Angels Perceived as Devils

Playwright Tony Kushner's criticism of Israel has never meant he doesn't support the state's existence, despite what you may have heard.

Tony Kushner doesn't mind the heat. He grew up in Louisiana, and he's long used to it by now. So when I ask him to sit outside on a stifling Manhattan morning already edging toward 100 degrees, he's more than happy to oblige.

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Tony Kushner

There's another kind of heat that he must be getting used to, the kind that comes with being a legendary Jewish-American playwright whose public take on Israel doesn't jibe with the American Jewish right's line. The most recent flare-up of this cyclical conflict revolves around an honorary doctorate Kushner was to be awarded by City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a distinction which was blocked based on a garbled reading of his stance on Israel. Eventually, after a startling amount of media coverage, he was granted the degree in a ceremony a few days before our interview.

Despite the hubbub that preceded it, he received the award in good spirits, standing on the stage for both ceremonies and shaking the hand of every one of the 3,100 graduates.

"It's just absolutely dazzling," he says about the graduates. "If you wanted to show anybody the best single concentrated example of the triumph of American democracy, you should go to any CUNY school."

At the start of our conversation, I push a copy of S. Yizhar's novel "Khirbet Khizeh" toward him. It's my first question, posed in physical form. Here is a novel about the expulsion of Palestinian villagers from their homes in the war of 1948, and published in Hebrew in 1949.

The point behind my bringing it is that, however fractious and loaded Israeli political discourse is, the discussion has always been open. What I want to know is if he's shocked that his statements about Israel have, once again, raised such a ruckus in the United States.

"I don't really like controversy," he says. "And I've never been someone who actively courted it. And I especially have anxieties about this particular controversy because on a certain level I sort of understand the anxieties that someone like Wiesenfeld's rage flows out of."

He is speaking of Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the CUNY trustee who first blocked the degree.

"It's not like I can't comprehend it," he continues. "I think that the State of Israel is in great peril. And it has been since it's founding. And the peril that it's in, in a certain way, is on the same sort of historical narrative line as the Holocaust and pogroms. It's impossible not to see that parallel in the context of 2,000 years of intense anti-Semitic persecution, so, I get it. And the first time I decided to write about it publicly, I actually went to a CUNY professor, who was a very left Jewish guy, and asked him what he thought about my speaking publicly, and to my great shock he told me not to."

Having ignored what, in this case, looks like a prescient warning, I want to know how much time Kushner's lost. He's a writer. His business is his head. He can't possibly work through all the static of the various attacks against him.

"During the noise after 'Munich,'" he says, referring to the 2005 screenplay he wrote about Israeli retribution for the attack on the 1972 Olympics, "I think [it] consumed about a year of my life."

I ask him what he thinks was so troubling to people about the film. He points out that "the film ends with Avner, the agent, staying in the United States and deciding not to go back to Israel," which was how it had been in the fictionalized account that Steven Spielberg bought.

Kushner was very moved by that. He knew it was a dangerous thing to say in the film, but he thought it was an interesting point. "And so we went for it. And I think that was probably what unhinged people like Leon Wieseltier," he says, referring to an especially pointed review Wieseltier gave the film.

While we sit drinking coffees and talking at what, even for New Yorkers, would be considered great speed, Kushner addresses various concerns about the future direction of the State of Israel. He also stresses that he doesn't "want to dictate Israeli policy. I'm not an Israeli citizen."

But again, much space has been given to criticizing Kushner for his views, how best to sum up his heartfelt position on Israel? For me, it's in his mustering of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who Kushner says, has "been writing spectacularly about the occupation since '67."

He paraphrases Leibowitz's interpretation of the Ten Commandments. "You don't worship a graven image - including a graven image on a map. That's what he says: The heart of Judaism is being supplanted by a map."

And if a map isn't what we're supposed to hold in that metaphysical space that is the ideological heart, what is it that should go there? Well, the answer isn't simple, and he covers great swaths of history and thought trying to reach it. But finally, I'd say, he does.

It's America's 14th Amendment that beats behind Tony Kushner's ribs, it's "the simple idea that everyone must be treated equally under the law. That is, for me, Jerusalem. That's Zion."

Kushner believes that, "the idea of a democracy is to protect minorities from majoritarian tyranny," and he has "a problem with people that have flourished in this country under exactly that shield, who then turn to a notion that a very small handful of people in the world's population can build and maintain a fortress country for themselves. It doesn't make sense to me."

He goes on to state, as he has at other times and in other ways during the conversation, that, "The State of Israel exists. It's unthinkable that it should ever be allowed not to exist. And I have great regard for Israelis and for Israeli culture."

And that's the upsetting part on my end, that whatever his views are, or, better, whatever you think of his views, he keeps on having to restate this one fact that, I guarantee you, has never been in question.

Run to the theater. Go see his plays. It's unfathomable that he'd want any country wiped away - I mean, how many decent people would?

And so this man, who states that "being Jewish and belonging to the Jewish community is enormously important to me," who has felt since childhood that part of the responsibility of community, "is loyalty and part of the responsibility is inward examination and the ability to criticize and engage in open public discussion," spends his time publicly, in international forums, defending his right to that belief.

Maybe, though, he thinks criticism of his positions is unreasonable. I ask him if there's some line that should separate the art and the artist. If there's some line between personal and public life that should affect how he's judged.

"I feel like the things that I've said about Israel are consonant with the politics that is apparent in my work," he says. "And I certainly don't want my work to be judged with a disregard to politics, so I feel like it's all fair. The only thing that I ask, is that what I say be given a fair representation, even by its enemies."

Southern rebel

It's growing up in the south that taught him these lessons. It was "having screaming fights my entire life with friends about the Confederacy." He can remember when "Gone with the Wind" was rereleased when he was 7 or 8 years old, and his parents made it clear that "although it was a very nice movie, it was really an inaccurate view of what slavery was."

His father always made a big point, with everybody he talked to, that "the Civil War was fought over slavery. Period. The end. And the Confederacy was defending an evil."

"What I came to recognize as a kid," Kushner says, "[is that] when people are defending something that they know on a certain level is indefensible, the worst thing, the most dangerous thing that they can allow to happen, is conversation. You ask the first real question and then the whole thing starts to come apart. The mistake comes from defending something that's indefensible. Don't do it. Don't try and defend the idea that Israel has nothing to answer for in its treatment of the Palestinian people. That's an indefensible position that will never lead to peace. The only way you're going to be able to say that without looking like a lunatic, is if you shout everyone down the minute they raise any objections or questions. And you're not going to find any legitimate policy on the basis of having the loudest voice and being the biggest bully in the room."