Boycotts and Protests To Meet APA Keynote Speaker, Desmond Tutu

Psychiatric TimesPsychiatric Times Vol 28 No 3
Volume 28
Issue 3

The selection of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, 1984 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, to present the convocation lecture at the American Psychiatric Association’s upcoming annual meeting has so outraged some APA members that they have arranged meeting boycotts and protests.

The selection of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, 1984 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, to present the convocation lecture at the American Psychiatric Association’s upcoming annual meeting has so outraged some APA members that they have arranged meeting boycotts and protests. They hope to persuade their organization to disinvite a man they contend has made “strongly anti-Semitic comments,” spread falsehoods about Israel, and taken positions in opposition to the APA’s own policies.

APA president Carol Bernstein, MD, told Psychiatric Times that she invited Tutu to deliver the William C. Menninger Memorial Convocation Lecture on May 16 at the APA’s meeting in Hawaii. The invitation was issued after Dr Bernstein attended the American College of Psychiatry’s annual meeting in 2010, where she heard Tutu discuss South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of which he was chairman.1

“I was incredibly moved by his wisdom, his strength, his humanity and his description of Truth and Reconciliation  in South Africa.  He was really eloquent and uplifting,” Bernstein told Psychiatric Times. Bernstein invited Tutu to speak on the same topic at APA’s meeting. The contract was signed in April of 2010, she said, and Tutu’s lecture was publicized last year at APA’s New Orleans meeting.

While the convocation is an opportunity to hear about important topics related to the field, it is not a scientific presentation, said Bernstein, and it is the APA president’s prerogative to invite the speaker. Part of the purpose of the Menninger lecture is to expand our understanding of human values, Bernstein explained adding that many prior convocation speakers, such as actress/novelist, Carrie Fisher, author/photographer Tipper Gore, and physician/authors Oliver Sacks, MD, and Abraham Verghese, MD, have “addressed aspects of the human condition and caring for others.”

The Truth and Reconciliation process, with its approach to our common humanity, provides similar lessons, she said, particularly given the growing disintegration of civility in the US.

Asked if she were aware of the controversy surrounding Tutu at the time she issued the invitation, she said no. 

Member outrage
A few weeks before the APA Assembly met in Washington, DC, last November, Jerome “Jerry” Rogoff, MD, Assembly area 1 representative, said he became incensed upon learning that Tutu was the designated convocation speaker.  He and several others contacted Bernstein about Tutu’s “dark side.” 

They assumed that Bernstein was unaware of “Tutu’s other side, and if notified and informed in detail of what his stances were with quotes from him and accurate citations that she would investigate and rescind the invitation,” Rogoff said.  “Instead, we were met with a stonewall.” 

So Rogoff and others turned to APA’s Assembly. We knew Tutu was a hero and role model to many who might be unaware of his other side, Rogoff said.

Rogoff prepared an Action Paper with input from other members.  The paper called for the invitation to be withdrawn and “a suitable less divisive substitute speaker be invited instead.” Rogoff, who lived in Israel for 9 months and speaks Hebrew, signed the paper, along with 24 other APA members.

The Action Paper noted that being the main speaker at the Convocation of Fellows “is one of the highest honors APA can bestow,” that Tutu “has made several speeches, given interviews and made public pronouncements against the State of Israel that are not just critical, but defamatory, distorted, inaccurate, inflammatory and completely one sided,” and that many APA members “perceive some of Mr Tutu’s statements to be anti-Semitic, personally repugnant and unacceptable.” 

As an example, Rogoff pointed to a 2002 speech by Tutu in which he said that “people are scared in this country [the US] to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful – very powerful.”  In that speech, according to Rogoff, Tutu then went on to place American Jews in the company of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic and Idi Amin.2

This and other excerpts of Tutu’s statements with references and Rogoff’s commentary were compiled into a supporting document accompanying the Action Paper. [Copies of the Action Paper and supporting documentation are available by contacting Rogoff through APA’s member directory.]

Unfortunately, Rogoff said, the Action Paper presentation and discussion were put at the end of the Assembly meeting, “an interesting phenomenon itself,” and only 4 of some 20 speakers were able to present their views before discussion was terminated and a voice vote taken.

It was a close vote and the Assembly speaker decided for the nays. Generally, when that occurs, Rogoff said, it is followed by a standing vote, but there was no time. 

