There's a new Tony Kushner political drama in Toronto right now – only this one is playing out amid the city's Jewish community, rather than at a theatre company.
The Angels in America playwright and Lincoln screenwriter has accused the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto of "McCarthyism" and a "smear campaign," after the Jewish charity and advocacy organization released a statement disassociating itself from a public event with Kushner being hosted on Monday night by one of the cultural organizations the UJA supports.
"I'm honestly really disgusted by what [the UJA] did and I'm very angry about it," Kushner said, in his first comment on the controversy, to The Globe and Mail. "It's depressing that – even in Canada – this kind of censorious, illiberal and really disgraceful behaviour is seen as acceptable."
Tony Kushner in Conversation, an onstage interview with the playwright hosted by theatre director Philip Akin, is still set to take place at the Panasonic Theatre on Monday night, presented by the Koffler Centre for the Arts – which currently receives a grant of $250,000 annually from the UJA.
But the talk has been under a shadow since, in March, the UJA distanced itself from the event – citing the fact that Kushner sits on the advisory board of a group called Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), alongside Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, actor Ed Asner and playwright Eve Ensler.
The issue: JVP supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement – an attempt to put political and economic pressure on Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians that the UJA believes is "anti-Semitic in nature and calls into question the Jewish state," according to senior vice-president Jeff Springer.
But there's an unexpected plot twist, too: Kushner is opposed to the BDS movement as well – and the UJA acknowledges that he has publicly stated that opposition on numerous occasions.
Springer, nevertheless, stands behind the UJA's decision to disassociate itself from the event – saying that "BDS is what we consider a red line" and that Kushner is "guilty by association."
Replies Kushner: "That's the definition of McCarthyism."
"Jewish Voice for Peace has never asked me to leave their advisory board because I don't agree with them," says Kushner, who does not believe BDS supporters are anti-Semitic. "I think the UJA could learn a thing or two about tolerating difference of opinion from JVP."
Tony Kushner in Conversation was intended to be primarily a conversation about the Jewish-American Tony-winner and two-time Oscar nominee's career in theatre and film. Kushner is increasingly in demand as a screenwriter in Hollywood – where he has become the go-to guy for director Steven Spielberg, for whom he wrote both Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012) and has another two films currently in development.
In the theatre world, meanwhile, Kushner ranks among the top tier of living American playwrights thanks, in particular, to his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1993 epic, Angels in America – a pair of plays that, in part, depict the final days of the infamous McCarthyite attorney Roy Cohn. In and around Toronto, his work has recently been produced by major companies such as Soulpepper Theatre Company and the Shaw Festival, to critical and popular acclaim.
In parts of the Jewish community in Canada and the United States, however, Kushner's forthright criticisms of Israel have made him a divisive figure. There was controversy and push back from donors and alumni, for instance, when Brandeis University and City University of New York awarded him honorary degrees in 2006 and 2011, respectively.
Perhaps naively then, the Koffler Centre was surprised by the reaction that resulted when it took out an advertisement promoting Kushner's event in the Canadian Jewish News on March 17. That ad included the UJA's logo – as the charity is an institutional supporter of the Koffler Centre, supplying about 17 per cent of its $1.4-million budget.
According to Springer, the UJA did not know about the Kushner event before the ad appeared. Cathy Jonasson, executive director of the Koffler Centre, says the event has been on their website and mentioned in e-mails for eight months.
Regardless, after receiving calls from donors – Springer won't say how many – the UJA decided to take the unusual step of publicly disassociating itself from the event that it was, indirectly, funding.
"Although Mr. Kushner has publicly stated that he does not support the BDS movement, UJA Federation has concerns about Mr. Kushner's association with JVP and we will not support an event where there is any link to organizations supporting BDS," the statement explained.
Springer says the statement was "not a big deal" and that the Kushner event will not affect the UJA's support of the Koffler Centre going forward. "We wish them the best," he says.
But Kushner believes harm has been done. "However mild their statement, what they're letting people know is that I'm a terrible person who shouldn't be listened to and that an affiliation with me somehow smears and tars you," he says. He fears Toronto Jewish cultural groups will now think twice about inviting authors or artists to speak if they are not "absolutely in lockstep with the UJA's opinions."
At the Koffler Centre, Jonasson acknowledges that the reaction will likely make her organization more closely consider the politics of the artists it works with and presents in the future. She is "worried" about how the UJA's statement will affect the Koffler's own fundraising campaigns – and she's already seen that it has had an impact on ticket sales.
Compared to a similar event the Koffler organized with cartoonist Art Spiegelman last year and sold out, the Kushner conversation has not sold as well. "We probably moved about 100 to 150 tickets directly to the Jewish community [with Spiegelman]; I suspect that won't happen this time," Jonasson said. "But I think it'll be quite a wonderful evening – and I'm sorry for those who will miss it for reasons that are hard to understand."
As for Kushner, he is frustrated that there is now a "pall" over his visit to Toronto, where he has family. "I'm not coming to talk about the Middle East," he says. "I will certainly answer questions about it, if I'm asked about it, as I always have – but I answer them as a screenwriter and a playwright who has opinions on things."
If Philip Akin were to ask him about the BDS movement, for instance, Kusnher will be happy to explain why he is in opposition to it, why he feels analogies between Israel and apartheid South Africa are dangerous, and why he thinks it will be ineffective.
"I think it takes all the energy that needs to be focused on arriving at diplomatic solutions and places them off on an other issue that, I think, is a sort of side argument," he says.
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