November 15, 2007
Advocacy and the Academy
— Alain Epp Weaver
"University of St. Thomas stones Nobel Peace Prophet Desmond Tutu: Please Take Action!" So began an e-mail I received early this October from Friends of Sabeel-North America, an advocacy group working for justice and peace in Palestine-Israel. The dramatic headline evoked biblical punishment and the trope of the unwelcome, embattled prophet. I soon received a similar email from the Muzzlewatch website, a project of the Jewish Voice for Peace organization committed to "creating an open atmosphere for debate about US-Israeli policy."
Anglican Archbishop Tutu had been invited by a local affiliate of PeaceJam International, a group dedicated to bringing Nobel Laureates into conversation with youth, to speak at its spring 2008 conference. Since 2003, PeaceJam has held its conferences on the campus of the University of St. Thomas , a Catholic university in the Twin Cities, and anticipated that 2008 would be no different. The university administration, however, decided not to host Tutu. When the story became public in late September, receiving extensive coverage in the Twin Cities' local newspapers, the university administration explained its decision as an attempt to be sensitive to the local Jewish community. "The concerns were that there are some Jewish people in the community who feel that the Archbishop has stepped over the line with his criticism of Israel and Israeli policies," Doug Hennes, university vice president, stated in the campus newspaper, The Aquin, although he insisted that "We did not receive any pressure from anybody in the Jewish community not to invite him."
At issue was a speech Tutu had given at an April 2002 Friends of Sabeel conference on "Ending the Occupation." The Zionist Organization of America, among others, objected to parallels drawn by Tutu between the Israeli military occupation and apartheid-era South Africa and claimed that Tutu had likened Israel to the Nazi regime. Tutu published his speech in the April 29, 2002 issue of The Guardian under the title, "Apartheid in the Holy Land." Decrying the occupation's checkpoint and roadblock regime in the Occupied Territories , Tutu asked, "Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, the home demolitions, in their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions? Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden?" He proceeded to insist that "We live in a moral universe. 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." A strongly stated, perhaps even provocative, way of making the point that all oppressive systems will one day come to an end, but also not a claim that the Israeli government was equivalent to Hitler.
The decision not to invite Tutu created strong opposition among faculty and students, and Jewish Voice for Peace joined with other groups in a campaign to urge St. Thomas not to stifle free and frank consideration of Israeli government policies. Even Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, while strongly disagreeing with Tutu's evaluation of Israeli policies, urged St. Thomas to reconsider its stance. By October 10 the university had shifted course. "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," university president Fr. Dennis Dease wrote in a message to the university community. Tutu and PeaceJam have been invited to meet at the university next year, although the event will most likely proceed at Metropolitan State University, which agreed to host the conference after St. Thomas turned down Tutu.
Ideally, the academy is a place where reasoned disagreement is possible,
and where one finds people passionately engaged in advocacy of different
types. How to think about the role of advocacy in church and academy was
the focus of a recent workshop at the University of Chicago Divinity School,
where scholars and clergy gathered to think about the pitfalls and promises
of advocacy in their particular contexts. The Tutu incident at St. Thomas
reflects the complications that can arise, as noted by speakers at the
workshop and discussed in breakout sessions, when issues that generate
heated disagreement are brought into these settings. Learning to have
such debates in a reasoned spirit of patience and charity is challenging,
but what certainly will not facilitate intense discussions in either the
academy or the church is simply closing down the debate. One can therefore
celebrate St. Thomas' decision to reverse course and invite Tutu as underscoring
the importance of carrying on with contentious, even controversial, conversations.
Alain Epp Weaver is a Ph.D student in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is the editor of Under Vine and Fig Tree: Biblical Theologies of Land and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Cascadia and Herald Press, 2007).
For further information:
Visit http://divinity.uchicago.edu/events/lilly/advocacy.shtml for the text of Professor Franklin Gamwell's keynote address, as well as audio files of the plenary sessions, from the recent symposium "Advocacy in the Pulpit and the Classroom," part of the Divinity School 's new Border Crossings initiative.
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