Recently Deceased Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Pro-Palestinian Stance Faces Pushback from American and Israeli Jews, who Accuse him of Anti-Semitism
By John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death on December 26, 2021, has brought forth both praise and damnation of this conciliator who attempted to bring peace to various parts of the world, most importantly his own country of South Africa. Some American and Israeli Jews have accused Tutu of Anti-Semitism, while certain Christian sources have praised him as if his sainthood was preordained. He assertively supported the Palestinian cause from an early point in his career as a preacher.
Desmond Tutu’s death causes starkly divergent opinions about his contribution to world peace
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died on December 26, was characterized in an opinion piece by Colbert King of the Washington Post as a personage whose “vision of peace and reconciliation knew no bounds.” In reviewing some other opinions of Tutu, however, it is hard to believe that these are so wildly divergent.
On one side, former president Obama penned that Nobel Prize winner Tutu was “a mentor, a friend, and a moral compass for me and so many others.” He added, Tutu was a “universal spirit, grounded in the struggle for liberation and justice in his own country, but also concerned with injustice everywhere.”
That testimonial sharply contrasts with the opinion of former Harvard Law professor and media contributor Alan Dershowitz. He recently announced on Fox News, “The world is mourning Bishop Tutu, who just died the other day. Can I remind the world that, although he did some good things, a lot of good things on apartheid, the man was a rampant antisemite and bigot?” Dershowitz further posited that the archbishop was “the most influential antisemite of our time.”
In defense of the late archbishop Tutu, King said none is needed from him. However, he noted, “The totality of his life and works on behalf of human rights speaks for itself. His advocacy of compassion and his quest for equality were not limited by race, religion, cultural affinity or geography.”
King noted that Tutu was strongly critical of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which was influenced by his personal experience with the harshness of South African apartheid. This was not Dershowitz’s first sign of disdain for Tutu, however, since in 2014 he accused the archbishop, along with former President Jimmy Carter, of having “Gaza blood on their hands.” Dershowitz alleged that Hamas was using Palestinian deaths to build public opinion against Israel. He even went as far as to accuse Tutu of having an “ugly hatred toward the Jewish people, the Jewish religion and the Jewish state.”
In this context of divergent views of Desmond Tutu, we need not be reminded that the security of Israel has never been in question by the U.S. But we also need to recognize that Tutu spoke from a religious, moral, and ethical place—not from a political stance. Furthermore, we must recall that the U.S. Department of State under the Biden administration accords to Palestinians a “secure, free, democratic and stable Palestinian society and governance.” This commitment should have the same moral and ethical footing as U.S. support for Israel’s security.
From the Israeli side: “Desmond Tutu – an honored anti-Semite?”
While Dershowitz pulled a few punches in his criticism of Archbishop Tutu, a recent Israeli Times story rendered its opinion in no uncertain terms. It claims that “underneath the godlike humble appearance was an insidious anti-Semite and anti-Israel vein that throbbed and surfaced in writings, public speaking, and conversation.”
The Times reported that just recently Tutu had urged Miss South Africa to avoid attendance at the Miss Universe contest in Israel, calling Israel an apartheid state. He was also against the performance of the Cape Town Opera in Israel, citing apartheid and “denying Israel’s democracy and referring to it as an ‘occupier.’” Additionally, Tutu openly supported the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement.
For years, the Archbishop consistently supported Palestinians, accusing Israel of “illegal occupation, oppression of Palestinians, and building a ‘separation wall’ in the West Bank.” However, it was always on moral and ethical grounds that Tutu rendered his accusations, while Israeli politicians parse every word of any accusation suggesting that Palestinians are living under military occupation.
The ‘reality’ for these politicians is that Israel did not take Arab land and did not establish roadblocks and checkpoints to keep Palestinians out of Israel. The Times opinion countered, “Most of the disputed land had belonged to Jews in the first place until they were thrown out or killed, and roadblocks and checkpoints exist so less Israelis die.” Two different realities, indeed!
A third perspective: Tutu “thrived on the process of endearing himself to all who hope for better days”
An opposite opinion from some on the Israeli side characterizes a strong Christian view of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. As the worst of South Africa’s apartheid years were ending, Tutu is described by the Christian Century news source as “…an expert in navigating White supremacy.” That source depicts his vision as transformative.
The underlying zeal of Tutu in support of oppressed peoples such as the Palestinians, derived from his own, immediate experience with apartheid. As the Christian Century describes, “The indignities of discrimination—both those he experienced personally and those he witnessed in various leadership roles—seared Tutu’s conscience.”
Tutu visited East Jerusalem, Israel, and the occupied territories, beginning as early as 1966, just before the six-day war of 1967. Tutu spent two months in East Jerusalem in 1966, and he returned to Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies some years later. His visit to Gaza reminded him “of the oppression that was once our burden in South Africa,” finding there “things that even apartheid South Africa had not done.”
To be sure, Desmond Tutu always asserted Israel’s right to exist, though he always differentiated between “state actions and the Jewish people–who he called ‘my Hebrew antecedents.’” However, he criticized “the unquestioning support of the USA” for Israel.
Much of the ferocious rhetoric some American and Israeli Jews have directed against Tutu is because he was so charismatic, such a beacon of hope to many peoples around the world—especially those suffering from oppression. Much of that rhetoric is characterized as Anti-Semitic and Anti-Israel, though it is perhaps best understood as Anti-Zionist, in the sense that Israel is attempting to expand its territory at the expense of the Palestinians, whom it occupies.
It’s much more complicated than this, but at least we can get a sense of the complexity of Tutu’s larger role in trying to make the world safe for different peoples and people with differences.
• “Opinion: Desmond Tutu’s vision of peace and reconciliation knew no bounds, but Alan Dershowitz dissents,” Colby King, Washington Post, 1/8/2022
• “Desmond Tutu – an honored anti-Semite?” The Israeli Times, 12/28/2021
• “Desmond Tutu’s transformative vision,” The Christian Century 1/7/2022
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID, Department of State, and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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