NEW YORK (JTA) – The Anti-Defamation League is urging the president of a Minnesota university to invite Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak just days after it was revealed that he had been disinvited because of fears he might offend Jews.
Tutu had been slated to visit the University of St. Thomas next spring as part of a program that brings Nobel laureates to teach youth about peace and justice. But university administrators, after consulting with Minnesota Jewish leaders, concluded that Tutu has made hurtful comments about Israel and the Jewish people that rendered him inappropriate as a speaker.
“Tutu has certainly been an outspoken, sometimes very harsh critic of Israel and Israeli policies, and has sometimes also used examples which may cross the line,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director. But, he added, Tutu “certainly is not an anti-Semite and should not be so characterized and therefore refused a platform.”
Coming just weeks after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to Columbia University, the controversy over Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and icon of the peaceful struggle against apartheid, has become the latest point of contention in what is shaping up to be a fierce season of Middle East controversy on campus.
Jewish groups have long been drawn into battles over the acceptable parameters of the Middle East debate, an issue recently brought to the fore by the Ahmadinejad visit and the publication of “The Israel Lobby.” In the book, two noted political scientists argue that Jewish influence has prevented a frank discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Tutu incident, however, offers an unusual twist: a Jewish organization now linked to a university refusing to invite a recognized civil rights luminary who also sits on the board of a Holocaust center in South Africa.
Tutu has condemned suicide terrorism against Israel and recognized the Jewish state’s right to secure boundaries. He has spoken admiringly about the Jewish role in fighting apartheid, though he has also noted Israel’s alliance with the apartheid South African government. He was even honored in 2003 by Yeshiva University’s law school with an award for promoting world peace.
After the Tutu cancellation was reported last week in City Pages, the Minneapolis alternative weekly, the president of St. Thomas issued an explanation.
“We became aware of concerns about some of Archbishop Tutu’s widely publicized statements that have been hurtful to members of the Jewish community,” Father Dennis Dease said in a statement released last Friday. “I spoke with Jews for whom I have great respect. What stung these individuals was not that Archbishop Tutu criticized Israel but how he did so, and the moral equivalencies that they felt he drew between Israel’s policies and those of Nazi Germany, and between Zionism and racism.”
Among the Jews with whom Dease spoke was Julie Swiler, the public affairs director for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Swiler told JTA that after the university approached the JCRC for an opinion about Tutu, she discovered a speech he delivered in Boston in 2002 in which he compared the power of the “Jewish lobby” to Hitler, and Israeli policies to those of the South African apartheid regime.
“People are scared in this country to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful – very powerful,” Tutu said in the speech, a portion of which was reprinted in the Guardian newspaper. “Well, so what? This is God’s world. For goodness sake, this is God’s world! We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosovic and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust.”
Swiler said she told the university that those comments go beyond legitimate criticism of Israel.
“I think most people in the Jewish community would find comparing the quote-unquote Jewish lobby to Hitler offensive,” she said.
Swiler insisted that no recommendation was sought and none was given to the question of whether Tutu should be invited to campus. And though Swiler said that Tutu’s views should be heard even though he has a “blind spot” when it comes to Israel, she would not offer an opinion on the university’s decision to deny him a platform.
“We’re not talking about David Duke here,” said Cecilie Surasky, the communications director for Jewish Voice for Peace and editor of the blog Muzzlewatch, which chronicles suppression of dissenting voices in the Middle East debate.
“I think most people would agree they wouldn’t want to spend their dollars giving David Duke a platform,” Surasky said. “But what we are talking about is Nobel Prize winners, top academics. Those people are the ones that are having trouble speaking without fear of attack by what I could call self-appointed gatekeepers.”
Surasky added that whatever the particulars of this case, the impression of the Tutu incident is that the pro-Israel lobby has again squashed views it doesn’t like.
“This struck a chord because it’s part of a pattern,” Surasky said. “Even though it’s their decision, what many people hear is it’s Jewish pressure that caused them to bar, in this case, one of the world’s great humanitarians. And I don’t think there’s any question that fuels anti-Semitism.”
Both the university and the Minnesota JCRC have explicitly denied that any Jewish pressure was exerted to have the speech canceled. A school spokesman said the university’s decision was informed in part by its experience two years ago hosting the conservative provocateur Ann Coulter.
Mindful that it might appear to outsiders that Jewish pressure played a role, Swiler emphasized repeatedly that she does not believe Tutu is an anti-Semite and that he has a right to be heard.
Not all Jewish groups, however, agree with that view.
“Desmond Tutu is an anti-Semite who hates Jews and is obsessed with demeaning and smearing the Jewish state,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Tutu’s 2002 speech was delivered at a conference sponsored by Sabeel, a Christian Palestinian group that some have described as anti-Semitic, and has become a prime exhibit of the archbishop’s supposed hostility to Israel.
Tutu is slated to speak againat a Sabeel conference later this month in Boston titled “The Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel.”
According to Swiler, the university reached out to the local JCRC once before after the council complained that the Justice and Peace Studies program, the department that booked Tutu to speak, had a pattern of programming hostile to Israel. The JCRC argued that all voices on the Middle East should get a hearing.
The university responded by establishing a committee that the JCRC was invited to join. Soon after, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was invited to speak on campus.
“I think that again, all viewpoints should be heard,” Swiler said. Tutu’s “viewpoint should be heard. And when we disagree with what somebody says about Israel, our viewpoint should be heard.”