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A media case study: How the St. Thomas decision on Tutu made worldwide headlines

Despite widespread opposition to the Iraq war, peace groups have scored little in the way of media hits in recent years. Reporters rarely cover their vigils and call them only occasionally when news events tumble their way.

But local peace advocates hit a media home run last fall after officials at the University of St. Thomas said Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu wasn’t welcome to speak on the St. Paul campus. The decision, taken quietly, attracted little public attention until peace groups organized a concerted push. It made headlines worldwide, and St. Thomas’s leaders were embarrassed into reversing themselves.

Last Thursday, more than 100 peace activists and interested observers met at Macalester Plymouth United Church in St. Paul to analyze and celebrate their success over cookies and coffee.

Margaret Sarfehjooy of Women Against Military Madness moderated. She was, of course, right when she said Marv Davidov of Minneapolis needed no introduction to that crowd. Davidov’s radical trail reaches back through war protests and civil rights marches to the 1950s when he was drafted, then kicked out of the U.S. Army and asked to leave Macalester College.

“They said I was subversive,” Davidov gleefully warmed up the audience. “I sure as hell hope so.”

Among other work, Davidov teaches active nonviolence at St. Thomas’s Justice and Peace Studies Program. Outrage in the faculty offices there ran hot for weeks before the Tutu dustup hit the press, Davidov said.

“In our department, it was absolutely shocking,” Davidov said.

Davidov had tipped a former Star Tribune writer, he said, but City Pages was out in front, ready to pop a story.

Meanwhile, other peace activists spread the word to Cecilie Surasky, the editor of Oakland-based MuzzleWatch.org, which tracks efforts to stifle debate about U.S.-Israeli policy. (Initially, a St. Thomas spokesman had explained the incident by saying that Tutu had made remarks that struck some people as anti-Semitic and against Israeli policy.) MuzzleWatch is a project of Jewish Voice for Peace where Surasky is communications director.

Surasky, who said she grew up in South Philadelphia but “married into a Minnesota family,” was on hand to pick up the narrative after Davidov left the podium.

The news last fall — that Tutu’s alleged criticism of Israeli policy had been the basis for blocking his speech at St. Thomas — was a call to action for Surasky. Her core message, she said, is that there should be room for many voices in debates about the policy.

And so, Surasky waited until the City Pages story hit the Internet, then kicked her global network into gear less than an hour later, she said.

“I stayed up until 3 in the morning pushing out to the media,” she said. She went to the mat with reporters as far away as Jerusalem who repeated claims about Tutu’s remarks that she found to be false.

The resulting media splash reached back to Minnesota where newspapers and broadcast stations ran reports for several days and also editorialized against the decision to shun Tutu. In response, a barrage of emails, letters and calls hit St. Thomas’s offices.

Within a few days, the university’s president, Rev. Dennis Dease, apologized for the incident and invited Tutu to speak on campus. The South African Archbishop already had accepted an alternative invitation to speak for a PeaceJam program at Metropolitan State University when he comes to Minnesota in April.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Bill Siegel on 01/02/2008 - 12:55 pm.

    Israeli apologist have unwittingly done Jews all over the world great harm. Every time legitimate criticism is leveled against Israel the apologist cry out “anti-Semitism”. The unintended effect is like that of the boy who cried wolf. When actual anti-Semitism is pointed out people don’t pay attention because they have been desensitized by false claims.

    This is not the case with Archbishop Tutu though. The speech of his that drew concern from St. Thomas was blatantly anti-Semitic. Some people may want to defend Archbishop Tutu because of his incredible work in the past but this does not give him carte blanche to say anything. He compared the state of Israel to Hitler and attempted to lay full responsibility for the situation in Israel on Jews while absolving any responsibility on the part of Palestinians. This was grossly false and offensive. In his speech he also attempted to pre-emptively diffuse what he knew were anti-Semitic remarks by commenting on the Israeli apologist who were sure to cry out “anti-Semite”. Just because he accurately predicated the reaction of Jews around the world does not make his remarks accurate or inoffensive.

    I wholeheartedly believe in frank and open discussion but if people like Archbishop Tutu and Cecilie Surasky truly want to take the lead in finding solutions for that troubled part of the world they need to provided pragmatic solutions for the people living there, and not point fingers, make offensive comparisons or assign blame, that has already gotten us nowhere.

  2. Submitted by Sharon Schmickle on 01/02/2008 - 01:27 pm.

    There is considerable debate over a point in Bill Siegel’s comment: That Archbishop Tutu compared the state of Israel to Hitler. Readers can learn more from the Guardian’s coverage of the speech at issue http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/comment/0,10551,706911,00.html

  3. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 01/03/2008 - 11:39 am.

    Mr. Siegel would do well to acquaint himself with the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiments. Israel, alone of all the First World countries, closely allied themselves with South African during that nation’s Apartheid era. South Africans arguably provided much of the technology used by Israel to build their atom bomb (the world’s worst kept secret), and their domestic security forces carried Israeli-made Uzis. This despite the fact that the hard right in South Africa was sympathetic to Nazi Germany, and used a modified swastika as their emblem.

    Black South Africans have every reason in the world to distrust and dislike Israel, a nation that willfully compromised all of their ideals and beliefs to align themselves with the world’s most racist nation. Oddly, black South Africans are not noticeably anti-Israel, and leaders like Tutu have been largely forgiving. Tutu’s remarks in this case have been widely misquoted and taken out of context.

    But even if Mr. Siegel was correct (and he clearly is not), this is the same University of St. Thomas that featured rightwing harridan Ann Coulter as a speaker on their campus. Coulter has voiced eliminationist sentiments frequently during her career, and in no way can be fairly compared to Archbishop Tutu, a man of God and a man of peace. If Israel would only listen to Tutu, they too might achieve a lasting peace someday.

  4. Submitted by Norman E Fox on 02/21/2012 - 11:58 am.

    Tutu

    I thought Tutu was o.k. until I saw a statement he made when visiting Israel some time back. After visiting Yad Vishem, He said: Israelis should forgive the Nazis. Then I realized he was a fool at best. Here he is in a country full of Holocaust survivors at a memorial to victims of the Holocaust and he wants Israelis to forgive individuals who are currently still victimizing Jews by denying the Holocaust and generally seeking to do them dirt in anyway they can. If he had suggested that Jews forgive Germany in general, that would have been a different story because Germany forthrightly takes responsibility for the Holocaust. In my mind, telling the truth goes a long way to redemption. Now he badmouths Israel on a daily basis. Israel, despite its faults, is a long way ahead of all nations in the Middle East in terms of civil rights, democracy, and freedom of speech. And by the way, the charge that Israel practices apartheid is a blatant lie (although that fool probably doesn’t realize it). I still think Tutu is a jerk.

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