(January 5, 2022 / JNS) The reaction to the death of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has revealed a blind spot in the tributes that have poured in from the mainstream press, world leaders and even rabbis and Jewish leaders.
Tutu was clearly a courageous figure who deserves praise for his courageous struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. But in addition to his work as the leader of the movement to liberate South Africa from apartheid, he made a number of inflammatory comments that were anti-Semitic and made speeches extremely hostile to Israel.
Walk out of Yad Vashem – the Israeli shrine and museum in memory of the Holocaust and its victims – and talk about the survivors ‘need to forgive the Nazis, as he did after a tour there in 1989, n’ was not appropriate. It was nerve, plain and simple.
He was not allowed to preach to the victims how they should react to those who sought to annihilate the Jewish people. Our sages teach that our greatest prophet, Moshe Rabbeinu, was able to rebuke his people because he did so with love, and because he was a staunch defender and lover of the Jewish people. Desmond Tutu had none of these attributes.
Some rabbis and Jewish leaders spoke of the Jewish values ââof forgiveness and opposing racism with praise. Some have even denounced those who marred his memory for having dared to mention his anti-Semitism and recalled his call for a boycott of Israel.
As we consider which of our values ââapply in judging Tutu’s legacy, I think honesty is important.
With this in mind, it is possible to recognize his incredible courage, leadership and grace as admirable and laudable qualities for which he will be remembered while highlighting and opposing his offensive critiques of Israel.
The specifics of Tutu’s critique of Israel can be debated, but they did not appear to come from a place of love or understanding. He downplayed Palestinian acts of violence and misapplied South Africa’s apartheid experience to Israel. He is a duck who, due to his words and stature, was ultimately used to harm and beat Israel by those who clearly did not have Israel’s best interests at heart. Nor does it reflect a sincere plea in favor of the Palestinians.
I do not recall seeing any statement by Archbishop Tutu expressing concern for the plight of the Palestinians other than those of Israel.
Israeli columnist Ben Dror-Yemini rightly noted in a recent column by Yediot Achronot that the world pay more attention to the Palestinians than all the other oppressed ethnic groups in the world combined. But when they are suffering from someone other than Israel, there is no interest in their cause. He points out that laws in Lebanon prevent Palestinians from acquiring citizenship and working in many professions. They are denied access to schools and are confined to living in refugee camps. In other words, Lebanon practices apartheid.
Yet on the discrimination of Palestinians by Arabs, Tutu remained silent.
Indeed, Tutu was probably more responsible for bringing into public discourse the false and slanderous accusation that Israel was an apartheid state than anyone else.
To cite just one example of the evil he did, a letter to the editor in The Washington Post this week was written by someone who heard him speak in Boston and who strongly opposed Israel after hearing Tutu describe Israel as an apartheid country.
We Jews can and should recognize the good he did, while not ignoring that he tarnished and defamed Israel. Our voice must be a voice of reason and honesty, even if it is unpopular to point the finger at a stain in the record of a giant known for his work as a human rights defender.
And another Jewish value that we should not overlook is Hillel’s famous teaching: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” The second part of his saying about caring for others obviously also applies, which is why we have to recognize the good that Tutu has done.
We can do it, but it doesn’t necessarily have to come at the cost of airbrushing comments from those who wrongly slander and slander the Jewish nation and people.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the founding rabbi of the B’nai Tzedek congregation in Potomac, Maryland. He was the head of the rabbis of the Jewish National Fund for Israel and is the founder of the Coalition of Zionist Rabbis for Israel.