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.

June 4, 2012 22:13
Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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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.

Tutu had 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.

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“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 ones.”

Yet he also descended into rank anti-Semitism.

“Whether 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.”

In a 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?

Tutu 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?

While 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 come from?

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 time warp.

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 turn.

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.

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