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Fmr. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Israel Should Heed Lessons of Scripture — and Apartheid

StoryNovember 27, 2007
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The South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu was a key leader in the South African fight against apartheid. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and today continues to speak around the globe for peace and justice. Denouncing the US-backed occupation of Palestinian land, Tutu says Israel and its supporters should follow biblical tradition of “forever taking the side of the weak, the oppressed, the downtrodden against the kings and the powerful oppressors.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 28, 2007Israelis, Palestinians Open US-Backed Conference with Vague Statement on Timeline, Goals
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The keynote speaker at the conference was the former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was an inspirational leader in the South African fight against apartheid, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, today continuing to speak out around the globe for peace and justice. In 2006, the Israeli government blocked Tutu from leading a UN delegation into Gaza. He was investigating the killing of nineteen Palestinians in Gaza.

Tutu made headlines recently when the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota canceled an invitation for him to speak at the school next spring. The president of the university, the Reverend Dennis Dease, revoked the invitation over Tutu’s criticism of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories. Dease also fired Cris Toffolo as head of the university’s peace and justice program, though she remains a professor at the university. She had supported the invitation to Tutu. After a vocal public outcry from students and faculty, Dease apologized to Tutu and invited him back to speak at the university. Tutu began his speech at the historic Old South Church in Boston by addressing the issue.

DESMOND TUTU: As you probably know, someone put out a rather distorted version of what I said here in 2002, and on the basis of that, the president of St. Thomas University decided I shouldn’t visit his campus. It is good that he has since reversed this decision, and I want to commend him very warmly for his courage in admitting publicly that he was wrong. It is never easy to do that. I have received the president’s invitation, in which he makes a very handsome apology, which I have accepted. And I am happy to accept his invitation, provided it can be fitted into my schedule and if Professor Toffolo is reinstated with no adverse comments in her academic file arising from this unfortunate episode.

I thank God for my Hebrew antecedents. I thank God that I, too, am a descendant of Abraham. I give thanks to God for the gift of the Holy Scriptures, made up substantially of the Hebrew Scriptures, forming what we conventionally refer to as our Old Testament. Even our New Testament, which would be distinctively Christian, is incomprehensible without taking its Jewish setting seriously. For instance, the name Jesus is Greek for Joshua, the one who led God’s people into the Promised Land, and the word Christ is Anointed One, in Hebrew, Messiah, whose coming was predicted in the Jewish scriptures and who was longed for so poignantly by the Jews. I tell you nothing you do not already know. I refer to it only to assert that spiritually I am of Hebrew descent. That legacy has been of crucial importance for me in our struggle against apartheid.

At the height of the struggle, when apartheid’s repression was at its most vicious and it seemed indeed as if the apartheid rulers were firmly ensconced in power, when they had all but knocked out the stuffing of their opponents and they were strutting the stage as invincible cocks of the walk, then we turned to the inspiration of our Hebrew tradition and antecedents.

We were able to revive and sustain our people’s hope for their vindication and the ultimate triumph of good over evil, of freedom over injustice and oppression, by our references to our biblical traditions. It was often quite exhilarating. I remember once when there had been a massacre in one of our townships, which had been instigated by a sinister Third Force linked to the apartheid security apparatus, our bishops quite unusually suspended a session of Episcopal Synod so that, as in the case of an Ezekiel, who sat side by side with stunned exiles, so we would be a ministry of presence, and we held a service in one of our ghetto township churches. The people were stunned, devastated by the naked violence of that massacre. I preached, and I used Exodus 3:1-9, God’s words which Yahweh asked Moses to announce to the children of Israel. And I said to our people gathered there, “Our God is not deaf. Our God has heard our cries. Our God is not stupid. Our God knows our suffering. Our God is not blind. God has seen and sees our pain and anguish. And, yes, our God will come down and set us free.” Yes, our God will come down to open the prison doors and lead our leaders from prison and lead our leaders back from exile, for we had learned from our Jewish tradition that God, our God, is notoriously biased, forever taking the side of the weak, the oppressed, the downtrodden, against the kings and the powerful oppressors.

Our God had been met first in the Bible story not in a sanctuary; our God was met first in the mundane world of politics, our God taking the side of a rabble of slaves against the mighty Pharaoh. God, we said to our people, is not neutral. God sided with Uriah the Hittite against his own favorite, King David, after David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. Thou art the man. Anywhere else, the king could have got away with both actions, but not in Israel. It really seemed as if the Jewish scriptures were written specifically for us. The story of Naboth’s vineyard and King Ahab and Jezebel being confronted on Yahweh’s behalf by Elijah seemed to have been written especially with our situation in mind, where blacks — not exclusively, but overwhelmingly — were shipped in their millions, like so many pawns in population removal schemes, and dumped in poverty-stricken Bantustan homelands, hardly able to eke out a living, cut off from the more affluent so-called white South Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: Former South African archbishop, Nobel laureate, Desmond Tutu, giving a speech at the Old South Church in Boston. We’ll return to the conclusion of his address in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to the conclusion of the address of the former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who’s speaking at the Old South Church in Boston, speaking at a conference sponsored by the Palestinian Christian organization Sabeel. Nobel Peace laureate Tutu spoke about his struggle against the apartheid government in South Africa as a religious leader.

