Edward Alexander: Praying for Nazis, Scolding Their Victims: Archbishop
Tutu's Christmas Message
Originally published in Seattle Times, 18 January 1990.
On the day after Christmas, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Anglican Primate of
South Africa and holder of the Nobel Peace Prize, standing before the
memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to the millions of Jews murdered by
Hitler, prayed for the murderers and sermonized the descendants of their
victims. "We pray for those who made it happen, help us to forgive them and
help us so that we in our turn will not make others suffer" (New York Times,
27 December 1989). This, he said, was his "message" to the Israeli children
and grandchildren of the dead.
Moral obtuseness, mean spite, and monstrous arrogance do not make for
sound ethics and theology. Neither Tutu nor the Israelis he lectured can
"forgive" the Nazi murderers. Representatives of an injured group are not
licensed (even by the most unctuous of preachers) to forgive on behalf of
the whole group. In fact, forgiveness issues from God alone. The forgiveness
Tutu offers the Nazis is truly pitiless because it forgets the victims,
blurs over suffering, and drowns the past.
No one familiar with Tutu's long record of hostility to Jews, Judaism, and
Israel will be surprised that he is far less moved by the actuality of what
the Nazis did ("the gas chambers," he once said, "made for a neater death"
than apartheid resettlement policies) than by the hypothetical potentiality
of what, in his jaundiced view, Israelis "might" do. His speeches against
apartheid return obsessively to gross, licentious equations between the
South African system and Jewish practices, biblical and modern. "The Jews,"
Tutu declared in 1984, "thought they had a monopoly on God" and "Jesus was
angry that they could shut out other human beings" (Hartford Courant, 29
October 1984). Tutu has been an avid supporter of the Goebbels-like equation
of Zionism with racism. He has alleged that "Jews . . . think they have
cornered the market on suffering" (Shimoni, 51) and that Jews are "quick to
yell 'antisemitism'" because of "an arrogance of power--because Jews have
such a strong lobby in the United States" (New York City Tribune, 27
November 1984). He has repeatedly declared that (as he told a Jewish
Theological Seminary audience in 1984) "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" (Religious News Service, 28
November 1984). Certainly Tutu has never judged Jews by the standards he
uses for other people. Although South African and American Jews are 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" ( Courrier Austral
Parlamentair , February 1987), and in 1989 warned that black-Jewish
relations in America would "continue to suffer until Israel repudiates its
involvement with South Africa."
Israel's trade with South Africa is about 7 percent of America's, less
than a tenth of Japan's, Germany's, or England's. But so far Tutu has not
threatened South African or American citizens of Japanese, German, or
English extraction with punishment. Citizens of Arab nations supply 99
percent of the one resource without which South Africa could not survive:
oil. Tutu has made countless inflammatory remarks about Israel's weapons
sales to South Africa (consisting mainly of naval patrol boats to protect
international shipping lanes) but has said almost nothing about South
Africa's main Western arms supplier, France, which has also built two of
South Africa's three nuclear reactors--the third being American. He has been
just as silent about Jordan's sales of tanks and missiles to South Africa.
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" (Jerusalem Post, 11 November 1989). On another occasion, in 1984, he
expressed dismay "that Israel, with the kind of history . . . her people
have experienced, should make refugees [actually she didn't] of others"
(Religious News Service, 28 November 1984). 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
altogether for behavior it would be hard to excuse in other people.
This perverted logic may explain not only Tutu's decision to pray for the
Nazis while berating the descendants of their victims, but also his espousal
of the PLO, whose leader, Yasser Arafat, is both the biological relative and
spiritual descendant of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem who
actively collaborated with Hitler in the destruction of European Jewry in
World War II.
Rabbinical tradition, however, provides a simpler explanation of Tutu's
eagerness to "forgive" the Nazis while excoriating the descendants of their
victims: "Whoever is merciful to the cruel," the rabbis warn, "will end by
being indifferent to the innocent."