Turning Tutu Away

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What issue could possibly cause a university to disinvite Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the ever-grinning South African human rights crusader, from giving a talk on peace and nonviolence? As Scott Jaschik at InsideHigherEd reports, an Israeli/Palestinian issue did. The University of St. Thomas in Minnesota rescinded an April speaking invitation to the Nobel Peace Prize winner because criticisms he made of Israeli policies were judged to be “hurtful” to some Jewish people. Tutu’s main crime was uttering the name Hitler during a 2002 speech in Boston about Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But while the Zionist Organization of America criticized Tutu for his “vicious libel that Israel is comparable to Hitler,” Jaschik points out that interpretation is a stretch.

Tutu references Hitler in a part of the speech, delivered to the Palestinian ecumenical group Sabeel, where he encourages the audience to challenge the U.S. “Jewish lobby” and reminds them that radical change is possible:

“People are scared in this country [U.S.], to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful, very powerful. Well, so what? … The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end, they bit the dust.”

Tutu’s use of the phrase “Jewish lobby” is regrettable, mainly because the pro-Israel lobby he is referring to is not made up exclusively of Jews (remember Texas preacher John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel?). But one minor slip five years ago is hardly grounds for blacklisting him. It’s also worth noting these dialogue-squashing disinvitations aren’t the province of one particular group or ideology. Witness the University of California’s recent stay away order to former Harvard president Larry Summers.

—Justin Elliott

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