Five years ago I was part of a Concordia University crowd which was pushed and shoved by Arab students as we waited to hear former Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. I am not an admirer of Bibi and his belief in a greater Israel, but I certainly did not share the Arab characterization of him as a “war criminal.” He is a wonderful speaker and I often learn much from those I disagree with. Moreover, as an academic I believe that the University must be open to controversial opinions and I was also there to support his right to speak against those thugs who were trying to stop him. However, that day marked a minor triumph for hoodlumism and a dark day for free speech and academic freedom as the RCMP deemed it inadvisable for Bibi to enter the building. …
Thus I was most disturbed, a short time ago, to hear that the Catholic St. Thomas University in Minnesota had barred Bishop Desmond Tutu from speaking on the grounds that some of the Bishop’s past remarks were “offensive and hateful to Jews.” Now, Bishop Tutu, unlike Bibi, is regarded as one of the great human rights advocates of our time, a man who gained international respect in the South African struggle against apartheid. Mr. Morton Klein, who heads the [right-wing] Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), has attacked the good Bishop implying that he compared Israel to Hitler and apartheid, which is emphatically not the case.
The Bishop, who is a patron of a holocaust center, and has proclaimed his belief in the right of Israel to exist within secure borders, has made statements that some would challenge such as a reference to a “powerful Jewish lobby” which, he claims, makes people fear speaking out against the injustices done to Palestinians. He has also approved of anti-Israel boycotts but these are not the kinds of positions or statements which should lead a University to ban him from speaking. A vice president and spokesman for St. Thomas said they had talked to members of the Jewish community who believed Tutu’s appearance would be hurtful.
St. Thomas’ action in barring Bishop Tutu is what is hurtful to the Jewish community. The University has tried to dodge the charge that they have violated academic freedom by claiming that Tutu was invited by an external body, albeit in conjunction with a recognized program of the institution. That will not wash. It is clear that the University feared giving offense to some in the Jewish community and acted with alacrity at the behest of a small, unrepresentative segment of American Jewry. A more intelligent response came from Mordecai Specktor, publisher and editor of a Minnesota Jewish weekly, who calmly stated: “The Jewish community can survive a speech by Archbishop Tutu. We’ve survived worse.” He might have pointed out that Columbia University and New York’s great Jewish community are still there after the speech of the despicable Iranian President Ahmadinejad.
Academic freedom and free speech are not selective. The Netanyahu incident demonstrates that the Jewish community should have a strong self-interest in keeping universities open to varying and sometimes unpalatable viewpoints. We cannot choose this view but not that one. Either we fight to maintain universities as places in which the interchange of conflicting ideas is the norm, even when we find some of those ideas offensive, or we can fight it out on the streets with the thugs who insist that only their ideas should be heard.
In the particular case of Bishop Tutu, we should all regret the actions of the ZOA and the University. Like it or not, Tutu is regarded by much of the world and also, I would think, by a large section of Jewish youth, as one of the great human rights figures of our time. Attempts to silence him can only result in a backlash which will bring discredit to North American Jews and to Israel. It is Morton Klein and his allies that should be regarded, like the Arab hoodlums of Concordia, as enemies of free speech and thus among Israel’s worst enemies.
Dr. Scheinberg is emeritus professor of history at Concordia University (Montreal) and co-chair of Canadian Friends of Peace Now. More of his opinions can be found at http://thejewishliberal.blogspot.com