Jeffrey Wiesenfeld’s mother doesn’t approve.
“Vy are they bothering you?” Mr. Wiesenfeld said on Friday afternoon, channeling her Yiddish. “Vhat they want from you? They don’t pay you. You sit there and they give you problems, aggravation, vhat do you need it for? Go home, see your daughter. Vhy are you sitting there until 8:30 and they making trouble for you?”
Mr. Wiesenfeld’s most recent trouble began last Monday evening, when at the end of a lengthy City University of New York Board of Trustees meeting, he launched into a diatribe about Israel, the rising tide of anti-Semitism on campus, John Bolton, and finally, Tony Kushner-who was, along with about two dozen other eminences, up for an honorary degree. Mr. Wiesenfeld’s fellow board members, a bit taken back by the fervor, quickly voted to table Mr. Kushner’s nomination, approved the rest and promptly adjourned.
Sitting in a conference room at the wealth management firm Alliance Bernstein, down the hallway from his 39th floor office-which enjoys sweeping views of Midtown Manhattan and a bumper sticker that uses Barack Obama’s iconic “O” logo to spell out “Oy Vey”-Mr. Wiesenfeld chopped the granite tabletop with the side of his open right hand and tried to explain himself.
“I’m not a militant guy. I come across as combative, but I don’t gratuitously look to fight with people. If I’m confronted with something that is outrageous, I just can’t look the other way. It’s a compulsive type of behavior,” he said.
At the board meeting, Mr. Wiesenfeld thought he would merely register his objection, the board would overrule him, and the commencement ceremonies at CUNY’s 23 colleges would continue on as planned. Instead, however, his fellow board members took what he termed “the maximalist approach” and declined to grant Mr. Kushner his laurels.
What followed was the perfect teapot tempest in late spring in a city that found itself in a sudden news lull. When Mr. Wiesenfeld spoke to The Observer on Friday morning, Google News listed 373 articles devoted to the subject. By the weekend, The New York Times had devoted at least five stories to the imbroglio, including an appreciation of Mr. Kushner’s playwriting oeuvre, a front page column in the New York section in which Mr. Wiesenfeld intimated that Palestinians were subhuman, and an editorial titled, “CUNY Shamed Itself.” Graduate students started an around-the-clock blog called “Kushner Crisis.” The writer Barbara Ehrenreich threatened to return her own honorary degree, jabbing the university by adding, “If I can find it.”
An irate Mr. Kushner, angry that the board had distorted his views without giving him a chance for a rebuttal, told The Observer, “I have no intention of accepting an honorary degree from CUNY … I have lots of honorary degrees and hopefully if my work is good I will get more.” Graduation ceremonies planned for later this month looked as if they could careen into a circus.
“What circus?” Mr. Wiesenfeld asked. “There is no circus. They’re going to come, they’re going to graduate, they’re going to get their degrees. They’ll have the same cast of characters from the administration and there will be one less honoree. That’s it.”
Mr. Wiesenfeld is not unfamiliar to controversy. In January he backed the firing of an adjunct professor of Middle Eastern politics who had made an academic study of suicide bombers. (After an outcry, and after the professor said that analysis did not equal commendation, the decision was reversed.) In 2009, he got into a screaming match with City Councilmember Charles Barron, a former Black Panther, at the ceremonial groundbreaking for a CUNY building that been destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. (“It was a provocation,” Mr. Wiesenfeld said of the incident, in which he said he was upset that Mr. Barron spoke before his appointed time. “I looked around and saw a problem and no one was doing anything about it.”)
Both of Mr. Wiesenfeld’s parents were in Europe during World War II-his mother in a concentration camp, his father shipped to Siberia for hard labor. Friends say it remains the animating force in his life.
“Jeff really does feel that his mission in life is to speak up, because so many years ago no one spoke up,” said one friend. “He thinks Jews are their own worst enemy, and that liberal Jews care more about other religions and a races than they care about themselves. And that unlike other groups, we have absolutely no ethnic pride or the ability to stand up for ourselves and we let everyone run roughshod all over us. And of course, he hates liberals.”