DESMOND TUTU: It was exhilarating preaching to the oppressed and downtrodden. The well-to-do, the powerful, often complained that we were mixing religion with politics, and we would declare that we were doing no more, in fact, than just preaching the Gospel. That’s — they had brought us the Bible from wherever, and we were taking it seriously. We would be accused of being political, and I often retorted, “I don’t know which Bible you are reading.” I must say I have never heard the poor complain, “Bishop Tutu, now you’re being political!” If anything, they would possibly have said, “You are not political enough.”

And God vindicated us. Apartheid’s rulers bit the dust, as all oppressors have done always, for this is a moral universe. Right and wrong matter. It cannot happen that evil, injustice and oppression can have the last word. No, ultimately goodness, justice, freedom — these will prevail.

What is this to the point? Now, I could have spent a great deal of time rehearsing what we all know, how I experienced a deja-vu when I saw a security checkpoint which Palestinians had to negotiate most of their lives, that I was reminded so painfully of the same checkpoints in apartheid South Africa, when arrogant white policemen treated almost all blacks like dirt, or when someone pointed to a house in Jerusalem and said, “That used to be our home, but now it has been taken over by the Israelis,” which would make me recall so painfully similar statements in Cape Town by coloreds who had been thrown out of their homes and relocated in ghetto townships some distance from the town center. I could have bemoaned the illegal wall that has encroached on Palestinian land, separated families, divided property and made what used to be a short walk to school turn into an expensive nightmare voyage running the gauntlet of checkpoints, etc., etc. I could have said there were things that even you didn’t find even in apartheid South Africa, that we had things that you didn’t see in an apartheid South Africa, such as collective punishment.

I have not gone that route. I have not gone that route. No, I have chosen a different approach. My address is really a cri de coeur, a cry of anguish from the depth of my heart, an impassioned plea to my spiritual relatives, the offspring of Abraham like me: please, please hear the call, the noble call of your scriptures, of our scriptures, to be with the God of the Exodus who took the side of a bunch of slaves against the powerful Pharaoh. Be on the side of the God who intervened through His prophet Elijah on behalf of Naboth. Hear the plea of your scriptures and stand with the God who intervened through his prophet Nathan on behalf of Uriah against King David. Be on the side of the God who revealed a soft spot in his heart for the widow, the orphan and the alien. Be on the side of the God whose “Spirit sends us out to preach good news to the poor.” Don’t be found fighting against this God, your God, our God, the God who hears the cry of the oppressed, the God who sees their anguish, the God who will always come down to deliver them. Be not opposed to the God whose Spirit, when it anoints you, makes you concerned for the poor. This is your calling. If you disobey that calling, if you do not heed it, then as sure as anything one day you will come a cropper. You will probably not succumb to an outside assault militarily. With the unquestioning support of the United States of America, you are probably impregnable. But you who are called are they who are called, asked to deal with the oppressed, the weak, the despised, compassionately, caringly, remembering what happened to you in Egypt and, much more recently, in Germany. Remember and act appropriately. If you reject your calling, you may survive for a long time, but you will find it is all corrosive inside, and one day, one day, you will implode.

A recent report by a clinical psychologist who was himself a soldier in the Israeli Defense Force, Nufan Yishai Katrim at the Hebrew University, speaks of how Israeli soldiers were gratuitously cruel and carried out acts of brutality to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. One of the soldiers, he said, told of how a new commander went out with them on patrol. Because the curfew, there were no Palestinians in sight, except a four-year-old Palestinian boy who was playing with the sand in the backyard of his home. And this commander went and broke the arm of this four-year-old. And another soldier told of how, whilst they were on patrol, they encountered one Palestinian, and, quite unprovoked, one of the soldiers shot him in the stomach, and they left him writhing on the ground dying as they drove off. When you uphold an unjust dispensation, it corrodes your humanity. In South Africa, a former cabinet minister in the apartheid dispensation showed this. When he was told of the death of Steve Biko in detention, Jimmy Kruger said it left him cold.

Thanks be to God for the many, many Jews who know what their divine calling is and who want the Israeli government to live it out. We believe in a two-state solution of two sovereign, viable states, each with contiguous borders, guaranteed as secure by the international community. We condemn all acts of terrorism by whoever they are committed. The suicide bomber has to be condemned for targeting innocent civilians. But equally, the Israelis are to be condemned for their acts of indiscriminate reprisal that, too, target innocent civilians. We say, we say: please, please, learn at least one positive lesson from apartheid South Africa.

Under Mr. F.W. de Klerk, who must be commended for his outstanding courage, the apartheid rulers decided to negotiate, to negotiate not with those they liked, but with their sworn enemy, and they found the security that had eluded them for so long and that had cost so much suffering and blood. It came not from the barrel of a gun. No, it came when the legitimate aspirations and human rights of all were recognized and respected. That was thirteen years ago, and the peace is still holding. Many had predicted that South Africa would be overwhelmed by a catastrophic racial bloodbath. It did not happen. It did not happen, because they negotiated in good faith with their enemies.

Somebody has said if something has happened once, then clearly it is something possible. It happened in South Africa; why not in the Middle East?

The world needs the Jews, Jews who are faithful to their vocation that has meant so much for the world’s morality, for its sense of what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is just and unjust, what is oppressive and what sets people free. Jews are indispensable for a good compassionate, just and caring world.

And so are Palestinians.

Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking recently at the Old South Church in Boston, along with Noam Chomsky and others, at a conference sponsored by the Palestinian Christian organization Sabeel.

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