Brandeis University is being criticized for its decision to award an honorary doctorate to playwright Tony Kushner, a critic of Israeli government policies.
Mr. Kushner, who has called the founding of Israel a "mistake," and has accused the Jewish state of "behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people," is among seven people who are slated to receive honorary doctorates from the Waltham, Mass.-based university, which has Jewish roots but is nonsectarian.
The degrees are to be awarded on May 21, when Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan will give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree.
The Zionist Organization of America is calling on Brandeis to reconsider its decision to honor Mr. Kushner. "A Jewish-oriented college should not be giving respectability and legitimacy to someone who has been such a hostile critic of Israel," the president of ZOA, Morton Klein, said.
Jehuda Reinharz, the Brandeis president since 1994, was unavailable for comment, a Brandeis spokesman said.
Yesterday Mr. Kushner did not deny any of his earlier comments about Israel, including one in which he said Israel was founded amid "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinian Arabs. But, in a phone interview with The New York Sun, he said past statements have been taken out of context by groups using "McCarthyite" tactics to portray him as an extremist. Mr. Kushner said he is opposed to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and to the route of Israel's security barrier, which snakes through portions of the West Bank.
"My opinions are not marginal," said Mr. Kushner, who said he considers himself neither a Zionist nor an anti-Zionist. "My opinions are shared by many people including many Israelis."
"If I have to label myself as to what kind of Jew I am, I'm an American Jew, a 'Diasporan Jew,'" he said.
The playwright, who holds several honorary doctorates, said the Brandeis distinction is particularly significant because the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the school's namesake, is one of his heroes. Mr. Brandeis, he said, was an advocate for social and economic justice who "brought a very Jewish sense of ethics to American jurisprudence."
Mr. Kushner said that he was notified of the Brandeis award last summer before the release of "Munich," which was directed by Steven Spielberg. The film, which centers on the aftermath of the killing of 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games, drew criticism from some who thought it equated Palestinian terrorism with Israeli reprisals.
Robert Rifkind, a New York lawyer who serves on the Brandeis board of trustees, said he had not known of Mr. Kushner's stance on Israel. Mr. Rifkind did not know if members of the trustee committee selecting honorary degree recipients were aware of Mr. Kushner's views on Israel.
"It's not easy what the answer would have been had it come up," he said. "All I can tell you is that I and most of the members of the board whose views I'm aware of are lifelong committed Zionists."
The decision to honor Mr. Kushner presents a quandary, Mr. Rifkind said.
"There's always a problem with an artist who has done important work, but who has views I think ill of," Mr. Rifkind said. " Do you appreciate the art and forget about the views, or do you focus on the views and forget about the art?" he said. "These are hard matters of judgment."
Another board member, Stuart Eizenstat, another lawyer who served in the Carter and Clinton administrations, said he supported the university's decision to honor Mr. Kushner. "I don't agree with all the things Kushner said, but the award is really because he's at the height of his artistic career," said Mr. Eizenstat. "This is being given not because of his political views, but because of his artistic accomplishments. I think you have to separate that when you're dealing with artists."
Mr. Eizenstat said the board of trustees' selection committee mulls over scores of potential honorees before presenting about a dozen names to Mr. Reinharz, the university's Israel-born president.
Shimrit Hait, a 20-year-old Brandeis sophomore, said she wasn't familiar with Mr. Kushner's statements about Israel, but said she found reports of his beliefs troubling.
"It's definitely bothering me," she said.
Other Brandeis honorary degree recipients will include singer Marilyn Horne and the chairman of the Timberland boot, shoe, and apparel company, Sidney Swartz.