At the end of the war, rather than return to their hometowns and live among the collaborators, Mr. Wiesenfeld’s father fled to America, and his mother to Israel. They met in Israel, and moved to the South Bronx, where his father worked in a fiberglass factory, before dying at 57 of lung disease.
“I had a very difficult childhood,” Mr. Wiesenfeld said. “We lived in the neighborhood long after anybody we knew lived there.
“Those were the worst years of my life,” he continued. “It was crime ridden. I went to terrible, terrible schools … I had to learn to defend myself and I saw a lot of terrible things. I had to get out of situations with people holding me up with knives, people beating the crap out of me. This is nonsense. I’m not going to stand up to an academic?”
After a stint at Bronx Science and then at Queens College, he worked for a time for the F.B.I. before finding a job with former Queens Borough President Claire Schulman and eventually landing with Ed Koch’s Department of Transportation. He became something of a player in Queens Democratic circles, founding the First New York Conservative Democratic Club in his hometown of Forest Hills, for Democrats who leaned right. Longtime friends and associates said he was plotting to run for office.
He did Jewish outreach for Senator Al D’Amato, a former mentor who friends say no longer speaks to him. During his 1998 re-election campaign, Mr. Wiesenfeld insisted that the senator attend a meeting at the developer George Klein’s office with some high-powered members of the Jewish community, and it was there that Senator D’Amato referred to his opponent, Chuck Schumer, as a “putzhead” and called the portly Congressman Jerrold Nadler “Jerry Waddler.” The slurs leaked to the press, where the story festered for days, and Mr. D’Amato’s tenure as one of the most powerful elected officials in New York came to an end when he lost the race by
10 points. (Mr. Wiesenfeld disputes this account).
No matter. Mr. Wiesenfeld was already working for Governor George Pataki in a similar capacity. According to former Pataki administration officials, he is best remembered as someone who was unable to fully accept that his job was to promote his boss and stay out of the press.
There was the time at a Queens Democratic Party event, for example, that he called a close associate of the powerful Hevesi family-the future Assemblywoman and City Councilwoman Melinda Katz-”a cunt.” (The slur leaked to the press but Mr. Wiesenfeld denies saying it). There was the time that he took to the press to excoriate Sheldon Silver after the Assembly speaker criticized Governor Pataki at a legislative breakfast, even as administration officials were working to shore up their legislative support. Mr. Wiesenfeld also led the charge to get the British architect Lord Richard Rogers to withdraw from the $1.7 billion Jacob Javits Center expansion after it was revealed that Mr. Rogers was part of a group called Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, who called on Israel to stop building settlements and the security barrier in the West Bank.
“Jeff doesn’t have people he serves as his number one priority,” a former Pataki official recalled. “He has himself and his persona and his reputation, and sometimes the people he has been hired to serve take the back seat.”
At the National Yiddish Theater, whose board he chairs, one trustee said that Mr. Wiesenfeld has been known to distribute AllianceBernstein packets to new trustees. Albany politicos recall him desperately seeking the board appointment at CUNY. According to a New York Times account of his confirmation hearing, Isaac Abraham, a well-known political operative in the Brooklyn Hasidic community, alleged that “Mr. Wiesenfeld had referred to blacks as ‘savages,’ had called Hasidic Jews ‘thieves’ and had mocked Mr. Pataki, using a Yiddish word for ‘dummy.’” (Mr. Wiesenfeld got his revenge when Mr. Abraham ran for the City Council in 2009, recording a robo-call that labeled Mr. Abraham, “the most wicked of the wicked.”)
In 2006, as Mr. Pataki prepared to leave office and his aides frantically searched to fill board vacancies, administration officials recall Mr. Wiesenfeld desperately trying to win re-appointment, touting his credentials to anybody who would listen and launching a smear campaign against the Hispanic activist Fernando Mateo, when rumors started surfacing that he might get the CUNY slot. Mr. Wiesenfeld backed down when Mr. Mateo pointed out that he was ineligible for the spot, since he was not a college graduate.
“When you corner him he will do whatever he needs to do,” said one associate. “Bite you, kick you in the balls. When he feels threatened and cornered, he is out of control. He needed that title. He was so frightened that he was going to lose CUNY. If he didn’t have CUNY, what would he have? His nightmare in life is that people will no longer know the name Jeff Wiesenfeld.”
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!”