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Tutu banned, unbanned

So the University of St Thomas has decided to withdraw its withdrawal of the invitation to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at that esteemed institution.

For people who have not been following the story, Tutu was to be hosted on the campus by the justice and peace studies programme, together with an organisation called PeaceJam International, a youth project that invites Nobel laureates to teach young people about peace and justice. Another campus of the university had previously hosted PeaceJam events with other Nobel laureates.

The Catholic University’s management then decided that the invitation would offend local Jews. And it had proof of this — a comment from one local Jew, a spokesperson for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, who spouted the propaganda of the Zionist Organization of America, reported by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, claiming that Tutu had said, in a speech he gave in 2002 in Boston, that “Israel is like Hitler and apartheid”.

In fact, while Tutu did criticise Israel for its apartheid policies, he did not make the statement it is claimed he had. (See the Tutu speech in the Guardian.) The university administration then announced, about two weeks ago, that the invitation was withdrawn and that Tutu and his “anti-Semitic” comments would not be allowed on to the hallowed campus of St Thomas.

Doug Hennes, St Thomas’s vice-president for university and government relations, said in an embarrassing statement: “We had heard some things [Tutu] 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.”

But, the university went even further. When Professor Cris Toffolo, head of the justice and peace studies programme, wrote to Tutu advising him of her university’s decision, distancing herself from it and telling him to be prepared for a smear campaign, she was removed from her position as chairperson of the programme.

The past two weeks saw St Thomas come under attack from around the globe as activists — including Jewish groups — rallied in support of Tutu. The president of the university, Father Dennis Dease, was inundated with letters of protest. Eighteen members of the university’s law faculty issued a statement calling for Tutu’s invitation to be reinstated.

Yesterday, Dease wrote to the university community withdrawing the withdrawal of the invitation.

Dear members of the St Thomas community,

One of the strengths of a university is the opportunity that it provides to speak freely and to be open to other points of view on a wide variety of issues. And, I might add, to change our minds.

Therefore, I feel both humbled and proud to extend an invitation to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at the University of St Thomas.

I have wrestled with what is the right thing to do in this situation, and I have concluded that I made the wrong decision earlier this year not to invite the archbishop. Although well-intentioned, I did not have all of the facts and points of view, but now I do.

PeaceJam International may well choose to keep the alternative arrangements that it has made for its April 2008 conference, but I want the organisation and Archbishop Tutu to know that we would be honoured to hold the conference at St Thomas.

In any event, St Thomas will extend an invitation to Archbishop Tutu to participate in a forum to foster constructive dialogue on the issues that have been raised. I hope he accepts my invitation. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas has agreed to serve as a co-sponsor of the forum, and I expect other organisations also to join as co-sponsors.

Details about issues to be addressed will be determined later, but I would look forward to a candid discussion about how a civil and democratic society can pursue reasoned debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other emotionally charged issues.

I also want to encourage a thoughtful examination of St Thomas’ policies regarding controversial speech and controversial speakers. In the past, we have been criticised externally and internally when we have invited controversial speakers to campus — as well as when we have not. Rather than just move from controversy to controversy, might there be a positive role that this university could play in fostering thoughtful conversation around difficult and highly charged issues? We also might explore how to more clearly express in our policies and practices our commitment to civility when discussing such issues.

I have asked Dr Nancy Zingale, professor of political science and my former executive adviser, to oversee the planning for the forum. If you have suggestions regarding either the topic or other participants, please contact her at [email protected]

I sincerely hope Archbishop Tutu will accept our invitation. I continue to have nothing but the utmost respect for his witness of faith, for his humanitarian accomplishments and especially for his leadership in helping to end apartheid in South Africa.

Father Dennis Dease

I am generally impressed with anyone who is willing to admit that s/he was wrong — especially if that person is a prominent personality. But I realised that Dease did not mention Toffolo in his letter. Will she be reinstated now that he has realised he was wrong? Will she also get an apology? And, frankly, I am really sceptical about Dease’s “utmost respect for [Tutu’s] witness of faith”.

Earlier, Dease defended his opposition to the Tutu invitation, saying Tutu’s 2002 speech was offensive to the Jewish community because it compared Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to Adolf Hitler’s policies. In explanation, he said, “I spoke with Jews for whom I have a great respect”. What is his respect really worth?

The pro-Israel Anti-Defamation League also came out with a statement supporting Tutu. And the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) has written that the Zionist Organisation of American incorrectly quoted Tutu (as reported by the JTA).

The attempt to muzzle Tutu, of course, is not unique — neither in the US nor in South Africa. The Zionist lobby in both countries goes out of its way to prevent criticism of Israel from being heard — even resorting to lies, smears, threats and attempts to get academics sacked from their jobs. Noam Chomsky, Joseph Masad and Norman Finkelstein are among a number of academics in the US who have been confronted by such attacks. A number of South Africans have been similarly treated.

No criticism of Israel or the Israeli government is tolerated. And, in the process, critics are smeared with the “anti-Semite” brush and pro-Israeli groups try to cloak human rights abuses, war crimes and other atrocities by the Israeli government and Israeli army in secrecy, promoting the lie of Israel being a great democracy.

Fortunately, the truth will out in the end. Just as Tutu is not the only victim of the Zionist lobby, he will also not be the only victim to be vindicated.