Nobel winner’s problem with ‘a peculiar people’ and Israel
Tutu’s mentor was Mohandas Gandhi, who had a blind spot for the lives of Jews.
Desmond Tutu Photo: REUTERS
When Nobel laureates speak, peace-seekers generally listen. Thankfully,
Methodists recently voted for a balanced approach to the Middle East, rejecting
Rev. Desmond Tutu’s support of a harsh anti-Israel resolution. Presbyterians
will soon be voting on similar measures, and they too will have to weigh the
appeal of Tutu’s strong “moral” censure of the Jewish state.
worked hard to influence the vote to divest Methodist pension funds from three
American companies doing business with Israel. He penned a letter to delegates
at the quadrennial General Conference of the United Methodist Church, and
published an op-ed in The Tampa Bay Times as the conference met. But Tutu
deployed language – both recently and in the past – that crossed from political
agitation to incitement.
“In our struggle against apartheid, the great
supporters were Jewish people,” Tutu wrote in the past. “They almost
instinctively had to be on the side of the disenfranchised, of the voiceless
Yet he also descended into rank anti-Semitism.
Jews like it or not, they are a peculiar people.
They can’t ever hope to
be judged by the same standards which are used for other people.”
scathing indictment of Israel, he claimed that it has “oppressed more than the
apartheid ideologues could ever dream about in South Africa.”
Could it be
that Rev. Tutu has forgotten how brutal were the racial policies of apartheid?
Or is he engaged in conscious revisionism when he finds that Israel – where 18
percent of citizens are Arabs who vote, criticize the government, have
representatives in Knesset, attend all universities and contribute a justice to
the Supreme Court – treats Arabs worse than the Afrikaaner treated blacks?
declaims with prophetic rage: “God formed a very particular relationship with a
particular group of people; Hebrews who were oppressed as slaves in another
land. As time moved on, this people disobeyed God and time and time again the
prophets had to call them back to their deepest values.”
He makes it
perfectly clear that he is not speaking of the Biblical Israelites alone, but
the Jews of today.
“Prophetic voices have been calling this empowered
people who were once oppressed and killed, to their deepest values of justice
and compassion, but they have refused to listen.”
Why does he not invoke
the Bible to condemn the sins of Palestinians: terror, suicide bombing, racial
incitement? Where’s the biblical fire and brimstone against those in Nigeria,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq who persecute and murder Christians?
churches are bombed and countries are cleansing themselves of Christian and
other religious minorities, Rev. Tutu – and the churches pondering divestment
resolutions against Israel – are silent. Where does the Nobel laureate’s animus
From two sources. While Tutu is a social progressive, he appears to
be an old-school theologian. He simply cannot let go of centuries of Replacement
Theology, in which all covenants with Jews were voided in favor of the New Jews,
i.e. Christians. References to a Holy Land are interpreted allegorically; Jews
should not lay claim to any piece of real estate, or expect to return to the
Middle East. In fact, the Jewish return to their ancestral home came as a rude
and unwelcome surprise to old-guard theologians.
American Jews have
enjoyed decades of goodwill bridge-building with Christians. The Vatican’s 1965
Nostra Aetate, inspired by a saintly Pope who truly respected Jews, was a
sea-change for the Catholic Church. Many evangelicals have been effusive in
their philo-Semitism and support for Israel. But such is not the case among some
Protestant denominations where classic rejection of Jews, conscious or
otherwise, often persists without challenge.
While many mainline
Protestants see a theological basis for respecting Jews and Judaism based on
Romans 9-11, and many others simply understand the secular arguments for six
million Jews as modern stakeholders in the Holy Land, others cannot bear the
thought of a resurgent and empowered Jewish people. Jews were supposed to become
footnotes to history, not chapter headings. Tutu remains caught in a theological
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many Christians
reconsidered their relationship with Jews. Two Popes – John XXIII and John Paul
II – confronted the Holocaust with honesty, and made decisive changes in Church
conduct. Tutu’s encounter with the Holocaust apparently took an opposite
Tutu’s mentor was Mohandas Gandhi, who had a blind spot for the
lives of Jews. Faced with the rising specter of Hitler’s threats against the
Jewish people, Gandhi was asked what Jews ought to do. In 1938, he essentially
counseled them to commit suicide: “The calculated violence of Hitler may even
result in a general massacre of the Jews.... But if the Jewish mind could be
prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be
turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy.”
Gandhi compounded this
outrage as the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land heated up,
incited by Hitler’s ally, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Gandhi insisted that the
Jews had no place there, “only by the goodwill of the Arabs....There are
hundreds of ways of reasoning with the Arabs, if they will only discard the help
of the British bayonet.”
One such was for the Jews to “offer satyagraha
to the Arabs and offer themselves to be shot or thrown into the Dead Sea without
raising a little finger against them.”
Tutu, the student seems to have
learned well from his teacher.
But instead of disappearing, three years
after the liberation of Auschwitz, the Jewish people rose from the dead to
declare the modern State of Israel. Six decades later, against all odds, the
Jewish state thrives.
Most rank and file churchgoers have room for two
narratives. They seek ways to improve the lot of their Palestinian
co-religionists without rejecting the Jewish people’s right to pursue their
national and spiritual future. That tolerant vision – not Tutu’s willful
blindness – may be the best last hope for peace.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is
associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is
director of Interfaith Relations for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.