By William Fisher
Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu has been disinvited to speak at a St. Paul, Minnesota, university because of allegations that he made "hurtful" comments about Israel that might offend local Jews.
Tutu, widely revered for his opposition to South Africa's apartheid system, was proposed to the University of St. Thomas administration as a speaker for a spring 2008 event planned by the local chapter of a youth group known as Peace Jam International.
According to a university official, Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations, "basic background research" about Tutu turned up "some red flags" concerning "some things that (Tutu) had said about Israel."
Hennes told a St. Paul newspaper he made some inquiries, including one to a spokeswoman for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. The organization's representative called Hennes' attention to a speech Tutu made in Boston in 2002 that was reportedly critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.
She also said that Tutu's speech referred to a "powerful" Jewish lobby in the US, which she said invoked a stereotype of Jewish power, and another where he asked aloud if Jews had forgotten that God cares about the downtrodden.
Hennes said it was a "judgment call" made by St. Thomas' president, the Rev. Dennis Dease. "The basic response we got was that (Tutu) had said some things in the past that have been hurtful to the Jewish community," Hennes said. "When we looked at that, we just decided we're not going to invite him."
Tutu's 2002 speech was reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), an international news agency serving Jewish community newspapers and media around the world. But JTA critics, including Prof. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, claim the news agency's reporting was distorted.
A transcript of Tutu's speech reveals he said, "The Israeli government is placed on a pedestal (in the US), and to criticize it is to be immediately dubbed anti-Semitic, as if the Palestinians were not Semitic. I am not even anti-white, despite the madness of that group. And how did it come about that Israel was collaborating with the apartheid government on security measures? People are scared in (the US) to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful - very powerful. 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."
Tutu added, "We should put out a clarion call to the government of the people of Israel, to the Palestinian people and say: peace is possible, peace based on justice 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."
Many other Americans who are critical of Israeli government policies have been similarly criticized. These include former President Jimmy Carter, whose recent book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," was immediately attacked as being anti-Semitic.
Ironically, unquestioning acceptance of Israeli government policies is virtually unknown in Israel, where political debate tends to be ubiquitous, fractious and highly charged. Many in Israel are far more critical than either Carter or Tutu regarding Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
At the university in St. Paul, the Tutu controversy triggered heated pushback from some faculty members. A professor was stripped of her leadership post at the school's Justice and Peace Studies Program for the way she challenged the administration's decision.
And Marv Davidov, an adjunct professor, who said he was incensed by the Tutu decision, said, "I think the Israeli lobby in our country has been attempting to silence criticisms of Israel in the academic world. That does a disservice to the state of Israel and all Jews," said Davidov, 76, who said he experienced anti-Semitism as a child in Detroit.
He said anyone who criticizes Israel for treatment of Palestinians ends up labeled as anti-Semitic.
Two years ago, St. Thomas - a Catholic diocesan institution founded in 1885 and now the largest private university in Minnesota - hosted an appearance by incendiary
right-wing pundit Ann Coulter. Coulter once said of Muslims, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Coulter spoke at the school to promote her book, "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right." Her appearance required extra security.
Bishop Tutu's most recent US appearance was as a guest panelist at an event sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative, an organization formed by former President Bill Clinton to bring together leaders from the private and public sectors, religion, science and technology, medicine, and many other specialties, to promote peace, healthcare, educational and other essential services to underdeveloped countries.
Meanwhile, the youth group that proposed Tutu to St. Thomas has moved its conference to another venue -- Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, where the Nobel laureate will speak on April 11.