Inside the third-floor conference hall, Cardozo Law School officials beamed with pride as Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu accepted a peace award sponsored by the school, an affiliate of Yeshiva University.
But outside the hall, a group of students protested the selection by fellow students of Archbishop Tutu as the fourth recipient of the International Advocate for Peace Award, labeling him an anti-Semite and opponent of Israel.
"Anti-Semite on campus," called out Cardozo student Yishai Fleisher, a bearded man sporting a yarmulke and tzitizit.
He stood with a dozen others in the first-floor lobby of the Manhattan law school near Union Square, surrounded by uniformed school security and posters denouncing Archbishop Tutu. Fleisher’s wife Melissa, founder of CHAI (Cardozo Heightened Awareness for Israel), manned a table outside the third-floor hall.
"In this precarious time, when world anti-Semitism is on the rise and tensions are high, it is wholly irresponsible and insensitive to have Desmond Tutu at our school," Fleisher declared.
In a letter to law school Dean David Rudenstine, the couple called Archbishop Tutu’s verbiage "systematic: it begins with saying that Jews have a monopoly on the Holocaust, then he compares modern-day Israel to the Hitler regime, and he tops it off by saying that the powerful Jewish lobby keeps everyone muzzled."
"He should not have been approved to speak, especially not at Yeshiva University," said Fleisher, who implored Rudenstine to cancel the event.
But Rudenstine backed the selection by two law school student groups: the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution (CJCR) and the International Law Students Association (ILSA). (Honorees are selected solely by the students but the administration provides "guidance" and funding, a Cardozo spokeswoman admitted.)
"We at Cardozo are committed to providing a respectful forum that invites, engenders, and encourages discussion and debates," Rudenstine wrote in a Monday memo. "In that spirit of tolerance and mutual respect, the Cardozo community will continue to honor the choices made by those student groups sponsoring the … Peace Award."
Indeed, Rudenstine was visibly excited Tuesday as he heaped praise on the archbishop.
No one on the podium directly addressed the protestors.
ILSA president Aaron Kiviat, who described himself as a strong believer in the state of Israel, defended the honoree, insisting he was chosen for his historic role in ending apartheid in South Africa. "I totally stand by him," Kiviat said. Asked about the archbishop’s comments about Jews and Israel, Kiviat said: "I don’t know his views about Israel so I can’t comment."
But Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Task Force Against Hate, said: "I don’t think Yeshiva University should be awarding honors to someone who blames Israel disproportionately for tensions in the Middle East."
Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman called the selection "a poor and inappropriate choice for a Jewish institution. He is not a friend of Israel or the Jewish people," Foxman said. "He has flirted with anti-Semitism and his condemnations have been angry and nasty."
In his remarks, Archbishop Tutu called for forgiveness and reconciliation (as practiced in South Africa) as the only way to end cycles of violence in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, and other troubled regions. "We know that true security will not come through the barrel of a gun," he said.
Citing his membership on the board of the Shimon Peres Center for Peace, Archbishop Tutu said he told a recent board meeting that until Israel is recognized as a sovereign state with boundaries that are internationally acknowledged and respected, and equally, until there is a Palestinian state that is viable and sovereign and respected, "there is no hope for peace."
On the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he reminded the audience they should mourn the loss of Iraqi lives as well as American soldiers.
He stressed that humans must ultimately recognize "we are all, all part of God’s family: Arafat and Sharon, Bush and Saddam Hussein."
Past award winners include President Bill Clinton, former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, former Sen. George Mitchell, and the late John Wallach, founder of Seeds of Peace.