and Middles Eastern Studies take over,” said one friend. “That’s what this Kushner thing is all about. He is not interested in what Kushner thinks. This was his moment to stick it right back in the liberal’s faces. This is what he sees as his mission.”

People who have worked with Mr. Wiesenfeld say that although he can be difficult, it can be refreshing to work with someone who makes clear where he stands. “He is extremely principled,” said Matthew Hiltzik, a prominent PR agent who tangled with Mr. Wiesenfeld when he served as the press secretary of the state Democratic Party. “Very few people are willing to stand up for what they believe in.”

Last week, Mr. Wiesenfeld said that the next move was Mr. Kushner’s. All the playwright would have to do is renounce comments he made that Israel owed its founding to a policy of “ethnic cleansing” and that the Jewish state does not have a right to exist. (Mr. Kushner denied that he asserted such things or said they were taken out of context.)

“I’m not a crazy person. I am just passionate,” Mr. Wiesenfeld said. “Tony Kushner is a reasonable man. I say the following to him: He doesn’t have to shake my hand. He doesn’t have to meet with me. It’s not what I’m looking for.”

Mr. Kushner wouldn’t get the chance. A few hours after he said those words, the president of CUNY’s board sent out a statement calling an emergency meeting of the executive committee and acknowledging that the earlier vote had been in error. A small group of protesters gathered outside-“most of the students are away or studying for finals and stuff,” one organizer explained-holding up signs that read “Enough is Enough! Abolish the Board of Trustees!”
Inside, the board’s executive committee-which does not include Mr. Wiesenfeld-voted unanimously to overturn the board’s earlier vote. Matthew Goldstein, the school’s chancellor read from a letter which he took all weekend to write (aided, he added, by the fact that his wife was out of town).

“We do not shy away from the difficult, the unpopular, the mysterious; rather, these are the areas that most deserver our careful scholarly attention and our deepest humanity.”

Afterward, Chancellor Goldstein explained to the press why Mr. Kushner was worthy of an honorary degree. “I am sure I would not have liked Richard Wagner as a person,” he said. “But I adore his music. I have been to many Ring cycles. I think he’s extraordinary. But I know that he was deeply anti-Semitic. I don’t like that about him, but it doesn’t reflect on my interest and my appreciation his musicality.”

He dismissed the protesters calling for Mr. Wiesenfeld’s resignation, but struggled to explain how one board member could have bent the entire panel to his will and turned the university into a national lightning rod. “A lot of this was being surprised at his passion,” Mr. Goldstein said. “Mr. Wiesenfeld has a very strong set of views. And his own background as the child of two Holocaust survivors I think shaped his view of being a Jew and his sense of connection to the state of Israel. And he is a very smart fellow, but he has a view, and I think that view just carried the discussion.” He added, “I hope this misstep is not something that will impact all of the good things that we’ve done.”

In the end, Mr. Wiesenfeld said that he just wanted his life to get back to normal. Friends believe he is sincere. “I think he likes attention, but this is way above his pay grade,” said one. “Fighting Charles Barron is one thing, but to have the entire media world, the arts world, Ed Koch giving him the back of the hand. I think he realizes he overdid it.”

Mr. Wiesenfeld was not present for the vote that undid so much of what he had done. “I don’t see any reason to be there,” he told The Observer a few hours before the final vote, when it was already clear what would transpire. He had no plans to step down-“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”-and he said the whole incident showed why the board needed to be independent of political pressure.

There were still, he said, “red lines” that he would not cross-Israel, “certain ecological issues,” what he called “the soft jihad that is trying to impose Sharia law in this country”-and said he was fighting for those Jews who disagreed with him, whether they appreciated it or not. “Whether the far left Jews think so or not, this has to do with their survival, too. They could end up like the Jews of 70-80 years ago, the Jews of The Gentlemen’s Agreement, the film, or they end up like the blacks before their civil rights laws.

“You know why they made me a target?” Mr. Wiesenfeld said. “It’s because I’m a known pro-Israel person. So they made me a target. It’s the same reason various civil rights leaders throughout their history were made a target. It’s because they were out there!”

dfreedlander@observer.com  dduray@observer.com