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December 31, 2021 12:31 pm

Desmond Tutu and the Jews

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen


Former Archbishop of Cape Town and veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Desmond Tutu holds a mass at Cape Town’s Anglican St George’s Cathedral December 6, 2013. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who died on Sunday, was a Nobel Prize winner and a hero of the anti-apartheid movement. Yet despite all his many qualities, he had a real problem with Jews and the Jewish State. He had many Jewish friends and admirers. But his blatantly antisemitic rhetoric, on public record, consistently and simply proved that you can be a likable, even sweet hero, and still be a dangerous fool.

I have tried to understand why so many perfectly nice, good Christians seem to have such trouble with Israel. Is it just the sympathy for the underdog? Or the arrogance of many Israelis? Is it something about Jews or Judaism that offends them?

Mahatma Gandhi, one of the founders of modern India was regarded as a holy man. He, too, could not sympathize with Jewish aspirations. Gandhi’s great ideal was that of satyagraha: non-violent resistance to evil. A lovely idea in theory, and a very Christian idea of turning the other cheek observed more in the breach. Of Hitler’s evil, Gandhi said in 1938, “the calculated violence of Hitler may result in a general massacre of Jews, but if their minds could be prepared for voluntary suffering, the massacre could be turned to a day of thanksgiving and joy.”

Thank you, but no thank you. He admired the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who visited Hitler to ensure that if he invaded the Middle East, he would exterminate the Jews there too. He even suggested that “the Jews should follow the doctrine of satyagraha and offer themselves  to the Arabs to be shot or thrown into the dead sea.” One wonders why he didn’t suggest satyagraha to Stalin.

There were two men I admired who were both committed Christians and devoted much of their lives to fighting against Apartheid. And yet they did not suffer from Tutu’s blind spot when it came to sympathizing with Jewish aspirations for and the right to defend a homeland. Robert Birley and Trevor Huddleston — both men I had got to know late in their lives through my involvement in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and close friends.

Robert Birley (1903-1998) during the Second World War worked to counteract Nazi propaganda. He was Headmaster of Eton College from 1949 to 1963, and then became a visiting Professor of Education at Witwatersrand University in South Africa from 1964 to 1967. There he was courageously involved in the anti-apartheid movement. After he retired, he wrote and lectured extensively on education and human rights. He came to Carmel College as our Guest of Honor in 1974. He was brilliant, dignified, and humane — the very model for a good English Public School headmaster.

Trevor Huddleston ( 1913-1998) was also highly gifted. He became an Anglican priest after studying at Oxford. In 1940, he took up a position in Cape Town and then moved to Johannesburg, where he ministered to the black township of Sophiatown, notorious for its slums, crime, and poverty. Huddleston devoted himself to the people there and was a much-loved priest and a respected, fearless anti-apartheid activist. He mentored many gifted young men and women, among them Desmond Tutu.

Huddleston returned to England in 1956. He continued his anti-apartheid work, as president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. I first met him when I was the Honorary President of the Scottish Anti-Apartheid Movement in 1965. In 1994, when he was involved in the establishment of the Living South Africa Memorial, dedicated to all those who lost lives under political violence, he invited me to the inaugural meeting, and afterward we went out for coffee. He apologized for the way his church had taken a stand against Israel; he did not see that supporting Palestinians required slandering Israel.

Why, still today — ad mainly in the progressive Protestant Churches — is Israel so hated? Some people blame Replacement or Supersession theology. The notion is that the ancient old covenant between God and Israel was broken by the Jews for disobeying God. The Old Testament was superseded by the New. Christians became the new Chosen People. As punishment, Jews were condemned to suffer in exile and only the Second Coming of the Christian messiah could purge their stain.  If they returned to their land before that, then (just as some of our own crazies think), they were defying God. This is why even today you will hear it said quite publicly that Jews will not be able to enter the Gates of Heaven (not that that worries me very much).

The Catholic Church since Pope John 23rd has come a long way in re-thinking replacement theology. Yet there are still plenty, mainly left-leaning Protestant Christians who have not yet taken this development on board. Even in Britain today, Israel is being blamed for the tragic decline in Christian populations in the Middle East. Ironic, since Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population has grown, and where new churches are being built.

Sadly, there have been cases of attacks carried out recently by Jewish extremists in Jerusalem. Jewish extremists attack other Jews, too; every society has its unmentionables. They are dangerous crackpots disowned by Israeli society, including in the Haredi world itself.

But the anti-Jewish Christians prefer to focus on those few cases instead of the thousands of Christians who have suffered violence or expulsion. Christianity has been virtually wiped out in Iraq. There are ten countries where Christians are most persecuted: North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, Eritrea, Yemen, Iran, Nigeria, and India. I suppose Israel is to blame, of course!

The Christian charity Open Doors explicitly attributed the steep decline of Christians in the area to “Islamic oppression.” And said that Islamic extremist militants in the Palestinian Authority-administered “West Bank” were causing Christians to fear violent attacks. In 2005, when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, approximately 5,000 Christians were living there. Since Hamas seized control, fewer than one thousand Christians remain.

Old lies and prejudices remain. Many people see Jesus, the Jew from Judea, as a Palestinian (as if there were no Jews then). And the ancient libel that the Jews killed Jesus is used as a modern one that the Israelis go out of their way to slaughter Palestinian children. Christmas today, instead of being a day to heal, has been used by Israel’s enemies as propaganda to harm.

The other excuse for Tutu’s hatred is the pseudo theory of “intersectionality,” that considers all sufferers equal victims regardless of degree or whether their pain is self-inflicted or not. One also notes how the United Nations finds more fault with Israel than with any other country on earth and spends millions upon millions on trying to incriminate Israel, in the hope that the longer it tries the more the chance that someone will be able to destroy the Jewish State.

Thank goodness that ethical human beings like Robert Birley, Trevor Huddleston, and many other worthy, saintly good Christians can recognize a false comparison when they see one — and can support the needy and the dispossessed without maligning a country that desperately seeks peace.

Jeremy Rosen is a writer and rabbi currently living in New York.

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