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Stuart Weinblatt
Stuart Weinblatt

Assessing Desmond Tutu 

Surprisingly a number of rabbis and Jewish leaders have a blind spot when it comes to an assessment of S. African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s.  Tutu was clearly a courageous figure who deserves praise for his brave struggle to end apartheid in S. Africa.

Yet he also made a number of comments that were anti-Semitic and also extremely hostile to Israel. As but one example of the harm he did, a Letter to the Editor of the Washington Post earlier this week indicates that someone who heard him speak in Boston became strongly opposed to Israel as a result of hearing Tutu describe Israel as an apartheid country.

Some of my colleagues spoke of Jewish values of forgiveness and opposing racism in praising him, and even denounced those who they accused of besmirching his memory and work.  

As we consider which of our values apply to consideration of Desmond Tutu’s legacy I think honesty is one value which we should also keep in mind.

In that spirit, it is possible to recognize his amazing courage, leadership and grace as admirable and praiseworthy qualities for which he will be remembered. As Jews, as rabbis, as defenders of our people, however, we can and should, recognize the good that he did while not ignoring the way that he tarnished Israel.

To come out of Yad VaShem, Israel’s shrine and museum to the memory of the Holocaust and its victims and speak about the need of survivors to forgive the Nazis is not appropriate. It was chutzpah, plain and simple. He did not have the right to preach to the victims how they should behave. Our sages teach that our greatest prophet, Moshe Rabeinu was able to rebuke his people because he did it with love, and had been such a staunch defender and lover of his people.

While the nature of Tutu’s comments about Israel can be debated, and some may even agree with some of his critique, it seemed to be coming not from a place of love or understanding. He misapplied the experience of apartheid in S Africa to Israel — and this is a canard that eventually as a result of his words entered the public domain and has been used to harm and batter Israel by those who clearly do not have Israel’s best interests at heart. Nor for that matter is it reflective of sincere advocacy of Palestinians.

As Ben Dror-Yemini recently wrote in a column in Yedidot:

“…the world is preoccupied more with the Palestinians than any other unfortunate ethnic group in the world combined. But that is only an illusion. The world isn’t really interested in them. The Palestinians only interest the world when they can point an accusatory finger at Israel…. In Lebanon laws that prevent the Palestinians from earning a living in a long list of professions, restricting them to living in refugee camps, and deny them access to the public school system. Put in clearer terms: that is apartheid for all intents and purposes… (Yet) the UN Human Rights Council has never condemned Lebanon – not even once..” 

I do not recall seeing any statements by Archbishop Tutu expressing concern for the plight of Palestinians anywhere other than for those in Israel.

And one other Jewish value that should not be overlooked is – “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” The second part of Hillel’s dictum obviously applies as well, which is why we should recognize the good that he did.  We can do that but it need not be at the cost of speaking out against those who speak out against our people.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt

January 3, 2022

About the Author
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt founded Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland in 1988, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 620 families. He is president of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly and member of the National Executive Council of AIPAC. He has taught Jewish history and theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. In recognition of Rabbi Weinblatt’s leadership role in the community and as an outstanding teacher and speaker, he has received many awards from community organizations such as the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and the Greater Washington Chapter of ORT. He is the author of, “God, Prayer and Spirituality,” a compilation of his sermons, writings and articles.
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