Cardozo Awards Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu
Presentation Fuels Communal Frustration
by Alan Goldsmith
Unbeknownst to most undergraduate students, two student groups at Yeshiva’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law jointly presented Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa with the International Advocate for Peace Award. Despite Tutu’s wide renown, the presentation has been drawing significant controversy across the Yeshiva spectrum and within the broader Jewish community due to the honoree’s repeated criticism of actions of the Israeli government in recent years.
Tutu dedicated years of his career in the Anglican priesthood toward fighting apartheid. In 1978, he attained another historic first, becoming the first black general secretary of the South Africa Council of Churches, which at the time represented all leading churches in that nation. During his tenure in that position, he was internationally acknowledged as a moral and religious authority in the struggle against apartheid. Tutu later attained the position of Archbishop at Cape Town. After free elections in 1994 that led to black majority rule in that country, he was called on to serve as head of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated tremendous atrocities committed in South Africa during the almost fifty years of apartheid. In 1984, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for these efforts.
In remarks made after the ceremony, which was held on April 1, Cardozo Dean David Rudenstine noted that according to Tutu, only reconciliation with the past would lead to true peace in troubled regions of the world.
Tutu’s peacemaking efforts notwithstanding, students and administrators at both Cardozo and Yeshiva College have expressed concern with the award on the grounds that Tutu is clearly anti-Israel. Last year, the Archbishop wrote in Britain’s Daily Guardian that although he believed Israel had the right to secure borders, Israel must choose the road to peace “based on withdrawal from all the occupied territories, and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state on those territories side by side with Israel, both with secure borders.” He then wrote of his trip to the Jewish State. “I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about….Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people.”
Although Tutu did criticize those who assumed that being anti-Israel was equivalent to being anti-Semitic, he stressed that Israel has been placed on a “pedestal” in the United States. “[T]he Jewish lobby is powerful – very powerful,” he said. “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.” The archbishop has also been vocal in his support for recent campaigns that have sprung up on university campuses, calling for financial divestment from the State of Israel.
The specific comparison to Adolf Hitler and other totalitarian leaders and systems was attacked by the Zionist Organization of America and other Jewish groups. The ZOA’s national President, Morton A. Klein, protested the Cardozo award in a press release in the strongest terms. “In view of Archbishop Tutu’s long record of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel remarks,” said Klein, “it is appalling that [Cardozo] invited him as a speaker, and we urge other universities to refrain from inviting him.”
Aaron S. Riviat, president of the International Law Students Association at Cardozo, which cosponsored the award, affirmed his support for the organization’s choice. “He was a good person to nominate,” said Riviat, “because of the work he did in South Africa, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission until 1996, when he retired. I take no stance on any political opposition he made to the Israeli government. We didn’t nominate him for that purpose. We nominated him for the work he does in South Africa.”
Rudenstine was not impressed with arguments against Tutu’s speaking at the law school. “It is inappropriate for an institution of higher learning to censor an individual who had been invited on campus,” the dean noted. “Institutions of higher learning must be committed to free, open and robust debate….It would be a terrible blow to intellectual inquiry for administrators to assume the role of gatekeepers in deciding who can come on the campus and what they can say.”
Within Cardozo itself, however, students were split, with many attending his speech and praising him and his accomplishments and others showing disapproval in various forms, including protests that occurred simultaneous to his speech in the Cardozo lobby. Cardozo student Melissa Fleisher, who founded Cardozo Heightened Awareness for Israel, led the protest, which drew 15-20 law students. Placards with statements that she had made were in view, and flyers and fact sheets with information on Tutu were given out.
“The choice of a few members of the student groups to bring this person was not one that reflected anti-Semitic sentiment on their part,” said Fleisher. “It reflected their respect for his work in apartheid, which we all respect. At best, their choice was ignorant and reckless. Despite his wonderful acts in South Africa, Desmond Tutu has utilized his position to make anti-Semitic comments and wage a campaign against ‘human rights’ violations in Israel, whereas he has paid no attention to the slave trade in Sudan, honor killings in Jordan, lack of human rights in Saudi Arabia, and the Syrian occupation of Lebanon.”
Fleisher also expressed disappointment at the ramifications of the award. “Our concern extends beyond the dishonor to our school of bringing an anti-Semite there….For the rest of his life, whenever he is confronted with Jews who find him to be an anti-Semite and anti-Israel, he will be able to say, ‘I don’t know what your problem with me is; I got an award for peace from the most Jewish school in the country.’”
Rudenstine emphasized that preventing open speech would have worse ramifications, however. “You’re inviting a small group of people to come forward as guardians of the truth, and the underlying assumption is that they know what the truth is, and those of us in universities know that truth has many different forms. The best way to honor the life of the mind and to deepen our understanding is to embrace what Justice Holmes called ‘the marketplace of ideas,’” he said.
Yeshiva’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs outlined the reason for administrative unwillingness to get involved in the matter. “The University did not invite Desmond Tutu to receive an award,” explained Director Peter Ferrara. “It’s a student journal at Cardozo that’s run by students. A whole lot of people have received this award….Since all of our students operate under the First Amendment, there’s not much we can do if our students exercise their guaranteed rights. Maybe you can draw a line in the sand if they invited a war criminal. Being that it’s a university and we respect the rights of students, we have to respect their right to invite who they want.”
When the dean was asked if there were any limit to who should be able to speak, he again reiterated his reluctance to impose such limits. “I’d need someone to come in and point it out to me. I start from the perspective that a healthy university has a healthy debate… We’re all different. We all have distinct values and different orientations. If each of us has a veto, then there will very little speech left after that.”
The International Advocate for Peace Award has been given in the past to notable luminaries in the field of diplomacy, including former US Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, Senator George Mitchell, and former President Bill Clinton.♦
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