Desmond Tutu: A hero against apartheid first, a critic of Israel second - opinion

Desmond Tutu was right about most things, but on Israel, he was wrong. Twice. Israel is not apartheid, and boycott is the problem and not the solution.

 NOBEL PEACE laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu addresses journalists at the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in 2001. (photo credit: Juda NgWenya/Reuters)
NOBEL PEACE laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu addresses journalists at the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in 2001.
(photo credit: Juda NgWenya/Reuters)

Nobel Peace Prize winner (1984) Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died this week at age 90, was internationally recognized as a true force for good, and for a very good reason. He used his fame, celebrity, and moral authority to become a global champion of human rights, and was unwavering in his stance for the needy, underprivileged, marginalized and oppressed. He rallied against apartheid, and for democracy, and became synonymous with global justice doing so.

His passing was marked by just about every respectable media outlet in the world. The New York Times pointed to his wisdom arguing “that the policy of apartheid was as dehumanizing to the oppressors as it was to the oppressed,” The Guardian’s obituary highlighted his key role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The London Times hailed his embrace of nonviolent opposition to the apartheid regime, the BBC pointed that his motives were always religious, never political, The Jordan Times described him as “an unstoppable force for good who taught compassion and forgiveness and pursued his mission with a will of iron.”

Israel’s popular news site Ynet chose to highlight his evenhandedness when it came to the caring for victims of violence on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Ynet’s obituary highlighted the fact that in 2006 Tutu chose to acknowledge Palestinian aggression, alongside what he described as “possible war crimes” by Israel (Tutu was asked by the UN Human Rights Council to lead an investigation of IDF’s operation in the Gaza Strip that took place in July 15-16 of that year).

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

Sadly, for Israelis, Tutu is mostly known for his criticism of Israel’s policies, his public support for an international boycott of the Jewish state, his comparison of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to apartheid South Africa, and the linkage he often made between the Holocaust and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. 

Indeed, if you believe that Israel is only a by-product of post-Holocaust European guilt and ignore the many decades of pre-Holocaust Zionist nation-building, as he apparently did, then it makes sense to view the Palestinians as paying the price for the crimes of the Europeans. Not surprisingly, in his 1989 visit to Yad Vashem, Tutu urged Israelis to forgive the Nazis for killing six million Jews during World War II.

ISRAEL AMBASSADOR to South Africa (2013-2017) Arthur Lenk, in his excellent interview in The Jerusalem Post on Monday, aptly provides the right context for the understanding of Tutu’s legacy: “It is a South African one. Our issues in Israel are not even secondary to his legacy… His life wasn’t about Israel and Palestine, it was about democracy and human rights in South Africa”.

It is true. The Palestinians were not Tutu’s main issue.

But in today’s world of identity politics and information overload, which pushes for simplicity and “instant labeling” in the face of growing complexity, it is important to examine some of Tutu’s basic positions on Israel, as they serve in the eyes of many as a credible basis for understanding the conflict. 

We live in the bubbly age of information where public discourse, especially online, has been profoundly impacted by intersectionality (the assumption that people’s overlapping identities help understand and define the prejudices they face). Archbishop Tutu was an authentic representative of that social and political phenomenon. He spoke and acted bravely, despite tremendous external pressures.

In his 2014 article for Haaretz, Tutu called for a global boycott of Israel, making the distinction between Israelis and Jews: “We are opposed to the injustice of the illegal occupation of Palestine. We are opposed to the indiscriminate killing in Gaza. We are opposed to the indignity meted out to Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks. We are opposed to violence perpetrated by all parties. But we are not opposed to Jews.” 

He then called for the suspension of Israel from the International Union of Architects, which was meeting in South Africa. He described the boycott movement as “gathering pace” and equated the pain of South Africans during apartheid to that of the Palestinians. He drew a simple conclusion: just as the boycott defeated apartheid it could defeat Israel. 

“The withdrawal of trade with South Africa… was ultimately one of the key levers that brought the apartheid state – bloodlessly – to its knees… Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of “normalcy” in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice,” he wrote.

TUTU WAS right about most things, but on Israel, he was wrong. Twice. Israel is not apartheid, and boycott is the problem and not the solution.

Israel is far from perfect. It was born out of adversity and had committed its fair share of historical mistakes. But it is a multiracial, multicultural and multicolored immigration society. It is the only Western country that proactively brought in newcomers from Africa (as citizens with full rights). In Israel, the Arab minority participates in the political process and is currently part of the governing coalition. In fact, currently, Israel is the only country in the Middle East with a Muslim Brothers Party in government, the most ideologically radical political faction among Israel’s Arabs.

Moreover, Israel is the only country in our region where it is safe to practice Christianity or to be openly gay (a subject that was close to his heart). 

During apartheid, South Africa’s white minority enforced its domination by enacting and enforcing racist legislation. In Israel, a country with a long history of firm rule of law (often sending its own leaders to jail), incitement to racism or religious discrimination are considered criminal offenses. 

In fact, many of those who actually lived under apartheid, have found Tutu’s comparison offensive and counterproductive. By “displacing” the term from its original context, Tutu contributed to a great injustice.

Siding with the underdog is an understandable human response, especially for a senior and celebrated member of the clergy whose life mission was to rally for just causes. Although Tutu publicly acknowledged Palestinian aggression as a trigger to Israel’s actions, he disregarded the ongoing Palestinian (and historically Arab) rejectionism of political compromise.

This includes the rejection of the UN Partition Plan, the infamous “Khartoum Resolution” (September 1967) with its “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel”; the rejection of the Clinton Plan in Camp David (2000); the rejection of Israel’s unilateral pullout of Gaza (2005); and the Palestinian no-show for the Olmert Plan (2008). 

But failing to acknowledge the pitfalls of the Palestinian zero-sum diplomacy and its habitual political intransigence is only one side of it. The idea that suffocating Israel’s economy and society, through an economic and cultural boycott, is a solution, can hardly be viewed within the framework of Christian compassion, love and respect. 

As a pluralistic democracy, Israel’s society is one of many voices, among them those who oppose the treatment of Palestinians. How will boycotting Israel empower them? What there is to gain by heightening Israel’s anxiety and insecurity? 

For Israelis and Zionists, Tutu’s ideas became counterproductive: while Israel is routinely condemned and scores of other countries are conveniently ignored, justice is not being served. Moreover, and surprisingly, in his many interviews and articles, I could not find much about internal Palestinian killings. During the first Intifada (1987-1993), for example, nearly 1,000 Palestinians died at the hands of their brothers.

Many Israelis, especially those who greatly appreciated his work on behalf of the weak, wonder about the roots of his uncompromising positions on Israel.

We are told that the late archbishop’s motivation was always religious and should be understood as such: he was all about Christian compassion.

One possible explanation for his persistent singling out of Israel, is the country’s strong military and diplomatic ties with apartheid South Africa.

Lenk cautions us not to rush to label all critics as antisemites. He is right.

The writer served as Israel’s consul-general in New York (2010-2016), and is chairman of the Charney Forum for New Diplomacy.