Silencing Bishop Tutu: Critical discussion off limits?

Bishop Desmond Tutu

There is a point when a political position can become rabid; a point when rational arguments no longer work because the holder of such politics believes that their way can be the only way of seeing things and that all other views must be suppressed.

Thus, we have the case of the cancellation of the speaking engagement of one Bishop Desmond Tutu, world-renowned human rights activist and one of the chief architects of the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission. To the surprise of many, Bishop Tutu’s speaking engagement at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota was cancelled, apparently because Bishop Tutu is a harsh critic of the Israeli regime and its occupation of Palestinian territories. According to of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the University decided to cancel the speaking engagement because Bishop Tutu’s criticisms of the manner in which the Israelis are treating the Palestinians in the occupied territories would be considered hurtful to the Jewish community.

Did I hear this correctly? Are we being told that someone expressing an opinion critical of Israeli policy — and indeed speaking the truth about the horrendous conditions of the Israeli occupation — should be denied a right to speak? Indeed, that is precisely what is being said and it is further evidence of the rabidity and irrationality of the anti-Palestinian fanatics who wish to deny any genuine discussion of the actual situation facing the Palestinian people.

Bishop Tutu, it should be noted, along with former President Jimmy Carter, have joined the legions of human rights activists who have compared the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories to the conditions that were faced in South Africa by non-whites under the apartheid regime. Understandably, such comparisons unsettle those who wish to believe that it would be impossible for victims of the Holocaust to perpetrate crimes against another people, but the documentary evidence is very clear on this point.

Leaving aside, for a moment, whether one agrees or disagrees with Bishop Tutu on comparisons of the Israeli occupation with apartheid, there is a more fundamental question with which we in the US must come to grips. Simply put, is critical discussion of Israel, Israeli policy, and the occupation of the Palestinian territories off limits? The answer, at least among anti-Palestinians, seems to be “yes,” i.e., that unless one begins by swearing undying allegiance to Israel, one cannot criticize the Israeli state. Further, that criticism of the Israeli state is, ipso facto, anti-Semitic.

To my knowledge, there are few other subjects that are considered so off limits. The anti-Palestinian lobby has been quite successful in intimidating many people who would like to see a rational discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US policy towards the Middle East. Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning — the publication of Jimmy Carter’s best-selling book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid representing an element of evidence of this — and there is a growing dissatisfaction with the “off-limits” signs that seem to be posted around any discussion of Israel and the occupation. It is for that reason that the anti-Palestinian forces are becoming less rational, more passionate, and, indeed, quite scared.

In this context, those who wish a rational discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must stand very firm and be prepared to speak out, indeed speak out quite loudly. We need to protest the cancellation of Bishop Tutu’s speech, but further protest the efforts to cancel Bishop Tutu himself. In other words, through whispering campaigns and innuendo, efforts are underway to defame the character of and marginalize individuals such as Bishop Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela, not to mention the countless lesser-known activists who dare to seek justice for the Palestinian people.

A light shines brightest immediately before it goes dark. My sense is that the anti-Palestinian forces have nearly reached that point and in their narrow-minded efforts to suppress all discussion they have over-played their hand. Time will tell whether those of us who wish peace between Israelis and Palestinians and justice for the Palestinian people will prevail when the other side burns out.

Note: Just prior to publishing this piece on The Black Commentator, where this essay was originally published, Jewish Voice for Peace reported the following: “We have just learned that the president of the University of St. Thomas acknowledged he made the wrong decision and invited Archbishop Tutu to campus!” Jewish Voice for Peace was at the lead in blowing the whistle on this cancellation and on the efforts to suppress dissenting opinions. Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a labor and international writer and activist, and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.