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Complex legacy

It seems that, these days, everything is black and white. People are either deemed villains or heroes. To be sure, there are extreme circumstances for both good or bad, that clearly delineate a person as a villain or a hero.

But most people, including people who have done a lot of good, are often times more complex than that.
Desmond Tutu died this week. He was known as “South Africa’s moral compass.” Tutu, in his uniquely compassionate way, fought South African apartheid and precipitated its end.

I understand why he is recognized for his historical role in ending apartheid and bringing more healing and human equality to a fraught situation of moral injustice.

While it’s not the broadest approach to view situations, experiences or the world from a self-referential point of view, ultimately, in many ways, who we are is our prism by which we process much of our environment.

Tutu’s death is neither about me nor about the Jewish People. And yet, his life and words impacted me as a Jewish woman.

He called my people, the Jewish People, a “peculiar people.” He minimized the suffering of the Holocaust.

He said the Jewish People “can’t ever be hoped to be judged by the same standards which are used for other people.”

While Tutu did concede some of the good the Jewish People contributed to the world, ultimately, his remarks (and there are more than what I chose to write here) speak to his bigoted perspective when it came to the Jewish People.

There’s Tutu’s anti-Israel stance and alignment with the Palestinians, but one could argue that this is a political position, and that, in fact, there are Jews who ally with this point of view. I personally found his vocal alliance with the Palestinians during the second intifada disturbing. Tutu’s goal may have been to promote equality and peace, but lending his support and clout to the Palestinians at that time, may have actually emboldened and thus provoked further terrorism that only led to innocent Jewish bloodshed. We will never know.

But the Jewish People are a peculiar people? They shouldn’t be judged by the same standards that are used for others? How exactly do you damage control and whitewash that?

Recently, South African activists were advocating to have Tutu removed as a patron of South Africa’s Holocaust Museums. The sense was that serving in this capacity was exploited by Tutu, lending false credibility to his anti-Jewish rhetoric.

On the one hand I feel uncomfortable writing ill of the dead, especially of someone whose death lies fresh before us.

On the other hand, as Desmond Tutu receives the world’s accolades it’s important to remember him fully, for all that was not said about him as much as what was said in the many laudatory eulogies he received in the press.

To me, Tutu’s legacy is a complex one. Yet as a Jewish woman, it’s ultimately a simple matter.

Tutu advocated for policies and with people that brought bloodshed upon my people and the land of Israel. He leveraged his position to alienate, not collaborate, with Israel.

While we are one big human family, ultimately, I am a Jew. My Jewishness and Jewish family is equivalent to my nuclear family. News of the world is filtered through that to me.

I can deeply appreciate Desmond Tutu’s achievement for his own people, and for the world, really. Yet I censure his behavior toward my own people.

Israel has a very complex history with apartheid South Africa. Going back as far as Herzl, in his book Altneuland, Herzl identifies the Zionist struggle with the struggles of the black people of Africa. As foreign minister, Golda Meir swore she would never visit South Africa until apartheid was eliminated. Only after the Yom Kippur War did the dynamic change. Up until then, Israel stood staunchly against the apartheid regime. In her capacity as foreign minister, Golda Meir famously defended Israel’s condemnation of apartheid South Africa.

Only once, succumbing to Arab pressure, when many of the African countries abandoned Israel, did Israel reluctantly engage in a diplomatic relationship with South Africa, and that, too, was a complex decision related to self-defense.

Considering Israel’s complex history with apartheid South Africa, in turn, Tutu’s position toward Israel, did not reflect nor mirror that complexity.

There may have been far worse leaders who were anti-Semitic. Yet Tutu’s very clear anti-Jewish and anti-Israel positions were no help either.

Watching all the accolades for Tutu pour in, it’s a reminder, how “other’ed” the Jewish People ultimately are. No matter how integrated we may think we are, ultimately a history changing leader who painted our entire people with one brush to the point of calling us “peculiar,” and that we can’t be judged by usual standards, alluding to an anti-Semitic trope about Jews being “different,” as well as vocally supporting a terrorist regime bent on murdering innocent Israelis in cafés and buses, is hailed a hero.

A part of him certainly is. His life’s work in South African human rights, is breathtaking. But the world is not only South Africa. Jews are part of the world too. And Tutu’s remarks about the Jewish People and his support of terrorists against Israel, are also part of his legacy.

Copyright © 2021 by the Intermountain Jewish News

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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