Apartheid accusations at Israel spur call for “moral clarity” on Desmond Tutu’s legacy

Desmond Tutu. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

by Mike Wagenheim

(JNS) — As tributes from across the globe poured in earlier this week following the passing of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, many Israel supporters note the paradox of a man they say fought a heroic battle against apartheid in South Africa, then invented it in Israel.

Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, passed away at the age of 90 on Dec. 26.

“I think it would be a mistake to lionize him. On the one hand, he fought apartheid in South Africa, and on the other hand, he fought the right of Jewish people to national self-determination,” Dan Diker, director of the Political Warfare Project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told JNS.

“It’s a tragic part of his story and a real problem for his historical legacy,” Diker said. He noted that famed attorney Alan Dershowitz attributed Tutu as the originator of the Israeli apartheid comparison.

He added, “Tutu followed in the steps of the Palestine Liberation Organization by racializing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than presenting it as a religious conflict, in order to draw comparisons to South African apartheid. The comparison really measures up to some of the worst hate speech and measures up to some of the worst libels of our time.”

Some experts say that while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was far down the list of Tutu’s priorities, his commentary on the subject — which always sided with the Palestinians — had an outsized and negative effect that has only metastasized.

“People in the human rights community were looking for a cause to replace the South African anti-apartheid movement, and they found it in Tutu,” Dexter Van Zile, a Christian media analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, told JNS. Van Zile focuses on anti-Israel propaganda broadcast by Christian churches and related institutions.

“Nelson Mandela spent his life convincing black South Africans that they needed to live in peace with white South Africans. Mandela was the closest thing to a secular saint that we are going to see. Tutu took the legacy of Mandela and drove it into a ditch. Tutu didn’t come to grips with fact that many of the leaders he ended up working with wanted to destroy Jews in ways that Mandela wouldn’t have tolerated with black South Africans. Tutu helped to obscure their annihilationist tendencies. Some of the elites of the anti-apartheid movement have become denigrators of Israel, denying a Jewish right to a sovereign state,” said Van Zile, who referenced Tutu’s contemporary, South African Rev. Frank Chikane, an icon of the anti-apartheid struggle. Chikane has become a fierce critic of Israel, has implicitly encourage violence against Israeli Jews and has compared Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis to the circumstances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

However, it wasn’t just the Jewish state that Tutu had issues with, but Jews as a whole. Tutu spoke on multiple occasions of a “Jewish lobby,” and prompted an outcry after urging Jews to pray for and forgive those responsible for Nazi atrocities during a visit to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in 1989.

“Tutu compared the treatment of Jews at the hands of Nazis to the treatment of the black majority in South Africa. Then, he would accuse the Jewish state of being an apartheid state, thereby equating Israel with a Nazi state,” said Diker.

He continued, “He moved with malice of forethought. In a conflict in which both sides have claims, he deemed Israel as a white supremacist state, even knowing full-well that Israel is a brown-majority country. It was a cynical, political move in order to gain popularity in the anti-colonist movement.”

Tutu addressed accusations of anti-Semitism several times, including in a 2002 address given in Boston.

“People are scared in this country to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful — very powerful,” Tutu said. “We live in a moral universe. 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.”

Tutu added, “Israel has a right to secure borders. What is not so understandable, not justified, is what it did to another people to guarantee its existence. I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us Black people in South Africa.”

Even as Tutu praised South African Jews for banding with Blacks in the fight against apartheid, and called for Arab nations to recognize Israel’s existence, Tutu’s consistent comparisons of apartheid and of Nazism with Israel are reflected in modern popular sentiment in anti-Israel circles. His mixed legacy is mirrored in the multiple awards bestowed upon him by various Jewish communities for his anti-apartheid work in South Africa, and his multiple condemnations and appearance cancellations by other Jewish communities for his often insensitive and sometimes libelous claims against Israel and global Jewry.

“There needs to be a moral clarity in weighing Tutu’s legacy. We should not whitewash his positions and his rhetoric on Israel and Jews,” said Diker.