I received an e-mail today from a progressive Jewish organization titled “Let Desmond Tutu Speak at a Minnesota University.” It referred to my alma mater, the University of St. Thomas, where administrators recently snubbed the archbishop by refusing to allow him to speak at a PeaceJam International conference on campus. Based on the opinions of a select group of local Jewish leaders who claim Tutu made anti-Semitic remarks in a 2002 speech, the university decided to pass on the opportunity so as not to potentially offend members of the Jewish community. Officially, Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations at St. Thomas, had this to say to the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages:
We had heard some things he said that some people judged to be anti-Semitic and against Israeli policy…. 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.
Hennes stops short of calling Tutu anti-Semitic, but the speech he cites caused the Zionist Organization of America to target college campuses and lobby them to ban Tutu from speaking engagements. A Jewish member of our own St. Thomas community, instructor Marv Davidov, told City Pages:
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…. 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.
It became even more personal for me when I read that my former advisor, Cris Toffolo, was removed from her post as department chair by the administration over a letter she sent to Tutu expressing her dissent over the decision. This kind of secrecy and censorship on my university’s campus is upsetting and discourages freedom of expression in academia. I am embarrassed that my role model for social justice is being smeared by my own school, and that a professor was demoted in the process.
Most schools would bend over backward to host the moral voice of the anti-apartheid movement. St. Thomas is missing the opportunity to have Tutu inspire its students to “act wisely, think critically, and work skillfully for the common good,” as its mission so boldly states.
It is true that Tutu has been an outspoken critic of the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians and has used language on occasion that is less than sensitive. What University of St. Thomas leaders seem to overlook is that he uplifts, inspires, and motivates people of all faiths to end poverty and oppression through nonviolence. Tutu stated in the infamous 2002 speech, “God waits for you, for you to act.” As an alumna who takes the mission statement of St. Thomas seriously and as a Christian working for peace and justice, how can I not?
Allison Johnson is the policy and organizing assistant for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.