Wednesday, 11 May 2011

CUNY and Kushner

Many years ago, in our book of Jewish women's poetry, The Dybbuk of Delight, we published a short poem by Miriam Halamy called Washing Apples, in the wake of "Mandela casting his vote" she hopes her son knows " why I said/at street stalls, at supermarkets, not those, or those/why it was never just an apple". The boycott of Cape fruit was an easy one. though. A couple of years beforehand I had been called in by an important political figure on my patch. He'd just bought a book from the shop I worked in, and found, on the copyright page, that the publisher (Penguin? Hutchinson? OUP?, could have been any of them) had an office in South Africa. As our shop was a political bookshop, he said he expected us now to take off all the books from publishers having offices in South Africa. Never mind that it would have left the shop without any books by big publishers and we'd have to close, he was unaware that the ANC had exempted books from the boycott. He deflated a bit more when I pointed out that he should not eat the KitKat sticking out of his breast pocket, or drink the Nescafe on his shelf because of other boycotts in operation - but that was just point scoring.
These days the debate is all about Israel. True, we have a company policy of not buying Caterpillar Trucks because of their involvement in the West Bank, but in 16 years not one Israeli bookshop has ordered a book from us (though I don't think that is boycotting us, they are just not interested). Would we supply them? Of course we would. We do publish Israeli authors from time to time, and will continue to do so. Boycotts should not be about boycotting individuals surely, but representatives of an offending organisation or state. This is a big and complicated issue, as Ian McEwan found out when he was offered the Jerusalem Prize. He came out of it very well, and was able to join some Israeli writers in protesting against house seizures at Sheikh Jarrah (something I have done too). But one boycott not hitting the news is CUNY (City University of New York) withdrawing an offer of an honorary degree to the playwright, screenwriter and lyricist Tony Kushner because of his involvement with Jewish peace groups. This mirrors an earlier episode at Brandeis University. And it stinks.
In his song about exile, An Undoing World, written for the Klezmatics (I don't think they'll be playing CUNY for a while) he used the lines "You live adrift, and everything you feared/Comes to you in this undoing world". Well, not getting an honorary doctorate is easily survivable, but there is just that hint of McCarthyism in the air.
UPDATE: CUNY has now changed its position, in the light of protests and some other authors returning their honorary degrees. But Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor of CUNY, in announcing the change of mind, pointed out that they were now offering to honour Kushner "whether or not we agree with him, whether or not we take exception to some of his views". Well, that's all right then. Matty sounds like a nice guy.

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