The Tutu episode — whither academic freedom?

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To avoid offending some in Minnesota’s Jewish community, the University of St. Thomas scrubbed a plan to invite Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, to speak at its campus next year. But along the way the Catholic university offended many others and rekindled a debate about a larger question: Is there an effort to stifle a critical discussion about the Israel-Palestinian conflict in this country?

Some say that the Tutu episode is emblematic of a successful campaign to reduce anyone who criticizes the state of Israel as anti-Semitic.

“Objectively speaking, you could say that there’s no serious debate about our foreign policy toward Israel,” said Cris Toffolo, an associate professor at St. Thomas who was demoted as the director of the justice and peace program after she questioned the university’s decision to disallow Tutu to speak.

“Israel receives large military and financial aid from the United States. As U.S. taxpayers, we’ve a perfect right to debate the issue. It’s an analogous public policy debate,” she said.

Julie Swiler, a spokeswoman for the Jewish Community Relations Council, or JCRC, the organization that voiced concerns about Tutu, denied that there’s a nefarious agenda to smear critics of Israel.

“All opinions ought to be aired in the marketplace of ideas,” she said. “But when stereotypes about Jews are invoked, that’s when it goes beyond legitimate debate.”

Tutu, a Nobel laureate is currently in Sudan as part of The Elders, a group of respected leaders from around the world, including former president Jimmy Carter. They are trying to stop the bloodletting in Darfur.

As has Carter, the Anglican archbishop criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied land in 2002 as part of a speech he gave in Boston. In it he drew a parallel between the apartheid regime in his native South Africa and some of the tactics used by Israeli settlers.

Recent incidents in academia

In recent years there have been incidents involving academics who are critical of Israel who were either denied permanent positions at universities or accused of anti-Semitism.

In Chicago, DePaul University, a private Catholic school, denied last month tenure bid by Norman G. Finkelstein. A descendent of Holocaust survivors, he criticized how Israel and some Jews used the tragedy “to perpetuate occupation.”

Last year, Richard Drake, the chair of the history department at the University of Montana, was called anti-Semitic and received hate mail for inviting Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor who recently co-wrote a book critical of Israel titled “The Israeli Lobby.”

“One of my critics told me before startled witnesses that he would not rest until I had been stripped of my position of power, which manifestly had corrupted me,” Drake wrote on the website of the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP. “He initiated a campaign to bring about my dismissal.”

Last month Barnard College in New York was the subject of an intense pressure by Jewish groups because of a tenure bid by Nadia Abu El-Haj, an American of Palestinian descent, who wrote a book questioning some aspects of Israel’s archaeological claims in the Holy Land. The case is still pending.

The rash of incidents involving people who are critical of Israel is a sign “that the wall of silence is finally cracking. We need to get beyond this taboo,” said Toffolo, the St. Thomas professor.

Next week, many of the scholars denied tenure positions are descending on Chicago to participate in a conference titled “In Defense of Academic Freedom.”

Controversial speakers at St. Thomas

In April 2005, Ann Coulter, the provocative conservative commentator, spoke at St. Thomas. Shortly after her appearance University President the Rev. Dennis Dease wrote in a letter: “Ms. Coulter was unsparing in her vitriolic criticism of “liberals” and treated in a sarcastic, disrespectful and mean-spirited manner any audience members who challenged her viewpoints,” he said.

But then he gave a hint of how the university will handle potentially controversial speakers. “We need to continue to carefully examine requests to bring speakers and performers to campus in order to assure that their presentations will comply with our controversial issues statement.”

Remarkably, that statement says in part that “open forums through which controversial issues may be addressed in a responsible and educative manner will be available.”

The AAUP isn’t convinced that Tutu’s previous remarks warrant the actions taken against him and is investigating the case. Eric Combest, a senior program officer, said the episode “raises concerns for us” and that “a valid invitation was extended for Tutu.”

He said his organization, which promotes academic freedom, will urge St. Thomas to reexamine its decision.

Doug Hennes, vice president for university and government relations at St. Thomas, says he doesn’t think that will happen. Asked about the Coulter case, Hennes said: “In hindsight, we probably made a mistake. We would probably not invite her again.”

As it was with Tutu, Coulter was invited by an outside group. The university never had “disinvited Tutu, as widely circulated,” said Hennes. However, he said, the school routinely conducts a thorough vetting process.

“Red flags came up on Tutu,” he said. “We consulted with our Jewish community, whose opinions we value. They didn’t persuade us to not invite him. We made that decision.”

Swiler, the JCRC spokeswoman, praised Tutu as someone “who made great contributions to human rights.” And though he’s not anti-Semitic, she said, he has made extreme remarks.

Ivan Suvanjieff, the president of PeaceJam, the Colorado-based youth group that invited Tutu, was incensed. “Tutu is one of the greatest moral arbitrators of our day. This is loss for Minnesota.”

Maybe not quite: Tutu will speak at Metropolitan State University in April next year.