South Africa’s struggle was nothing like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the
anti-apartheid leader’s bias showed how easily people can be led astray by such myths.
Desmond Tutu will primarily be remembered by posterity for his role as a leader in the struggle against South African apartheid. An Anglican bishop who spoke out courageously against his country’s white minority government and its cruel oppression of the black majority, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner was the face of the anti-apartheid movement at a time when most of its leaders—like future South African President Nelson Mandela—were imprisoned. His campaign to cause the world to regard the apartheid regime as a moral pariah not only helped to build support for boycotts of South Africa, but was part of the process that set in motion the events that led to its demise.
After the apartheid government freed Mandela in 1990 and then ceded power to the African National Congress after the country’s first wholly free elections in 1994, Tutu chaired a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that examined atrocities committed by both whites and blacks, though it did little about either and gave some wrongdoers an undeserved pass.
But while it is regarded by most people as a mere footnote to his biography, it is Tutu’s attitude toward Israel that sticks in the memory of many Jews. To contemplate his life is to face a dilemma that makes for uncomfortable reading. The great good he did doesn’t erase the way he helped build support for an antisemitic BDS movement and engaged in rhetoric about Jews and the Jewish state that often crossed the line into damaging stereotypes and delegitimization.
To even mention this at a moment when the world is celebrating his memory may be regarded by some as in bad taste. Still, it should be possible to speak the truth about anyone, even someone so closely associated with a righteous cause as Tutu was with the fight against apartheid. But it’s especially true in his case, because the clergyman’s use of his post-apartheid celebrity against Israel was not only deeply damaging but was largely based on misleading claims and outright falsehoods.
More importantly, it also illustrates how increasingly popular ideas about intersectionality—the notion that all struggles around the world can be neatly divided into oppressors and oppressed and that all of those categorized as being among the ranks of the latter group are both in the right and part of the same general effort to make the world a better place—have helped buttress the myth that the Palestinian war to eliminate the only Jewish state on the planet is morally equivalent to fighting apartheid or “Jim Crow” in the pre-civil rights era United States.
That Tutu viewed the world through the prism of his experiences in apartheid South Africa is understandable. But his embrace of the notion that the plight of the Palestinian Arabs was no different from that of non-whites in South Africa was not only misguided but it gave an undeserved moral imprimatur to the big lie that anti-Zionists have peddled about Israel being an “apartheid state.”
Worse than that, a look at Tutu’s statements about Jews over the years reveals a man that adopted attitudes that are inconsistent with his status as a leader of the human rights movement.
As Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz noted in a critique of Tutu a decade ago, his unfortunate comments about Jews included repeating traditional memes about them thinking “they had a monopoly on God” that merited justified criticism from Jesus. When discussing the Holocaust, he claimed that “the gas chambers” led to a “neater death” than those suffered by the victims of apartheid, even though, for all of its horrors, the Afrikaner government did not attempt to exterminate non-whites but to subjugate them. In a further example of his cluelessness about the subject, Tutu also demanded that Jews “forgive the Nazis for the Holocaust.” Yet, he never seemed capable of forgiving Jews for what he wrongly described as “oppressing” Palestinians.
That Tutu’s claims about Israeli practices being akin to apartheid are false is obvious to all but anti-Zionist propagandists. Contrary to that ridiculous comparison, Arabs within Israel are not denied equal rights under the law or forbidden to live alongside or even travel among Jews as blacks were in South Africa. They have the full rights of citizens in a democracy. Today, an Arab party, which itself disputes the right of Jews to have a state, though its leader appears to be retreating from that stand, sits in Israel’s government and exercises power.
The Arab population of the West Bank is autonomously governed by the anti-democratic Palestinian Authority regime. If Arabs haven’t acquired an independent state alongside Israel—other than the Hamas tyranny in Gaza that is an independent state in all but name—it is not because of Zionist efforts to relegate them to a legally inferior status. Rather, it is because for the last 100 years of the conflict, they have consistently opposed the right of the Jews—who today constitute a majority of all those living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza rather than a small minority of the total population as was the case with whites in South Africa—to have a state, no matter where its borders might be drawn, and have refused every offer of a compromise that would have meant a two-state solution.
Tutu refused to acknowledge that the Palestinian goal has always been the eradication of Jewish sovereignty anywhere in the country and not just to evict Jews from the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Even when speaking about specific events, Tutu’s rhetoric about what life in Israel was like was completely detached from reality.
For example, Tutu opposed the decision of the Cape Town Opera Company to perform in Tel Aviv in 2010 saying it should not take place until, “both Israeli and Palestinian opera lovers of the region have equal opportunity and unfettered access to attend performances.” But, of course, Arabs had the same right to buy tickets to a performance as Jews. And if Arabs on the West Bank—as opposed to those who are citizens of Israel—are subjected to security checks and restrictions, it is not because of a rigid ideology like apartheid but because they had subjected Israeli Jews to terror campaigns that required such precautions.
Indeed, it is the Palestinians who regard the presence of Jews in some parts of the country as an unpardonable sin that cannot be countenanced. It is they, who want those areas—if not the entire country—to be judenrein, or entirely free of Jewish residents whose ideas most closely resemble the racist notions of apartheid-era South Africa, not the Zionists.
Yet Tutu not only stuck to his backing of racist boycotts of the Jewish state but refused to accept that the goals of Hamas were nothing like those of his ANC.
Tutu exemplified the way intersectionality promotes false narratives in the name of a dubious notion of the unity of the struggles of all people of color. He advocated denying self-determination to the Jews in their historic homeland despite the fact that the majority of Israelis are also “people of color” since they trace their origins to the Middle East and North Africa rather than to Europe.
Why did Tutu have such a blind spot when it came to Israel and Jews? He may not have seen himself as an anti-Semite. But as someone whose whole life was bound up in the idea of minorities fighting oppressors, it was easy for him to see, as intersectionality demands, all conflicts as alike. Israel isn’t perfect but it didn’t deserve Tutu’s opprobrium. There is no excuse for his confusing his own experiences with the cause of a Palestinian national movement whose identity is inextricably tied up with a war to eradicate Israel, and not a struggle for justice. In doing so, he sided with hate and intolerance.
We should remember Tutu’s heroism against apartheid. But that doesn’t excuse his efforts to justify hate against Israel and the Jews.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.