Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu Banned
From Campus Over Israel Criticism
by Cecilie Surasky, Jewish Voice
www.alternet.org, October 3, 2007
Rumors have been circulating for some
time that Archbishop Desmond Tutu was banned by the University
of St Thomas in Minnesota because of statements he made that some
consider anti-Semitic. Now it's official: winning the Nobel Peace
Prize doesn't protect you from charges of anti-Semitism if you
criticize Israeli human rights practices. Neither, apparently,
does being one of the most compelling voices for social justice
in the world today, or even getting an honorary degree from and
giving the commencement address at Brandeis.
Minneapolis/St.Paul's City Pages just
reported that members of the St Thomas Justice and Peace Studies
program were thrilled when Bishop Tutu agreed to speak at the
University" but administrators did a scientific survey of
the Jews of Minneapolis, which included querying exactly one spokesperson
for Minnesota's Jewish Community Relations Council and several
rabbis who taught in a University program" and concluded
that Tutu is bad for the Jews and should therefore be barred from
in a move that still has faculty members
shaking their heads in disbelief, St. Thomas administrators--concerned
that Tutu's appearance might offend local Jews--told organizers
that a visit from the archbishop was out of the question.
"We had heard some things he said
that some people judged to be anti-Semitic and against Israeli
policy," says Doug Hennes, St. Thomas's vice president for
university and government relations. "We're not saying he's
anti-Semitic. But he's compared the state of Israel to Hitler
and our feeling was that making moral equivalencies like that
are hurtful to some members of the Jewish community."
St. Thomas officials made this inference
after Hennes talked to Julie Swiler, a spokeswoman for the Jewish
Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. "I
told him that I'd run across some statements that were of concern
to me," says Swiler. "In a 2002 speech in Boston, he
made some comments that were especially hurtful."
Just to send the message home, Swiler
"I think there's a consensus in the
Jewish community that his words were offensive."
To be clear here, Swiler and the other
rabbis have the right to say whatever they think, though representing
those opinions, as Swiler does, as a Jewish consensus, is laughable.
Ultimately, groups like Minnesota's JCRC,
the right wing fringe group Zionist Organization of America, and
the increasingly embarrassing Anti-Defamation League, who have
all attacked Tutu for his criticism of Israeli policies, will
face the consequences of smearing Tutu -- a hero to millions and
leader of a movement that was known for the massively disproportionate
involvement of numerous South African Jews.
But it's the craven behavior of the administrators
of St. Thomas that will likely be a mark of shame for years to
come. While it's understandable, given the Church's history of
virulent anti-Semitism, that a Catholic institution would be extra
sensitive about relations with Jews, it's not clear here that
there was any real pressure to cave in to. Did groups threaten
to picket? Who knows what administrators were thinking?
Regardless, the backlash has already begun.
Marv Davidov, an adjunct professor within the Justice and Peace
Studies program said:
"As a Jew who experienced real anti-Semitism
as a child, I'm deeply disturbed that a man like Tutu could be
labeled anti-Semitic and silenced like this," he says. "I
deeply resent the Israeli lobby trying to silence any criticism
of its policy. It does a great disservice to Israel and to all
To make matters worse, when Cris Toffolo,
the chair of the Justice and Peace Studies program told Tutu what
happened and warned him of a possible smear campaign, she was
"This is pure bullshit," says
Davidov. "As far as fighting for civil rights, I consider
Tutu to be my brother. And I consider Cris Toffolo to be my sister.
They're messing with my family here. If Columbia permits a Holocaust
denier [Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] to speak at their
university, why are St. Thomas officials refusing to let Tutu,
an apostle of nonviolence, speak at ours?"
"What happened at the University
of St. Thomas is not an isolated event," says Toffolo. "Until
we have an honest debate about U.S. policy related to Israel,
and about Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories, the spiral
of violence will continue."
Why Tutu? Why now? Are his statements
Bishop Tutu is closely associated with
Sabeel, a Jerusalem based Christian liberation theology organization
started by Palestinian Anglican pastor Rev. Naim Ateek. Sabeel
is "an international peace movement initiated by Palestinian
Christians in the Holy Land who seek a just peace based on two
states-Palestine and Israel-as defined by international law and
existing United Nations resolutions."The group, and founder
Naim Ateek in particular, have come under considerable attack
by mainstream Jewish organizations that see their influence on
domestic Christian organizations as a threat.
Sabeel works with local Christian partners
to hold conferences in major cities across the United States.
To the consternation of many, Bishop Tutu will be the featured
speaker in late October at the Boston Sabeel conference. The conference
title? "The Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel:Issues
of Justice and Equality."
Members of my group, Jewish Voice for
Peace, have spoken at a handful of Sabeel conferences, and our
Boston chapter is sponsoring a peace walk at the Boston conference.
As one JVP colleague who participated
in several Sabeel conferences told me, she believed that Naim
Atteek was guilty, at most, at times of being unaware of Jewish
sensitivities around using certain Christian theological language
(in fact, she publicly challenged him on this issue), but that
he is ultimately advocating for a nonviolent resolution that recognizes
the humanity and rights of both Jews and Palestinians. Of that,
she has no doubt. (There are, to be sure, plenty of Palestinian
sensitivities around language as well, though there is little
interest among leaders of a variety of faiths in learning what
those might be.)
Interestingly, the same can perhaps be
said for Bishop Tutu, whose 2002 Sabeel speech seems to be the
primary evidence offered for the cancellation of his talk. It's
impossible to convey the spirit of his talk by quoting only bits
and pieces, so read it. Read the whole thing, especially the part
cited by St. Thomas' Doug Hennes where he says Tutu compared Israel
The talk is notable for its philo-Semitism
and its equally passionate condemnation of Israel's occupation
of Palestinian land and people. For anyone who has been to the
Occupied Territories, let alone lived through it, his words of
condemnation are impossible to argue with. His language is challenging
in part because it is imbued with the disappointment of a Christian
raised to look up to Jews, and the heartache of an anti-apartheid
leader who was once buoyed by passionate Jewish support. He struggles
to make sense of the checkpoints, the home demolitions, the land
confiscations, done by a state that says it represents the very
What is clear is that he at times uses
language loosely without understanding how it might hurt or offend
us Jews. Does that make him an anti-Semite? Of course not. Should
he be banned for using a term like "Jewish lobby" that
makes many of us uncomfortable? Are you kidding?
Tutu never wavers in expressing his love
of and hope for peace and security for both peoples. "Peace
based on justice," Tutu says, "is possible. We will
do all we can to assist you to achieve this peace, because it
is God's dream, and you will be able to live amicably together
as sisters and brothers. "