Behind the Headlines: Jews Disagree Whether to Protest Tutu’s Appearance at Inauguration
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Behind the Headlines: Jews Disagree Whether to Protest Tutu’s Appearance at Inauguration

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The New Year’s Day inauguration of David Dinkins as the first black mayor of the nation’s largest city was intended to be an event of healing in a city with deep racial and ethnic tensions.

But many Jews here are concerned that South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s participation in the inaugural ceremony will cast a shadow over the festivities and possibly exacerbate strains in black-Jewish relations.

Tutu, who is scheduled to offer a blessing at Dinkins’ installation, deeply offended many Jews this past week during his visit to Israel and the administered territories.

The 1984 Nobel laureate, who has often expressed support for the Palestinian cause, repeatedly compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to South Africa’s treatment of blacks under apartheid.

Israelis were also offended by his refusal to meet with the top political leadership of the country.

But the comments that most outraged Jews took place at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum, in which he suggested that Jews should forgive the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust.

As Tutu’s scheduled arrival in New York approaches, Jewish leaders in the city are faced with the delicate question of expressing their displeasure at Tutu’s statements without marring a day that would be historic for blacks in New York and across the nation.

At least one Jewish leader here, Rabbi Avraham Weiss of the Bronx, plans to organize a public protest, both against Tutu, for his statements in Israel, and against Dinkins, for refusing to rescind the invitation to Tutu, in light of those remarks.


“Mr. Dinkins’ choice of Tutu to help set the tone for his administration is offensive to the Jewish community,” Weiss said.

“It is cause for alarm. Tutu should not be speaking at the inauguration of the ‘healing mayor’ of New York.”

Dinkins stressed the theme of healing and bringing together various ethnic groups in his hard-fought campaign this fall against Republican rival Rudolph Giuliani.

Weiss sent Dinkins a letter Wednesday, asking that Dinkins reconsider his invitation, as Tutu’s presence “sends the wrong message to a city that needs so much healing.”

Dinkins responded by telephoning Weiss on Thursday, but would not be persuaded to cancel Tutu’s invitation.

As a result, Weiss plans to gather as many as 100 people for a “respectful and dignified” demonstration that “would not disrupt” the inauguration, if Tutu does make an appearance.

Weiss said he has not made a final decision as to whether the vigil will be held at the inauguration itself or in front of Tutu’s hotel, although he said he is “leaning toward doing it during the inauguration.”

According to the mayor-elect’s press secretary, Albert Scardino, the question of whether or not Tutu will appear is moot.

He said that “under no circumstances” will the bishop’s invitation be withdrawn.

Tutu is participating in the inauguration “in a position of honor because of his dedication to human rights and freedom in South Africa,” Scardino said.

He added that the mayor-elect has made it clear that he “does not agree with the positions that Bishop Tutu has espoused” on the Middle East and the Holocaust.

Tutu will offer his blessing as a representative of the Protestant faith, along with Cardinal John O’Connor, who will offer a Catholic blessing, and Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman, who will deliver a Jewish benediction.


“The purpose of the inauguration is to celebrate the fact that we do have differences, but we live in the same city and have the same government,” said Scardino.

Scardino pointed out that while many attending the inauguration deeply disagree with O’Connor’s views on abortion and homosexuality, they are also being encouraged to put aside their differences for the duration of the inaugural ceremony.

Some New York Jewish communal leaders feel that staging a public protest against Tutu at the inauguration is not worth tainting their relationship with the Dinkins administration, especially considering that Dinkins himself has publicly disputed Tutu’s views on Israel.

The New York Jewish Community Relations Council, while it has notified both Dinkins and black organizations about its unhappiness over Tutu’s recent remarks, has not called on Dinkins to withdraw the invitation.

Likewise, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith issued statements criticizing Tutu’s “profound insensitivity,” as NJCRAC put it.

But none of those organizations mentioned Tutu’s scheduled appearance at the Dinkins inauguration.

Michael Miller, JCRC’s executive director, said that while he is concerned about the prospect of a demonstration by Weiss or others, he nevertheless believes that they have the right to express their views through whatever channels they feel are appropriate.

Miller was echoed by Henry Siegman, executive director of AJCongress. Siegman has clashed with Weiss in the past, but he said that, while he would not encourage protest, “a silent, dignified demonstration is a perfectly legitimate right of free speech.”

But whether there is a demonstration or not, the unfortunate timing of Tutu’s politicized trip, just before the inauguration, will not allow some Jewish New Yorkers to celebrate Dinkins’ installation as wholeheartedly as they may have wished.

“I think it is inevitably an embarrassment to Dinkins, because Jews are angry, and rightly so, about Tutu’s remarks,” said Siegman.

“It’s an unfortunate situation, and I understand (Dinkins’) predicament. I do not envy him.”

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