(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
When a man of God enters a political fray, he makes life difficult for opponents. When he also dons clerical robes and gets a Nobel Prize for Peace, his opponents start with an all but decisive handicap. And when reconciliation and human rights are practically his middle names, the contest is all over bar the shouting. All this makes Anglican Archbishop (retired) Desmond Tutu the fearsome enemy of Israel he has come to be.
South African Jews, licking their wounds after the latest round, have reason to groan. Tutu with that trademark grin had led a massive rally while Israel and Gaza were slugging it out in round three this summer. Friends of Gaza’s jihadist rulers, Hamas, came out in all their guises and shades of extremism, jostling, bristling, brandishing banners, the whole bang shoot led and orchestrated by diminutive Tutu. From within South Africa’s staunchly Zionist ranks a counter-reaction was bound to follow. Some Jewish leader or other would be provoked into taking on the agent provocateur.
Leon Reich, chairman of Likud’s local chapter, kept his powder dry for weeks before blazing at the cleric from all barrels. It was a fearsome opinion piece and, to the shock of many, the community’s electronic paper, Jewish Report, posted it.
“Self-appointed destructors of the Jewish people appear in every generation. Haman, Ferdinand and Isabella, Pope Pius II, Hitler, Stalin and Ahmadinejad to name but a few. The latest self-appointed midget of history, Tutu, led a rally in Cape Town to make a contribution for his allies Hamas towards the destruction of Israel.”
What made Leon Reich’s piece truly fearful was an accompanying Tutu-as-Hitler image. Of course the mainstream press, constantly on lookout for pretexts to make fun of the Jews, went for the article like a vampire. The Mail & Guardian headlined and by-lined its own article like this: “SA Jewish Report compares Tutu to Hitler. An article in the South African Jewish report accuses Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of ‘preying’ on Israel, together with Hamas.”
The M & G went on to write: “When asked if Reich submitted the piece with photo shopped pictures of Tutu, [Editor Ant] Katz said: “I don’t think that is particularly relevant. But we were asked by a member of the Jewish board to remove the picture from the site. The picture should be down. I think we will be removing it.”
“The image,” admitted M & G, “was the Jewish Report’s idea, not the author of the piece. Tutu was shown with a Hitler mustache and superimposed on a Hitler body. Katz insisted there was nothing wrong with the op-ed and said, “It largely speaks to a Jewish audience. The writer of the article was very angry. He felt we are supporting a cause that could ultimately destroy the State of Israel. Tutu’s office said they would comment after reading the article.”
The matter, as may be expected, did not end there. In quick time the offending article was pulled from the Jewish Report, allegedly on dictate from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Reich in his turn was not slow to react: “The censors, through intimidation, have restricted the [community’s] freedom of expression. My greatest disappointment is not whether one disagrees with me. My greatest disappointment is the censorship.”
Censorship indeed; and not for the first time. Communal leaders have tiptoed around Tutu for a long while. A precedent was set in 2011 when a handful of Cape Town Jews launched a campaign to have the icon removed as trustee of the Holocaust Center, on the grounds of Tutu’s habitual anti-Semitic utterances.
They wished they had not; a storm of protest rained on them. Oh, came the catcalls, the anti-Semitic card again, now directed at Tutu the Nobel laureate! Inevitably community support, starting with the Jewish Board, melted from the now damaged few. Tutu’s triumph complete and the job done, leaders implored Jews to engage the cleric in open and respectful debate. After the latest debacle, the exact formula was repeated in a statement by the proprietor of Jewish Report, Howard Feldman: Engage Tutu, but respectfully and with dignity.
A Jewish community of no more than 80,000 is bound to feel besieged in tumultuous times like now. Jews simply cannot afford to be the butt of what Tutu worshipers take to be ad hominem attacks on their god. Undeniably Jewish leadership has a difficult job. It has to continually ponder degrees of hostility, estimating the result of doing this thing or that, attacking one person or another, deciding whether to defend Israel or remain quiet. The good opinion of society is like gold to a community so small. Jews are bound to put other Jews at arm’s length when the public has smeared them as dogmatic, intolerant right-wingers who will not allow Tutu to morally and justly lambaste Israel. Who’d be brave, or foolish, enough to counter-attack, however convinced that bigotry really was in Tutu’s head. The untouchable man wields a deterrent force double and treble anyone else’s.
A consummate political fighter, Tutu knows this all too well. “The government of Israel is placed on a pedestal, and to criticize it is to be immediately dubbed anti-Semitic.” What is he doing but deftly playing the gagging card himself, ridiculing Israel-supporters to stop them in their tracks, while making Jewish leaders think twice about joining forces against him. Tutu fired off his defense years in advance. And its deterrent effect is being felt to this very day.