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Jewish groups, artists question Kushner booking

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Tony Kushner
Tony Kushner

After “thoughtful consideration” and consultation with its leadership, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto has distanced itself from a May 9 event at the Koffler Centre of the Arts – a UJA constituent agency – featuring U.S. playwright Tony Kushner.

In a March 21 statement, the federation noted that Kushner is a member of the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), “an organization that supports boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.”

Though Kushner “has publicly stated that he does not support the BDS movement, UJA Federation has concerns about [his] association with JVP, and we will not support an event where there is any link to organizations supporting BDS.

READ: UJA FEDERATION DISTANCES ITSELF FROM TONY KUSHNER EVENT

“Therefore, we are disassociating ourselves from this particular event involving Mr. Kushner, although we remain strongly supportive of the Koffler Centre of the Arts.”

Kushner is perhaps best known for his two-part epic play Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and for screenplays for the Steven Spielberg movies Munich and Lincoln. He’s won some two dozen awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, two Tony Awards, an Emmy, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award.

The federation had previously promoted the event on its website, a post that has since been removed. It was also listed as one of the Koffler Centre’s institutional supporters in a full-page ad in the March 17 print edition of The CJN.

While the UJA logo appears in ads and on websites of affiliated schools and agencies, “UJA was not involved in organizing or approving this particular speaker,” Dan Horowitz, the federation’s editorial director, told The CJN.

Kushner will discuss how he “tackles the most difficult subjects in contemporary history,” and offer his thoughts on the future of contemporary theatre in North America, according to the Koffler Centre’s website.

In response to UJA Federation’s position, the Koffler Centre said it is “very fortunate that Tony Kushner, one of the world’s greatest living playwrights and certainly among the most significant thinkers of our time, has accepted our invitation to visit Toronto for an evening.”

Kushner has “publicly and repeatedly stated” that he does not support BDS and “we accept this acknowledgement,” said Tiana Koffler Boyman, the centre’s co-chair of the board in a statement.

Jewish Voice for Peace, founded in 1996, “proudly endorses the Palestinian civil society call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) until Israel abides by international law,” its website states.

“We reject the assertion that BDS is inherently anti-Semitic and defend activists who employ the full range of BDS tactics when they are demonized or wrongly accused of anti-Semitism.”

The website lists Kushner as a member of JVP’s advisory board.

While Kushner has rejected BDS, he supported the Israeli artist boycott of the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

In 2010, 60 leading Israeli actors and playwrights signed a letter stating they would refuse to play in the new theatre in Ariel, one of Israel’s largest settlements.

“They are refusing because settlements like Ariel sprawl across Palestinian land occupied by Israel and are illegal under international law,” Kushner and Columbia University professor Alisa Solomon wrote in The Nation.

READ: WHY WE NEED A LEGAL RESPONSE TO BDS

In 2011, City University of New York withdrew an offer to award Kushner an honorary degree because of his views, but later reversed its decision and granted him the degree.

Responding in a letter to the Jewish Week newspaper, Kushner said he has “never supported a boycott of the State of Israel. I don’t believe it will accomplish anything positive in terms of resolving the crisis.” He said he remains on the advisory board of JVP, “even though I disagree with the organization about a number of issues, including the boycott.”

He added that “the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the State of Israel was ethnic cleansing.”

He said his “feelings and opinions – my outrage, my grief, my terror, my moments of despair – regarding the ongoing horror in the Middle East, the brunt of which has been born by the Palestinian people, but which has also cost Israelis dearly and which endangers their existence, are shared by many Jews, in Israel, in the U.S. and around the world.”

The author said he’s “very proud of being Jewish, and discussing this issue publicly has been hard,” but he believes his job “is to try to speak and write honestly about what I believe to be true,” and that “silence on the part of Jews who have questions is injurious to the life of the Jewish People.”

But Ari Weisberg, artistic director of Teatron Toronto Jewish Theatre, said that while “I can’t say I’ve read all [of Kushner’s] plays – I don’t have the patience for that – I will not produce any of his plays.”

“I’m not censoring anybody [but] we always [staged] pro-Jewish, pro-Israel plays. That’s our mandate,” Weisberg said. Staging a play by Kushner would be “contrary to our mandate.

“Plays are not propaganda,” he added. “We do bring up challenges and problems.”

But he likened Kushner’s work to My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play about an American activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza Strip in 2003.

READ: AFTER JNF WITHDRAWAL, ISRAELI EMBASSY TO SPONSOR CONTROVERSIAL NOA CONCERT

In 2006, Toronto’s Canadian Stage Company decided not to stage the play, a decision based on the work’s merits rather than the political controversy that dogged it, the company said at the time.

“We have concerns about some of the factually incorrect comments that have been attributed to Mr. Kushner,” said B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn.

“We would encourage the Koffler Centre to do its due diligence and ensure that in choosing speakers for events, the sensibilities of the greater Jewish community are taken into consideration.”

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