Dear Archbishop Tutu,
Having had the singular experience of guiding you and your fellow "Elders" at Yad Vashem last week, I must express my disappointment upon reading your recent declaration that the Palestinians and Arabs are paying "penance for the Holocaust," as reported in an interview with Haaretz.
I am convinced, after having met you, that you are a man with strong humanitarian impulses. You seem sincerely devoted to furthering the cause of peace and you have much to be proud of for your role in the struggle that ended the unjust regime in South Africa. It is therefore particularly and profoundly painful for me that in addressing the need to resolve the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, a man of your accomplishments and stature sees fit to resort to a superficial, propagandistic slogan that gravely distorts history. Certainly it is the Jews who paid for the Holocaust with the blood of some six million innocent victims - not the perpetrators, not the bystanders and not Arabs in Palestine or anywhere else.
Saying that the Palestinians are paying for the Holocaust falsely presupposes that the Jewish tie to the Land of Israel became significant only in the wake of the Nazi attempt to eradicate the Jews. It overlooks the ancient and ceaseless connection of the Jewish people to Israel, and the modern Zionist enterprise that returned an exiled people to their ancestral home. It ignores the existence of a vibrant pre-World War II Jewish community in Palestine that was severely circumscribed by British immigration restrictions. It disregards the British prewar proposal, painfully accepted by the Jewish leadership at the 20th Zionist Congress and categorically rejected by the Arabs, to partition Palestine, a move that, had it been implemented, might have set the stage for an earlier founding of Israel. It obscures the fact that the idea of partition itself was designed to reconcile the competing desires of Jews for a Jewish state in their historic homeland, and the desire of Arabs for Palestine to be Arab.
Your statement presumes that the world granted the Jews a state primarily because it felt overriding guilt and sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust. Serious scholars concur that such guilt and sympathy at most played a secondary role in the establishment of the State of Israel. More significant for supporting the foundation of Israel were issues of realpolitik.
Having administered their League of Nations Mandate for Palestine since the end of World War I, the British were fed up. As a nation, they were exhausted from their protracted struggle against Hitler and his allies. They had long since abandoned their commitment to establishing a Jewish national home, and they felt helpless in coping with the frequent violence here. Postwar Britain enthusiastically courted the Arabs, considered Jewish support superfluous and displayed little sympathy toward Holocaust survivors.
For his part, Stalin can be accused of many things, but excessive sympathy for Jews and Zionism is not one of them. As the Cold War was taking root, it was his aim to establish a destabilizing entity in the Middle East, and he made this clear to the new communist regimes of Europe. It was primarily against this background that the emerging Soviet bloc supported Israel's creation.
And as for President Truman, historians differ over the extent to which sympathy for the Jews indeed influenced him. At best, his attitude toward Jews and Israel was ambivalent. Truman's State Department advisers vociferously opposed the establishment of a Jewish state, and Truman himself at times gave voice to the kind of anti-Semitism that was then rather common in America. Generally, it is believed that Truman's need to win New York State, with its large Jewish population, in the 1948 presidential election played a pivotal role in his swift recognition of Israel. It is plausible that a certain element of sympathy for Holocaust survivors also contributed to his policy shift.
Archbishop Tutu, while facile slogans may be part and parcel of shallow political discourse, they should not have a role in sincere efforts to advance peace in a highly complex region like the Middle East. To foster actual and lasting coexistence, we must strive first to understand the complexities. Without such an understanding, there is no chance whatsoever of developing innovative strategies that nurture peace. Incendiary rhetoric has no role in this process. Accordingly, you would do well to erase such rhetoric from your personal and public lexicon.
As we pray each morning: "May a new light shine upon Zion and may we be worthy to enjoy its radiance."
Dr. Robert Rozett is director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, and author of "Approaching the Holocaust: Texts and Contexts" (Vallentine Mitchell, 2004).