When Desmond Tutu got the ‘Penn BDS’ treatment

When Desmond Tutu got the ‘Penn BDS’ treatment

from Mondoweiss by Phan Nguyen

In light of the attacks against the upcoming Penn BDS conference, I offer a reminder of the time Desmond Tutu got the “Penn BDS” treatment at other US universities, even when he wasn’t talking about BDS or Israel.

The article below was written in the summer of 2010, soon after the Olympia Food Co-op decided to boycott Israeli goods. At the time, many non-Jewish white progressives in Olympia felt they should defer to the “Jewish community’s” wishes on the Palestine/Israel issue.

It was a tokenizing and racist sentiment that made “the Jews,” collectively, the final arbiters of what goes on in the Middle East and what could be done to Palestinian lives. I wrote a long response in Olympia’s alternative newspaper criticizing the idea that Jews (and only certain Jews) somehow “owned” the Palestine/Israel conflict and that they had the final say on the issue.

The piece below was one of two unpublished “case studies” that accompanied my response, demonstrating that even Desmond Tutu had to answer to an imaginary concept of a collective monolithic Jewish identity in the United States. (The other case study dealt with who gets to own the “apartheid” label.)

Case study: Who owns Desmond Tutu?

In the spring of 2007, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu was invited to speak at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota as part of a joint project with PeaceJam International, a youth-empowerment organization that connects the leaders of tomorrow with Nobel peace laureates.

Unfortunately, the university neglected to consult the monolithic “Jewish community.” Julie Swiler of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas informed the university administration that Tutu had previously made comments about Israel “that were especially hurtful” to Jews. Swiler claimed that “there’s a consensus in the Jewish community that his words were offensive.”

The university, in consideration of supposed Jewish sensitivities, disinvited Tutu.

University vice president Doug Hennes explained, “We had heard some things he said that some people judged to be anti-Semitic and against Israeli policy,” and thus Tutu’s words were “hurtful to some members of the Jewish community.”

Elsewhere, Hennes said, “He [Tutu] has been critical of Israel and Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians, so we talked with people in the Jewish community and they said they believed it would be hurtful to the Jewish community” to have him come speak.

University president Dennis Dease claimed that some of Tutu’s statements on Israel

have been hurtful to members of the Jewish community. I spoke with Jews for whom I have great respect…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.

One could suppose that Dease was either being a good ally to Jews, or he was blaming the Jews. Another possible assessment is that Dease and his administration colleagues were simply spineless and were pandering to an imaginary monolithic Jewish voice.

The accusations against Tutu were based on a speech he gave on April 13, 2002, in which he compared what he witnessed in the occupied territories to what black South Africans experienced under apartheid. Julie Swilerclaimed that the speech “questions Jewish faithfulness to God” and that Tutu had compared Israel to Hitler. However, neither statement was ever made in the speech.

The original claim could possibly be traced to a press release issued by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), dated April 29, 2002. The press release, entitled, “Tutu Ignores Sheikh’s Calls to Murder Jews,”extrapolated parts of Tutu’s speech to imply that he had compared Israel to Hitler. The press release also quoted ZOA president Morton Klein as saying, “As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am deeply offended by Archbishop Tutu’s vicious libel that Israel is comparable to Hitler.”

And while St. Thomas disinvited Tutu out of respect for the vague sensibilities of a few Jews, the university had no such qualms when Ann Coulter spoke at the university two years earlier. The university did not seek input from members of the Muslim community who might be offended by statements Coulter had made—for example, that the US should “invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” and that Muslims should not be allowed to fly in planes and should instead “use flying carpets.”

Tutu coutler
Ann Coulter at the University of St. Thomas, April 18, 2005

After much national pressure, the University of St. Thomas eventually relented and re-invited Tutu. However, the context of Tutu’s invitation was altered. Tutu was now additionally invited “to participate in a forum to foster constructive dialogue on the issues that have been raised.” In other words, even though he had done nothing wrong, Tutu was asked to explain in dialogue with Jews why he had done it.

A similar qualification occurred in 2009, when Desmond Tutu was invited to deliver the commencement address at Michigan State University’s graduation ceremony. The Anti-Defamation League called on MSU to “reconsider the invitation” because Tutu “has been a vocal and strident critic of Israel” and had supposedly “conveyed outright bigotry against the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people” through “odious anti-Israel and anti-Jewish expressions.” Most of all, the ADL was concerned about “Tutu’s longstanding support for boycotting Israel.”

To MSU’s credit, it did not disinvite Tutu. However, MSU President Lou Anna Simon accepted that Tutu was somehow “a controversial speaker” and said the university would

provide opportunities for our campus community to hear alternate points of view. In this case, we will work with our Jewish Studies Program, MSU Hillel, and the broader Michigan Jewish community to develop these opportunities.

Once again, although Tutu did nothing wrong, and even though he wasn’t invited to speak about Palestine/Israel, his appearance was predicated on the university committing to giving certain Jewish organizations a special soapbox to dispute the South African archbishop.

This concession is usually termed “balance” or “respect for Jewish sensitivities.” The reality was that a prominent South African leader who fought for equality in his home country was made beholden to an imaginary Jewish monolith in the United States.

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