An APA press representative confirmed that it is usual protocol to take a standing vote following a close voice vote, and Roger Peele, APA’s secretary, agreed that the “debate was closed prematurely.”

In response to an APA member’s query to some APA candidates for office, Peele wrote: “I was disappointed that most of those supporting Jerry's motion and most of those opposed had no chance to express their opinions as the debate was closed prematurely because the Assembly had to leave the room at exactly 11 AM that Sunday morning. It was not a fully considered decision,” he said.

Despite his concerns, Peele said he voted against Rogoff’s “creditable motion.” “I didn’t disagree that Tutu's positions were insupportable and offensive,” Peele said. “But for me, the question was what was in the interests of the APA. I think the best test was, did it damage the American College of Psychiatrists--an organization whose composition is very close to the APA except for a greater tilt toward academics? Everyone says ‘no,’ that his talk was a big plus at the ACP. Second, what happens if one disinvites? I don't know the details, but it was done at St Thomas College, and the resulting outcry, I gather, was to reverse that decision and reinvite him.3 Having Tutu speak at the Convocation may be damaging. But my guess is that to disinvite would be more damaging.”

Continuing controversy
Following the Assembly meeting, some members contacted Bernstein and members of the Board of Trustees, according to Rogoff. Bernstein said she has communicated with many members.

“I have spoken to many, and many are thrilled and excited that the Archbishop is the convocation speaker. Certainly, there are a few people who are upset, and they are entitled to be upset. But it is not like it is a mass movement, “she said. “In some instances people felt that because I didn’t change my mind or I didn’t agree with their views that I was not listening to them sufficiently. But most of them recognized that we could agree to disagree on our perspectives."

Many APA members have strong feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she conceded, but noted that Tutu is not speaking on that topic.

In February, Rogoff and others purchased an ad in Psychiatric Times, explaining that they had petitioned “Dr Bernstein, the Board of Trustees, and the Assembly to rescind the invitation to Mr Tutu, to no avail.” They felt betrayed by “their valued organization and its use of our dues to honor this man, by whom we feel personally attacked and defamed.” The 27 APA members who signed the ad vowed not to attend the annual meeting. They also mentioned that others “are considering various kinds of protests during the meeting.”

The signers to the ad objected to Tutu’s assertion that Zionism has “very many parallels with racism” and to his equating Israel to an apartheid state.4 They also pointed to Tutu’s urging of the Cape Town Opera to cancel its visit to Israel5 and for the University of Johannesburg to terminate ties with Ben Gurion University in Israel6 as being in conflict with APA’s own position statement opposing all academic boycotts.7

Asked about the seeming conflict between Tutu’s call for academic and cultural boycotts of Israel and APA’s position, Bernstein said “Tutu is not speaking on behalf of the APA, so I don’t see the relevance of that issue.” Regarding Rogoff’s and others’ planned boycott and protests of the APA meeting, Bernstein said,  “of course people are entitled to do whatever they think they need to do, but it is unfortunate. . . I hope that people will come to the meeting for all the other things it has to offer even if they don’t wish to hear Tutu speak.”

She expressed sadness that some members are taking things out of context and “jumping to conclusions and making assumptions without speaking to the people involved.”

“We all value debate and we may disagree about things,” she said “but we need to do that in ways that are collegial, cooperative and appropriate and not in ways that are hostile and destructive.” 




1. Fink PJ. Fink! Still at large: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission proved to be a healing force in South Africa. What lessons are there in South Africa’s experience about the power of forgiveness? Clin Psych News. May 1, 2010.

2. Snyders M. Education: Tutu's 'anti-Semitic" speech. City Pages blog, Oct. 4, 2007.

3. Furst R. Tutu-St. Thomas dustup isn’t over. Star Tribune. October 1, 2007. Accessed January 13, 2011.

4. Dershowitz AM. Bishop Tutu is no saint when it comes to Jews. Hudson New York. December 20, 2010. Accessed January 10, 2011.

5. Cape Town Opera defies call to boycott Israel tour. Opera Now. January/February 2011. Accessed January 21, 2011.

6. Tutu D. Israeli ties: a chance to do the right thing. Times Live. September 26, 2010. Accessed January 25, 2011.

7. Peyser H, Altesman R, Anfang S, et al. Boycott of Israeli academics and the position of the American Psychiatric Association. Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci. 2007;44: 74–75. Accessed January 25, 2011.

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