Desmond Tutu's inconvenient pro-Palestine legacy

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu speaks to members of the Africa Foundation at The Explorers Club May 24, 2005 in New York City
6 min read
30 December, 2021

“Black Nazi pig.” These words were scrawled on the walls of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in occupied East Jerusalem, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu was staying during a Christmas visit to occupied Palestine in 1989.

“Tutu is a Nazi” graffiti greeted the Archbishop when he later arrived at Israel’s Religious Affairs Ministry to meet minister Zevulun Hammer.

Living in apartheid South Africa at the time, it was easy for Tutu to recognise the similarities in the treatment of Black South Africans and Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

"Tutu was a moral leader who consistently warned against the idea of peace without justice"

The sight of Palestinians being humiliated by young, conscripted Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers at checkpoints was particularly jarring for Tutu - whose own movement back home was hampered by white South African Defence Forces (SADF) draftees old enough to be his grandsons.

“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,” Tutu said during the visit. Tutu’s presence in occupied Palestine at the height of the First Intifada, and his vocal solidarity, was both seismic and heartening to Palestinians.

The vitriol against Tutu was not surprising, since the American Jewish Committee had already alerted Israel the previous year of him saying that Zionism has “very many parallels with racism”, on the grounds that it “excludes people on ethnic or other grounds over which they have no control.”

Almost as enduring as Tutu’s support of the Palestinian liberation struggle has been smear campaigns against him, accusing the Archbishop of anti-Semitism. Tutu took on the pro-Israel lobby and the weaponisation of anti-Semitism head-on.

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Writing in 2005 in the foreword of Michael Prior’s 'Speaking the Truth: Zionism, Israel, and Occupation', Tutu wrote plainly: “…the Israeli government is placed on a pedestal and to criticise it is to be immediately dubbed anti-Semitic. People are scared in the US to say ‘wrong is wrong’ because the pro-Israeli lobby is powerful - very powerful. Well, so what? For goodness sake, this is God's world! We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government [in South Africa] was very powerful, but today it no longer exists.”

In doing so, Tutu angered the pro-Israel lobby in the US and in South Africa. In 2009, Alan Dershowitz referred to Tutu as ‘a bigot and a racist’, adding that he was “blind, deaf and dumb when it comes to issues of Israel.” Dershowitz used an appearance on Fox News this week to reiterate these claims after Tutu had died.

In December 2010, David Hersch, vice-chairman of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), launched a petition to remove Tutu as patron of the Holocaust Centres in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu (C) visits a house in the town of Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip on May 28, 2008
Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu visits a house in the town of Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip on 28 May 2008. [Getty]

The petition came less than three months after Tutu called on the Cape Town Opera Company to boycott a tour of Israel and for South African academic institutions to cut ties with those in Israel. One of the signatories of the petition was Alan Dershowitz.

In support of the petition for Tutu’s removal, Dershowitz penned a vicious personal attack in the press, saying that Tutu’s “ever present grin …masks a long history of ugly hatred toward the Jewish people, the Jewish religion and the Jewish state. There is only one word to describe Tutu’s motives. It is called anti-Semitism”.

The SAZF distanced itself from the petition, yet hosted Dershowitz – one of the most prominent supporters of the anti-Tutu petition - as a keynote speaker at its conference.

In 2014, the South African Jewish Report – the country’s official Jewish community newspaper - published an op-ed piece that likened Tutu to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The article was titled “Arch no better than Hitler or Stalin” and was written by Likud SA chairperson, Leon Reich.

"Almost as enduring as Tutu's support of the Palestinian liberation struggle has been smear campaigns against him"

In it, Reich states: “[Tutu] would kill the Jews before protecting Christians”, and accuses Tutu of wanting to destroy the Israeli state and the seven million Jews living in Israel. The article was accompanied by an image of Tutu with a Hitler-style moustache and Nazi officers’ cap.

The piece came three weeks after Tutu spoke at a massive protest in Cape Town against Operation Protective Edge - Israel’s 50-day bombing of the besieged Gaza Strip that killed over 2,000 Palestinians.

During the march, Tutu asked the crowd to chant: “We are opposed to the injustice of the illegal occupation of Palestine. We are opposed to the indiscriminate killings of Gaza. We are opposed to the indignity meted out to Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks. We are opposed to violence perpetrated by all parties. But we are not opposed to Jews.”

The Jewish Report eventually removed the piece from its website and apologised to Tutu. Yet, the vilification of Tutu’s Palestine legacy continued even after he died.

Obituaries and editorials that correctly praised Tutu's honesty and moral clarity erased his support for Palestine; the parallels he drew between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and apartheid South Africa; and his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israel.

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Tutu is, of course, most famously known for his work as the chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Yet, tributes in mainstream media, particularly in the United States and Europe, focus exclusively on Tutu’s message of dialogue and reconciliation, reducing his legacy both in South Africa and abroad to a fairy-tale of forgiveness, rather than a long, hard – often angry – quest for global justice and freedom.

Tutu berated those who believe that neutrality is even a choice in the midst of repression. As he put it: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This is a direct response to those who duplicitously trade in the “both sides” narrative when it comes to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Tutu was also a moral leader who consistently warned against the idea of peace without justice. “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself my master. I want the full menu of rights,” he said. Those who accuse Palestinians of ‘rejecting peace’ would do well to remember Tutu’s words.

The Arch – as Archbishop Tutu is affectionately known in South Africa - never stopped speaking truth to power when it came to Palestine, and was a constant thorn in the side of the Israeli government and apologists of its military occupation.

“I wish I could shut up, but I can’t, and I won’t,” he once said.  Thankfully, silence – even in the face of malicious smear campaigns - was never an option for Archbishop Tutu.

Suraya Dadoo is a writer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo