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Desmond Tutu Vs. Israel: An Old Story


An old saying has it that “liberalism is always being surprised.” That is the only possible explanation of Jewish expressions of “surprise” and “shock” that Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in late October urged the South African Opera troupe to cancel its engagement to perform “Porgy and Bess” in Israel.

Turning a blind eye to Tutu’s disparagement of Israel and indeed of Jews generally is, to be sure, not exclusively a Jewish failing. Just a few months ago, on the occasion of the Anglican clergyman’s 79th birthday, President Obama lauded him as “a moral titan – a voice of principle, an unrelenting champion of justice, and a dedicated peacemaker.”

In this year alone Tutu has demonstrated his dedication to peace, justice, and principle in the Middle East in particular by speaking up for Hamas and supporting the “Freedom Flotilla” of Islamist jihadists and “internationalist” do-gooders (people who confuse doing good with feeling good about what they are doing) who last spring tried to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

He has also repeatedly endorsed the activities of the BDS (Boycott/Divest/Sanction) movement. This reincarnation of the Nazis’ “Kauf nicht beim Juden” campaign of the 1930s constantly invokes Tutu’s “authoritative” condemnation of Israel (where Arabs and Jews use the same buses, beaches, clinics, cafes, and soccer fields, and attend the same universities) as an “apartheid” state. Advertisement

But his fulminations against Jews have a long history, so well-documented that one wonders how the “surprised” Jewish leaders or President Obama can possibly be ignorant of it, especially now that the latter has a “director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism” named Hannah Rosenthal, who has shown herself adept even at spotting that evanescent phenomenon called “Islamophobia” at a distance of ten miles.

Here are just a few examples of the “moral titan” Tutu on the Jewish question:

On the day after Christmas 1989, Tutu, standing before the memorial at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem to the millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis, prayed for the murderers and scolded the descendants of their victims. “We pray for those who made it happen, help us to forgive them and help us so that we in our turn will not make others suffer.” This, he said, was his “message” to the Israeli children and grandchildren of the dead.

Moral obtuseness, mean spite, and monstrous arrogance do not make for sound ethics and theology. Neither Tutu nor the Israelis he lectured can “forgive” the Nazi murderers. Representatives of an injured group are not licensed (even by the most sanctimonious of preachers) to forgive on behalf of the whole group; in fact, forgiveness issues from God alone. The forgiveness Tutu offers the Nazis is truly pitiless because it forgets the victims, blurs over suffering, and obliterates the past.

Tutu is always far less moved by the actuality of what the Nazis did (“the gas chambers,” he once said, “made for a neater death” than apartheid resettlement policies) than by the hypothetical potentiality of what, in his jaundiced view, Israelis might do. His speeches against apartheid returned obsessively to gross, licentious equations between the former South African system and Jewish practices, biblical and modern.

“The Jews,” Tutu declared in 1984, “thought they had a monopoly on God” and “Jesus was angry that they could shut out other human beings.” Tutu has been an avid supporter of the Goebbels-like equation of Zionism with racism. He has alleged that “Jews think they have cornered the market on suffering” and that Jews are “quick to yell ‘anti-Semitism’ ” because of “an arrogance of power – because Jews have such a strong lobby in the United States.”

Jewish power in America is, in fact, a favorite Tutu theme. In late April 2002 he praised his own courage in resisting it. “People are scared in [America] to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful, very powerful. Well, so what? Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust.”

Tutu has repeatedly declared that (as he once told a Jewish Theological Seminary audience) “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.” Certainly Tutu has never judged Jews by the standards he uses for other people. Although South African and American Jews were more, not less, critical of apartheid than the majority of their countrymen, Tutu in 1987 threatened that “in the future, South African Jews will be punished if Israel continues dealing with South Africa.”

Israel’s trade with South Africa was about seven percent of America’s, less than a tenth of Japan’s, Germany’s, or England’s. But Tutu never threatened South African or American citizens of Japanese, German, or English extraction with punishment. Citizens of Arab nations supplied 99 percent of the one resource without which apartheid South Africa could not have existed: oil. Tutu made countless inflammatory remarks about Israel’s weapons sales to South Africa (mainly of naval patrol boats) but said almost nothing about South Africa’s main Western arms supplier, France, which built two of South Africa’s three nuclear reactors – the third being American. He was also silent about Jordan’s sale of tanks and missiles to the apartheid regime.

Tutu’s insistence on applying a double standard to Jews may explain an otherwise mysterious feature of his anti-Israel rhetoric. He once asked Israel’s ambassador to South Africa, Eliahu Lankin, “how it was possible that the Jews, who had suffered so much persecution, could oppress other people.” On another occasion, he expressed dismay “that Israel, with the kind of history her people have experienced, should make refugees [actually she didn’t] of others.”

In other words, Jews, according to Tutu, have a duty to behave particularly well because Jews have suffered so much persecution. The mad corollary of this proposition is that the descendants of those who have not been persecuted do not have a special duty to behave well, and the descendants of the persecutors can be excused altogether for behavior it would be hard to excuse in other people. This may explain not only Tutu’s decision to pray for the Nazis while berating the descendants of their victims, but also his long and ardent devotion to the PLO, whose leader, Yasir Arafat, was both the biological relative and spiritual descendant of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem who actively collaborated with Hitler in the destruction of European Jewry.

Rabbinical tradition, however, provides a simpler explanation of Tutu’s eagerness to “forgive” the Nazis while excoriating the descendants of their victims: “Whoever is merciful to the cruel,” the rabbis warn, “will end by being indifferent to the innocent.”

Edward Alexander’s most recent book is “The Jewish Wars” (Transaction Publishers, 2010).

About the Author: Edward Alexander is professor emeritus in the English department at the University of Washington and the author of a number of books including “The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal” (Transaction, 2012).


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