by Cecilie Surasky
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 violations. 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 campus.
“…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 says:
“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 Jews.”
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 immediately demoted.
“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 anti-Semitic?
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 to Hitler.
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 same people.
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. ”