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.
(WRITE LETTER TO U OF ST THOMAS ADMINISTRATORS HERE.)
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.