Tutu showed even the most cherished anti-racists can succumb to bigotry

Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking during the One Young World Summit ceremony at Old Billingsgate, London.  (Via Jewish News)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking during the One Young World Summit ceremony at Old Billingsgate, London. (Via Jewish News)

The last week has seen an outpouring of praise for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Prize winning priest long described as ‘the moral conscience of his nation’. He was a ‘modern day activist for racial justice’ (AP News), a ‘patriot without equal’ (NBC), ‘the staunch and steadfast healer of a nation’ (BBC) and ‘a man who always spoke truth to power’ (CBS). These gushing tributes, and others besides, chose to omit one of the most salient features of Tutu’s thinking: that he was a passionate and determined antisemite who fulminated against the Jewish community, Zionism and Israel with seemingly endless malice. It is a terribly predictable blind spot among the commentariat.

For sure, Tutu’s record of non-violent resistance to racism deserves recognition. He was one of the most stubborn critics of the evil apartheid system and his thundering assault on white supremacy will long be remembered and appreciated. He was also quick to turn on his own supporters when he sensed they were guilty of injustice, something vital in his role as head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But an assessment of his legacy cannot ignore the venom he directed towards the Jews. Indeed, Tutu embraced nearly every antisemitic canard and trope of the modern age with a brazenness that defies belief.

Shortly after acknowledging the role that many South African Jews had played in defeating apartheid, he tore into Jews themselves, declaring that they were ‘a peculiar people’ who ‘can’t ever hope to be judged by the same standards which are used for other people’. The notion that one should judge Jews differently to others smacks of a classic double standard that is the very hallmark of antisemitism. It explains why, throughout history, Jews have been forced to live in segregated communities, wear special clothes, pay oppressive taxes and forego claims to citizenship.

Desmond Tutu standing next to a bust of former South African president Nelson Mandela. (Via Jewish News)

Then there was Tutu’s theologically based antisemitism influenced by Christian replacement thinking. He once talked about how Biblical Jews had disobeyed God and the prophets ‘had to call them back to their deepest values’. Turning to modern day Jews and Israelis, he went on to say that ‘prophetic voices’ had been ‘calling this empowered people who were once oppressed and killed, to their deepest values of justice and compassion, but they have refused to listen’.

Inherent in this view is the notion that Jews are a uniquely vengeful people who show no mercy towards their enemies. For Tutu, it was as if these modern Israelis, seemingly devoid of morality, manifested bad Biblical DNA with the negative attributes of the Jewish character possessing a sinister, timeless quality. Of course, his conflation of Israel with all Jews is itself a modern antisemitic trope beloved by racist opponents of the Jewish state.

Tutu adopted Gandhi’s view that Jews had to forgive their Nazi oppressors. In a visit to Yad Vashem in 1989, Tutu urged Israelis to ‘pray for those who made it happen’ so that ‘we in our turn will not make others suffer’. That he believed Israelis were behaving as modern-day Nazis was confirmed in a later statement where he said: ‘I cannot myself understand people who have suffered as the Jews have suffered inflicting the suffering of the kind I have seen on the Palestinians.’ Comparing Israeli policy with that of the Nazis bespeaks the kind of warped thinking beloved of progressive antisemites.

Moreover, while urging Jews to forgive those that murdered six million of their forbears, Tutu never suggested that Israelis deserved forgiveness for the crimes he accused them of committing. Instead, he was at the forefront of a movement to boycott them globally, accusing the Jewish state of being worse than apartheid South Africa and ignoring the crimes committed by Israel’s enemies. He also tapped into age old notions of Jewish conspiratorial control, declaring that ‘People are scared in this country (the US), to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful – very powerful.’

In any assessment of Archbishop Tutu’s legacy, one must reckon with his uncompromising opposition to apartheid, and laud it accordingly. At the same time, his antisemitic tirades are a bitter reminder that even the most cherished anti-racists can succumb to bigotry.

About the Author
Jeremy is an author and the Director of B'nai Brith UK's Bureau of International Affairs
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