April 13, 2009
By Matthew Miller
EAST LANSING – Michigan State University announced last week that retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu would give this year’s commencement address. Two days later, the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy organization, filed a protest.
In a letter to Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon, two ADL officials wrote that Tutu, whose opposition to apartheid in the 1980s won him the Nobel Peace Prize, had made statements about Israel that “conveyed outright bigotry against … the Jewish people.”
They said a proposed cultural and academic boycott of Israel, which Tutu supports, was “based on ideas that are anti-Semitic and should be anathema to any institution of higher learning truly committed to academic freedom.”
They asked MSU to reconsider the invitation.
Simon responded this week. She said no.
While noting that university leaders had publicly opposed such a boycott, she wrote, “Michigan State University rejects the notion that free intellectual exchange and scholarly activities should be casualties of political disagreement.”
It’s an apparently open and shut matter, but it has set off minor ripples on campus.
Professors and students interviewed Thursday were unanimous in their support of Simon’s stance on academic freedom and on allowing Tutu to speak.
Opinions diverged on the ADL’s tactics and on the boycott that Tutu has advocated.
David Wiley is a professor of sociology who headed MSU’s African Studies Center for 30 years before stepping down this year. He played a role in MSU’s decision to divest from South Africa in 1978. And he called the ADL’s request “improper.”
“Again and again, the ADL and some other Jewish agencies confuse being critical of Israel with being anti-Semitic,” he said. “In fact, Bishop Tutu has always been for inclusion of the marginal, whether it’s blacks in South Africa or the Jewish community.”
Tutu has said he supports the existence of the state of Israel. He also has compared the treatment of Palestinians to that of blacks under apartheid.
And he is involved in the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which wants to cut relations with – and investment in – Israeli academic and cultural institutions until Israel withdraws from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Such a boycott, said Ken Waltzer, director of Jewish Studies at MSU, would dramatically hinder the work of his program. It would punish those Israelis who are most committed to peace.
And it “rests on an analogy between South Africa and Israel which is patently false and ignoble.”
Geoff Levin, an MSU sophomore and the Israel advocacy intern at MSU Hillel, said he respects Tutu’s accomplishments, but is unhappy with his views on Israel.
“I wouldn’t push to have him removed from the speaking list at all because of the great works he has done,” he said.
“But I do feel like the pro-Israel community and the Jewish community need to voice our discontent with what he’s been pushing for.”
Salah Hassan is an MSU English professor and a member of Michigan Professors Against Occupation, an ad hoc group that opposes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
“The best way to put an end to this call for a boycott,” he said, “would be to end the occupation.”
“It’s fully within the rights of ADL to protest someone coming who they don’t like,” he said.
“But realistically, had the president of MSU agreed to retract the invitation, that would have stirred a significant controversy.”
May 8 convocation Retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu will be the featured speaker at MSU’s spring undergraduate convocation. The ceremony will be held at 1 p.m. May 8 at the Jack Breslin Student Events Center. The event is free and open to the public. Tickets are not required.