The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Late Bishop Desmond Tutu, Antisemite

His harsh criticism of Israel often shaded into, and seems to have been partially motivated by, antisemitic tropes.


The late Bishop Desmond Tutu was a heroic anti-apartheid activist. He was also an extremely harsh critic of Israel. Anti-Israel activists have seized on his death to emphasize his anti-Israel views, in particular his claim that Israeli policies toward the Palestinians amount to apartheid. (Links above are just two examples of many.)

Tutu would seem to have a certain moral authority because of his anti-apartheid credentials. But a person who takes a heroic stance on one issue of racial justice can be awful on another. To take an example from American constitutional history, Justice John Marshall Harlan heroically stood up for the rights of African Americans in a series of famous dissents, most prominently in Plessy v. Ferguson. He was also the single most hostile Justice on the Court to the rights of Chinese Americans, and expressed that opposition in overtly racist terms—including in Plessy v. Ferguson! President Woodrow Wilson, easily the most racist president of the twentieth century regarding African Americans, appointed Jewish Justice Louis Brandeis and tried to intervene with Russian authorities on behalf of Russia's oppressed Jewish population.

There are many other examples throughout history of individuals who heroically supported their own or another people, but were hostile to others. Perhaps most famously, Ghandi was a racist.

Which brings us back to Tutu. His expressed hostility not just to Israel, but to Jews, seems to have had theological roots in traditional Christian antisemitism. Edward Alexander gives a summary:

His speeches against apartheid returned obsessively to gross, licentious equations between the former South African system and Jewish practices, biblical and modern. "the Jews," Tutu declared in 1984, "thought they had a monopoly on G-d" and "Jesus was angry that they could shut out other human beings."

Tutu has been an avid supporter of the Goebbels-like equation of Zionism with racism .[Bernstein: In fact, this calumny has its roots in Soviet antisemitic propaganda.] He has alleged that "Jews … think they have cornered the market on suffering" and that Jews are "quick to yell 'anti-Semitism,'" because of "an arrogance of power – because Jews have such a strong lobby in the United States."

Jewish power in America is, in fact, a favorite Tutu theme. In late April 2002, he praised his own courage in resisting it. "People are scared in [America] to say wrong is wrong, because the Jewish lobby is powerful, very powerful. Well, so what? Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin were all powerful, but, in the end, they bit the dust."

Tutu repeatedly has declared that (as he once told a Jewish Theological Seminary audience) "whether Jews like it or not, they are a peculiar people. They can't ever hope to be judged by the same standards which are used for other people."

Certainly, Tutu has never judged Jews by the standards he uses for other people. Although South African and American Jews were more, not less, critical of apartheid than the majority of their countrymen, Tutu, in 1987, threatened that "in the future, South African Jews will be punished if Israel continues dealing with South Africa." Israel's trade with South Africa was about 7 percent of America's, less than a 10th of Japan's, Germany's or England's. But, Tutu never threatened South African or American citizens of Japanese, German or English extraction with punishment.

In a recent essay for the Times of Israel I noted that anti-Israel hostility is typically rooted in repugnance to the idea of Jews having sovereignty and military power. One source of that repugnance is the notion Jews' role in the world is ironically, to serve as exemplars of Christian ideology:

More liberal Christian theologies, meanwhile, remain wedded to the notion that martyrdom, as suffered by Jesus, is the highest form of virtue. These liberals acknowledge and regret the unjust suffering endured by Jews in the Christian world for centuries. However, they see this suffering as uplifting Jews, with Jews being the martyrs to Christian sin just as Jesus was for the world's sins.

In the wake of the horrors of the Holocaust, Jews' role was to use their martyrdom to be a prophetic voice for peace, indeed pacifism, and to work for humankind's redemption. It was emphatically their role not to build a powerful state with a powerful military capable of inflicting military horrors of its own. Jews refusing to be victims is, ironically, seen as a betrayal of Christian ideals. This is why Christian critics of Israel so often accuse Jews of not learning anything from the Holocaust; in their mind, the Holocaust is a story about Christian sin and possible redemption via the actions of the victims; the fate of the Jewish people as a people is at best irrelevant.

In that light, here is Alexander again:

Tutu's insistence on applying a double standard to Jews may explain an otherwise mysterious feature of his anti-Israel rhetoric. He once asked Israel's ambassador to South Africa, Eliahu Lankin, "how it was possible that the Jews, who had suffered so much persecution, could oppress other people."

On another occasion, he expressed dismay "that Israel, with the kind of history … her people have experienced, should make refugees [actually, she didn't] of others."

In other words, Jews, according to Tutu, have a duty to behave particularly well, because Jews have suffered so much persecution. The mad corollary of this proposition is that the descendants of those who have not been persecuted do not have a special duty to behave well, and the descendants of the persecutors can be excused.

More generally, suggesting that Jews in Israel in the 21st century must behave a certain way because completely different Jews suffered persecution generations earlier, is a bizarre proposition, sufficiently bizarre that one never sees it applied to any other group that has suffered in the past. When is the last time you heard that Irish people should lead the fight against world hunger because such a high percentage of the Irish died in the potato famine? A standard that's applied only to Jews is inherently antisemitic.

The case against Bishop Tutu is not ambiguous; singling out Israel, a minor player, for preserving South African apartheid, suggesting that Jews are all-powerful and arrogant, arguing in favor of applying double standards to Jews, repeating traditional Christian antisemitic (and false, given actual Jewish theology) notions that Jews did not want anyone else to have a relationship with God, analogizing the "Jewish lobby" in the U.S. to Hitler and Stalin …. Tutu was publicly and unabashedly antisemitic.

This does not detract from his heroic anti-apartheid activism. But again, that heroism does not preclude him from being an antisemite. And as for those who hold up Tutu as a moral exemplar for his hostility to Israel … rather than bolstering their case against Israel, are instead reinforcing the fact that fanatical hostility to Israel is generally rooted in antisemitism.

UPDATE: The question I posed in the linked-to Times of Israel post was not "what do liberal Christians believe" but "if you read what liberal Christians who are hostile to Israel's existence write about Israel (and Jews), what can you surmise motivates that hostility?" And by "liberal Christians" I mean theologically liberal, the folks I'm talking about are generally not within the broad confines of "liberalism" in their political views, but are on the revulationary/Marxist/etc. far left.