‘Not a friend of Israel, but a man of great achievement, heroism and bravery’

Desmond Tutu saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the prism of apartheid in South Africa, says ex-envoy

 Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks during a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at Westminster Abbey in London March 3, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS/JOHN STILLWELL/POOL)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks during a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at Westminster Abbey in London March 3, 2014.

When then-US president Donald Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel in 2017, South African Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu responded: “God is weeping over President Donald Trump’s inflammatory and discriminatory recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is our responsibility to tell Mr. Trump that he is wrong.”

That statement was consistent with Tutu’s lifelong identification with the Palestinian cause, and his vocal opposition to what he deemed as Israel’s apartheid policies. Tutu, who died Sunday at age 90, was a founding member of The Elders, an organization of former world leaders, including Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela, with a self-imposed mandate to promote human rights and world peace.

On their frequent visits to the region at the beginning of the century, that mandate generally meant condemning Israel’s policies and championing the Palestinian cause. According to Israel’s former ambassador to South Africa, Arthur Lenk, Tutu’s view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict was colored by his lifelong battle against apartheid in his home country.

“I think that for Israelis, you have to be able to keep two competing ideas in your mind at the same time when you discuss Tutu. He was a great human rights icon and he was also someone who was truly interested in using lessons from his liberation in South Africa to impact Palestinian liberation and peace in the Middle East,” said Lenk, who served as Israel’s envoy from 2013-2017.

“He was not, in my view, anti- Israel, although I don’t think he had a nuanced view of the conflict. Tutu, like many in the South Africa struggle against apartheid, had a natural affinity for the Palestinians and a world view that they were similar, fellow travelers and allies.”

“Tutu once said: ‘When I see Palestinians at a checkpoint, it reminds me of South Africans at checkpoints during apartheid.’ For him and many other South African leaders who fought against apartheid, their whole world view is through the prism of South African history.”

Tutu and his Elders colleagues always presented a challenge for Israel, according to Lenk.

“Tutu was like Jimmy Carter in that regard – almost untouchable. Carter wasn’t just an ex-president, he was a guy in his 90s building houses, a human rights icon,” he said.

“When we push back and throw words like ‘antisemite’ out, we lose. We look weak. It’s like challenging the Red Cross or babies and puppies. But that doesn’t mean you don’t say your truth. That’s something you have to do.

By the time Lenk arrived in South Africa, Tutu had retired from public life and the two never met.

“Some of my predecessors did, but by the time I got there, I had made the decisions that his positions on the issues were well known and there was no chance of impacting him in that regard,” said Lenk.

As the world mourned Tutu on Sunday, Lenk cautioned against viewing him only on his stance regarding Israel.

“Tutu’s legacy is a South African one. Our issues in Israel are not even secondary to his legacy, and that’s an important thing for us to understand. His life wasn’t about Israel and Palestine, it was about democracy and human rights in South Africa,” said Lenk.

“Especially on a day like today, that’s the prism in which we need to look at his life, and to honor 90 years of a heroic, iconic person who did amazing things in our world. We disagreed on one issue that’s important to us, but you have to be able to see the shades of gray and not just look at ‘was he a friend of ours?’

“He wasn’t a friend of Israel, but that said, he was a man of great achievement, heroism and bravery. And anyone who celebrates democracy knows that he’s at the top of the list of people who should be honored, even if he didn’t see our issue the way we would have liked him to.”