MuzzleWatch: October 5th, 2007
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?
egardless, 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. ”
Read this to see extensive excerpts of Tutu’s manuscript for this planned speech, see
A further posting at Muzzlewatch, containing a letter from U. of St. Thomas president, Father Dennis Dease, to the student body, suggests self-censorship was the major factor at work:
… Meanwhile, someone just sent us this letter that seems to vindicate what we at Jewish Voice for Peace have been saying all along. This was not a case of Jewish groups threatening a boycott or demanding Tutu’s ouster. It was an act of self-censorship, intended to demonstrate support for Jews. In the end, it was the worst thing St Thomas could do, feeding the fire of anti-Semitism, because it promotes the idea that “the Jews demanded” the cancellation of Tutu’s talk. Of course, the fact that right-wing Jewish groups and leaders, claiming they speak for all of us, do often demand such forms of censorship ( as we document regularly here) also creates an atmosphere of intimidation for everyone. Did fear and intimidation play a role? We may never know.
Father Dennis Dease, president of the University of St. Thomas, has asked that the letter below be sent to St. Thomas students, faculty and staff:
Dear members of the St. Thomas community,
I am writing to you today to explain the University of St. Thomas’ decision not to co-sponsor an April 2008 PeaceJam conference for high school students.
Last spring, a representative of our Justice and Peace Studies program advised my office of an opportunity to invite Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at St. Thomas during the PeaceJam conference. I discussed the matter with my staff and decided not to take advantage of this opportunity.
Later, I learned that Youthrive, an Upper Midwest affiliate of Denver-based PeaceJam International, had invited Tutu to speak at St. Thomas without my knowledge or that of other senior administrators.
(Metropolitan State University has agreed to host the conference, which will be held April 11-13, with Archbishop Tutu as the featured speaker.)
St. Thomas receives hundreds of proposals to sponsor speakers and events, and we often decline for a variety of reasons. Why was this the case for the Archbishop Tutu opportunity?
We became aware of concerns about some of Archbishop Tutu’s widely publicized statements that have been hurtful to members of the Jewish community. 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.
I was under no pressure from any pro-Israeli groups or individuals, nor did I receive any requests from them, to refrain from inviting Archbishop Tutu to speak.
I am not in a position to evaluate what to a Jew feels anti-Semitic and what does not. I can, however, take seriously the judgments of those whom I trust by not putting St. Thomas in a position that would add to that hurt.
Questions also have been raised about why Dr. Thomas Rochon, executive vice president and chief academic officer, removed Dr. Cris Toffolo as director of our interdisciplinary Justice and Peace Studies program. This is a personnel matter. I will say only that she was not removed because of any private or public disagreement with my decision not to invite Archbishop Tutu to St. Thomas. She continues to teach in the program and remains a tenured associate professor of political science.
I also wish to address concerns about threats to academic freedom at St. Thomas. I strongly defend the principle and practice of academic freedom at the university. This incident did not involve our curriculum or St. Thomas classroom activities. Instead, it involved the use of our facilities and name in connection with an external group.
I want to thank members of the St. Thomas community for sharing their concerns with me. This has been a difficult issue, and I know many people do not agree with the decision. As always, I welcome your comments.
Father Dennis Dease