Not much lasting harm will come from the recent nastiness surrounding Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a Minnesota university that canceled his invitation to a human rights conference, for fear of offending the Jewish community.
Tutu, the Nobel laureate South African human rights activist, does not lack for platforms from which to speak. The University of St. Thomas, a respected college operated by the Catholic diocese of Saint Paul, will have its conference; it may even be enriched by whatever lessons are drawn from the Tutu brouhaha. The First Amendment will endure.
The only real damage will be to the shrinking credibility and good name of American Jewish public advocacy.
Tutu was to have visited the campus next spring to participate in a lecture series that brings Nobel laureates each year to teach young people about peace and freedom. Earlier this month, however, the college’s president got word that Tutu was persona non grata among elements of the Jewish community. Not wishing to offend, the president contacted a local Jewish organization, which checked its files and found that the archbishop had reportedly made antisemitic remarks in a speech in Boston in 2002. The files indicated that Tutu had called Israel racist and compared it to Hitler. The president got the message and Tutu got the heave-ho.
Awkwardly enough, an examination of Tutu’s actual remarks (the text can be accessed via a link on the Web version of this editorial) shows that Tutu said nothing of the sort. His speech was an appeal for Middle East peace, for an end to Palestinian violence against Israel and an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian towns. He urged greater efforts for peace and justice by all sides, taking time to recall the Jewish leadership role in bringing down apartheid. He bemoaned the restrictions on Palestinians’ daily lives. He noted that the restrictions were motivated by Israel’s security needs (as opposed, one could infer, to South African apartheid, an expression of racism). But he warned that conditions in the territories were increasingly reminiscent of apartheid.
Tutu said that most people understood these things, but that many Americans feared to speak up because of the perceived power of the Jewish lobby. But such fear is unnecessary, he said, because even fearsome powers such as Hitler, Stalin and Pinochet were eventually overcome.
Harsh words? Certainly. Critical of Israel? Clearly. Antisemitic? Not even remotely.
Did he call Israel an apartheid state? On the contrary, he issued a warning but pointed out essential differences. Did he suggest that Israel resembles Hitler? Actually, the one “Hitler” reference wasn’t about Israel but rather the American Jewish lobby — and only to argue, as a true Christian, that power need not be feared.
How, then, did this unexceptionable, five-year-old speech become a red flag? According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the transmutation was the handiwork of the Zionist Organization of America. Shortly after the Boston speech, ZOA president Morton Klein read an account of it in Ha’aretz presenting Israel-is-Hitler-and-apartheid as a paraphrase of Tutu’s comments. Klein took the paraphrase — inaccurate to begin with — to be a quote, and he sent out a press release, according to JTA. Klein’s press release worked its way into other media, and over time it acquired the status of a factual account.
The rest is history. Tutu, symbol of conscience and courage to millions worldwide, gained a reputation as an enemy among Jewish community activists. Up in arms over a twisted version of an old speech, we created an international incident in Minnesota. The flap was duly reported at length in major dailies throughout Africa and Asia, pointlessly creating countless new enemies. Ironically, we were taking umbrage over a speech whose worst accusation was about the supposedly bullying power of the Jewish lobby, and in our indignation, we went ahead and proved the point.
We are following an old model of Jewish advocacy in a world where the rules have changed. We give free rein to our most alarmist instincts — defend Israel unquestioningly, accept on faith any accusation of antisemitism, believe the worst of everyone — and in so doing we permit the most extreme and cynical elements in our community to set our agenda.
We can win the battles, but at a mounting cost. A few more victories like this one, and we are lost.
For the text of Desmond Tutu’s 2002 Boston speech, click here.