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Desmond Tutu: Above Reproach?

Marty's post on Desmond Tutu's speech in Boston last week, in which the former Archbishop of Cape Town collectively blamed Jews (ironic, considering how often Israel's critics -- including Tutu -- bash the Jewish state for its supposed "collective punishment" of the Palestinians) for all the miseries of the Arab-Israeli conflict is raising some cackles from Matthew Duss and Ezra Klein of The American Propsect

Not surpising for a man of the cloth, Tutu's speech is predicated on his theological expertise. It consists entirely of an explanation of the Hebrew Bible, replete with chapter and verse, and attempts to show why not just the State of Israel, but "the Jews" are violating its covenants, lecturing us all on how "the people of this God were expected to behave." Tutu makes the point, never expressly but hardly subtle, that "the Jews" are defying their own religion. He also unwittingly slanders the history of the anti-apartheid movement (of which he was himself a crucial part) by comparing it to Palestinian nationalism. The former, while certainly characterized at times by terrorist activity as well as brutality against its own cadres, was never subsumed by the sort of jihadist culture of the PLO and Hamas, nor did it ever call for a South Africa devoid of whites, as opposed to the leading Palestinian nationalist movements which are, and have always been, violently anti-Semitic in philosophy and practice. 

Joel Pollak, a Jewish South African, writes

Tutu’s entire sermon is addressed to Jews. Not Israelis, but Jews. The Jews who would not, could not have come to the church to attend a meeting on the Jewish Sabbath. The Jews who had been vilified from the pulpit throughout the conference. It is “the Jews” who must change their ways. Not once—not once!—during his speech does Tutu call on Palestinians or “the Muslims” or “the Arabs” or whatever...

Again and again, he exhorts Jews to remember the lessons of the Hebrew Bible. He uses the second person plural—“you” and “your”—despite the fact that his audience is almost entirely Christian and Muslims and the few Jews in the church would not have counted themselves among those he blames for Israel’s sins. And he accuses Jews of fighting against God—“your God, our God.” He concludes:

“The world needs the Jews, Jews who are faithful to their vocation that has meant so much for the world’s morality, of its sense of what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is just and unjust, what is oppressive and what sets people free. Jews are indispensable for a good compassionate, just and caring world.

“And so are Palestinians.”

That’s it—nothing exhorting Palestinians or Arabs in particular to change their ways, aside from the catch-all “We condemn acts of terrorism by whoever they are committed.” Jews—not Israelis—are blamed for the conflict. And only the Jews, who are described as fighting against God and humanity. There can be no question of “anti-Zionism, not anti-Semitism.” Tutu’s words and intent are unmistakable.

Duss's and Klein's criticism consists mostly of ad hominem attacks and a defense of Tutu based primarily, if not entirely, on the fact that he's...well...Desmond Tutu. Duss promises us more in an "upcoming article related to the event," so all he offers is "the idea that Desmond Tutu, one of the great moral tutors of our age, a man who has dedicated himself to non-violence and reconciliation, at real and repeated risk to his own life, would "threaten" Israel with violence (From the pulpit of a church! With a characteristic sneer!) simply beggars the imagination."

Desmond Tutu is indeed a man of great stature; his criticism of the African National Congress for its unforgivable policies in support of Robert Mugabe and its AIDS denialism, as well as his calls for African Christians to be more accepting of homosexuality, have been exemplary and courageous. But he's not perfect, and happens to have rather odious views about the Middle East. I feel no amount of intellectual inconsistency embracing him for his honesty on Zimbabwe, AIDS and gays, while simultaneoulsy finding his words about Israel and Jews outrageous. And guess what guys: neither is Nelson Mandela above reproach.

--James Kirchick