The ‘free world’ cannot eulogize Desmond Tutu’s greatness and support Israeli apartheid

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter during a visit to the West Bank village of Bilin in 2009 (Issam Rimawi - APA Images)

Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace

Mondoweiss  /  January 4, 2022

Western leaders who praise Desmond Tutu firmly oppose the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which Tutu enthusiastically supported.

We, members of the Board of the U.S. based Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace (PCAP) join millions of freedom-loving people all over the world in mourning the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was a powerful, joyful, and gentle voice for the oppressed not only in his native land, but everywhere.

Through the same lens that witnessed the long struggle for justice of his own people against apartheid in South Africa, he looked at Palestine, and his brief tours of Palestinian communities aching under the weight of Israeli tyranny quickly led him to condemn Israeli apartheid. His understanding of the essence of the Christian message as one that actively sides with the downtrodden drove him to support the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. We celebrate his life and the legacy of speaking truth to power that he leaves behind. Rest in peace and power, Rev. Desmond Tutu.

The PCAP board also issued the following commentary on Tutu’s passing:

The “Free World” Can’t Eulogize the Greatness of Desmond Tutu and Support Israeli Apartheid

Western leaders have barraged the Media with statements eulogizing the passing of the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. President Biden declared that Tutu’s legacy will “echo throughout the ages;” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz offered his condolences, saying that Tutu had “made a decisive contribution to ending apartheid in South Africa;” and French President Macron said Tutu’s “struggle for the end of apartheid and for reconciliation in South Africa will remain in our memory.”  

The fact is, however, these leaders act in ways that are antithetical to much of what Rev. Tutu preached. One of the most prominent examples is Tutu’s stand on Palestine. Just as leaders of the “Free World” strongly opposed boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against South African apartheid for decades, they now firmly oppose the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which Desmond Tutu enthusiastically supported.

It’s easy to predict how such leaders want us to view Tutu’s legacy—a kind of Disneyfied distortion of what he stood for. The odds of hearing a leader in today’s Free World refer to Desmond Tutu’s pronouncements criticizing Israeli apartheid are as small as the odds of hearing a U.S. president mention the bitter criticism that Martin Luther King, Jr. leveled against U.S. militarism as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the World” (Riverside Church, New York City, “Beyond Vietnam” sermon.)  As was the case with Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu resolutely stood with the Palestinians in their struggle for freedom. In an article in the Israeli online newspaper, Haaretz, he wrote: “Those who continue to do business with Israel, who contribute to a sense of ‘normalcy’ in Israeli society, are doing the people of Israel and Palestine a disservice. They are contributing to the perpetuation of a profoundly unjust status quo.”

Tutu’s eyewitness account of conditions in Palestine convinced him that Israel practices apartheid against the Palestinians. Other South African leaders who fought apartheid in their country reached the same conclusion. They include Reverend Allan Boesak and Nelson Mandela’s grandson and member of the South African parliament, Zwelivelile Mandela, as well as pioneer Jewish anti-apartheid activists, Ronnie Kasrils and Denis Goldberg. According to a Palestinian activist, Rev. Desmond Tutu even said that Palestinians face harsher conditions because, unlike Palestinians, South Africans “never had F-16s bomb our bantustans killing hundreds of our children.”

The “Arch,” as Desmond Tutu is fondly called by his admirers, directly supported Americans who are active in the Palestine solidarity movement. In 2007 in Boston, he delivered the keynote speech at the conference of Sabeel, a Christian Liberation Theology organization. Over the years, he also supported faith-based activists lobbying U.S. Christian denominations to call for the boycott of products made in the illegal Israeli settlements, and for divestiture from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation. He did so by issuing public statements addressed to the United Methodist Church; the Presbyterian Church, USA; the United Church of Christ; and most recently the Episcopal Church. In 2014, he issued a public statement  expressing “grave concern” about legislation in several states aimed against the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement. In it, he wrote that such legislation “would have made participation in a movement like the one that ended Apartheid in South Africa extremely difficult.”

Despite the failure of attempts in the U.S. Congress to pass legislation against the Palestinian BDS movement, there are many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who may try to re-introduce such legislation. Over thirty states have instituted measures against the BDS movement; and Canada, Germany and France and other countries have similar measures. Even on the Left side of the political spectrum in Europe, there is serious opposition to BDS.

Shamefully, Annalena Baerbock, the new German Foreign Minister, who is also a leader in the Green Party, supports so-called “security cooperation with Israel” and has expressed opposition to BDS.

The hypocrisy of politicians who pretend to admire great leaders like MLK, Mandela, and now Desmond Tutu, while implementing policies which are endangering our world are becoming more apparent to people all over the world, especially the young. The hypocrisy ranges across the board from issues such as global heating to militarism. However, like the Climate movement, the BDS movement, which needs voices like those of Desmond Tutu, continues to forge ahead. Last March, the U.S. Eighth Court of Appeals struck down Arkansas’ anti-BDS law; and in June, the European Human Rights Court ruled unanimously that France’s highest court’s criminal conviction of Israel boycott advocates violates the European Convention on Human Rights’ freedom of expression article. Faith-based activists and organizations have always played key roles in the fight for justice and emancipation everywhere. This certainly continues to be the case for groups like the Palestinian Christian Alliance for PeaceAmerican Muslims for Palestine, and Jewish Voice for Peace, all of whom are celebrating the life and great legacy of Desmond Tutu.

Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace is an ecumenical alliance of Palestinian American Christians seeking to provide a clear voice and presence in faith-based communities in the United States, with a vision of peace with justice in the Holy Land, with all of its people enjoying equality and dignity. It was formed in 2012 as a response to the Kairos Palestine and BDS calls, and works with faith-based and secular groups to advocate for Palestinian rights. PCAP has worked with Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Mennonites, Methodists, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, as well as American Muslims for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace