Dancing With Desmond Tutu

Later this month, representatives of Israel's government are slated to attend a new peace summit at Annapolis, Md., sponsored by the Bush administration.

Desperate not to be seen as obstructing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's goal of creating a Palestinian state before her boss's term expires in January 2009, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has enthusiastically endorsed the conference. Given the fact that the history of Mideast "peace" summits shows that such conclaves are as likely to increase violence as they are to engender reconciliation, the stakes for Israel's future at Annapolis are enormous.

Placed in this dramatic context, can there be anything more inconsequential than arguments among American Jewish groups over the rights and wrongs of responding to Israel's foes?

Pointless Feuding

On first glance, the answer to that question is a definite "no."

Last month, the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America engaged, for what only seems like the umpteenth time, in a tit-for-tat dust-up of duelling quotes between their respective leaders Abraham Foxman and Morton Klein. The focus of their dispute was whether or not it was a good idea for Jews to advocate against an invitation to South African cleric Desmond Tutu to speak at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Tutu was invited and then disinvited after some local Jews, citing the ZOA's research on the Anglican archbishop, protested. Then, after the ADL weighed in against the protest, Tutu was reinvited.

The debate hinged on whether a ZOA press release which focussed on Tutu's history of anti-Israel statements, was accurate. A Jewish Telegraphic Agency story reported that the most damning quote cited by ZOA from a 2002 speech given in Boston was an inaccurate summary rather than a direct quote as claimed. But a subsequent release from ZOA with more quotes from Tutu made it appear as if the substance of their original missive might have actually been correct.

In the end, a comment to a JTA reporter by Klein that made it seem as if he didn't care about the accuracy of his research so long as his intended targets were bad guys was the worst mistake ZOA made. That got Klein a lot of bad press, but it left me wondering why anyone should care about anything the 76-year-old Tutu says, let alone at a school in Minnesota that I (and probably most of you) had never heard of before this. Tutu may be a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize but other than that dubious honor (which puts him in decidedly mixed company), what has Tutu done other than give speeches for the last 20 years?

Surely, he isn't worth all this bickering except as an excuse for revisiting the pointless feud between the leaders of the larger and more influential ADL, and the far smaller ZOA.

But a couple of weeks after all this, Tutu returned to the site of the speech that ZOA had supposedly misrepresented and, more or less, said it all over again. The Boston Globe reported that Tutu spoke on Oct. 27 at a conference sponsored by the Friends of Sabeel, a virulently anti-Zionist, left-wing, Christian Palestinian group, held at Boston's historic Old South Church. Those who don't want to trust accounts of the speech can go straight to the transcript at: www. boston.com/news/daily/29/102907speechtext.pdf.

As in the past, Tutu claimed to speak as a friend of the Jews and a "spiritual descendant" of Judaism. But his rhetoric was aimed at delegimitizing the Jewish state. He falsely asserted that its efforts to defend itself against Palestinian terror and an ongoing war of annihilation on the part of the Arab and Muslim worlds (subjects he thinks unworthy of mention) are the same or worse than the apartheid he fought against in South Africa.

But going further, Tutu invoked the Bible and Jewish history against the Jews: "Remembering what happened to you in Egypt and much more recently in Germany — remember, and act appropriately." Invoking the Exodus from Egypt, as well the Holocaust, the South African preached that the God of Israel would judge and punish the Jews for their alleged offenses against the Palestinians.

"One day you will implode," thundered Tutu.

Hairsplitters are invited to debate whether this is anti-Semitism or merely a lesser variety of hate speech. The fact that he spoke about the supposed sins of the "Jews" rather than the State of Israel was interesting. Considering also that his Sabeel hosts have repeatedly invoked the deicide myth about the killers of Christ in their rhetoric against Israel, it's hard to give Tutu the benefit of the doubt. But however you wish to label this talk, and others like it he has made before, in which he has said that, like Hitler and other tyrants, Israel and "the Jewish lobby" would be brought down, the implications are ominous.

Worse Than Jimmy Carter

As publisher Martin Peretz (who is also a confidant of the newest Peace Prize winner, Al Gore) wrote in his blog for The New Republic, "Tutu has outdone even Jimmy Carter … and there is a certain gall to this … Of course, Tutu's moralizing is historically blind … Why is he encouraging such self-deception at the price of bloodshed and Palestinian blood, particularly?"

Even more significant is the fact that some here have sought again to defend Tutu. Matthew Duss blasted Peretz in the influential liberal journal American Prospect by claiming it was "libelous" to accuse Tutu, whom he describes as "one of the great moral tutors of our age," of saying anything wrong.

All of which left me wondering whether we shouldn't be paying even closer attention to what people like Tutu are saying.

Compared to the events that will soon unfold at Annapolis, the tedious flaps over Tutu may be unimportant and counterattacks from pro-Israel forces focussed solely on him are a waste of time and effort. But those wondering about whether the administration's obsession with Palestinian statehood will blow up in Olmert's face need to think long and hard about the way the chattering classes in this country are talking about the conflict.

The growing acceptance of anti-Israel invective which, at the least, seems to border on indictments of Jewry as a whole, aren't merely deplorable. They are the context in which the post-Annapolis debate on Israel and the Palestinians will be played out.

The battles waged by American Jewish groups against each other may not be worth more than a yawn. But Tutu, Jimmy Carter, and books like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's The Israel Lobby will surely play a crucial role in determining how the Jewish state is viewed in the coming crisis and those that follow. The influence of these figures and the falsehoods they have championed will aid those intellectual forces deployed to blame everything on Israel — no matter how much it concedes — and to hold the Palestinians innocent — no matter what atrocities they commit.

And that is something about which friends of Israel should be very worried indeed.

Contact Jonathan S. Tobin via e-mail at: jtobin@jewishexponent.com.



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