To Desmond Tutu: Singling Out Israel for Blame Won’t Bring Peace

You address the Israeli people in your letter but you ignore their central concern: The conflict isn’t just a struggle for liberation, it’s for survival. It’s not apartheid-era South Africa redux, which is why your boycott 'cure’ won’t work.

South African Nobel laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
South African Nobel laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.Credit: AP

Dear Archbishop Tutu,

Recently, you addressed the people of Israel in Haaretz (“My plea to the people of Israel: Liberate yourselves by liberating Palestine”) explaining why the methods of boycott and divestment used in South Africa should be applied to the situation in Israel-Palestine. You offered your own impressive personal testimony, grounded in your substantial contribution in the fields of religion, peacemaking, society building and more – to validate the growing movement aimed at isolating Israel in the international community.

I write to you as both an Israeli and as someone deeply involved with interfaith work, who engages with world religious leaders on an ongoing basis. And so I feel compelled to respond to your open letter.

Your letter poses an implicit question: What is the dividing line between a local and a global vision or strategy? Can a successful religious vision, articulated in one particular context, be transplanted into another? When can wisdom be treated as having global relevance and when do local conditions require greater discernment?

Another great figure, who also worked in South Africa, and who also addressed the Jews in Palestine, provides a cautionary tale for the movement to boycott Israel. In the late 1930s, Mahatma Gandhi wrote to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, suggesting that Jews practice non-violence in the face of oppression by the Nazis. In a famous letter, Buber noted the futility of applying non-violence against a murderous totalitarian regime.

Looking at that classic exchange, I see the same issue that your own open letter raises: What are the limits in applying a successful, and spiritually oriented, strategy for coping with a problem, from one context to another?

Buber’s reply to Gandhi suggests that what is applicable in one context cannot always be translated to another. A non-violent testimony offered to Nazis (one that was being offered in any event by the powerless Jews), would not have been able to bring about change. The situation is different, the players are different, reality is different.

In suggesting that the same methods that were successfully applied in South Africa should be applied to Israel, you ignore significant differences between the two realities. Insisting that “injustice” applies to both cases and therefore the cure for both can be identical, leads you to ignore complexity, history, context – and ultimately the chances of success of your strategy.

All just struggles are fought for one or more of three goals: Survival, freedom, flourishing. The situation of Indians in South Africa, to take Gandhi’s case, and that of Blacks in South Africa, to take your own, took for granted survival, and focused on the right of human beings to be free and to flourish. What you overlook is that, while the Israel-Palestine struggle certainly involves a struggle for freedom and flourishing, for Jews it is a struggle for survival.

Whether or not you agree with this distinction, it is certainly uppermost in the minds of the people of Israel, whom you address in your letter but whose central concern you ignore. That is why your proposed strategy of bringing Israel's leadership to its knees through sanctions will never work. A battle for survival is different from a battle for freedom. It is a battle, perhaps, you have never experienced.

You tell us that the result of the sanctions against apartheid in South Africa are that talks and dialogue ensued. You fail to take into account that the Israeli-Palestinian story is now at a point at which the agreements that grew from earlier dialogues have failed and where trust has been shattered. I will not rehearse the history of the past twenty years; you are familiar with its broad outline. But you may not realize the depth of trauma – not only for Palestinians but also for Israelis – that has been brought about through failed efforts, based on the kind of goodwill and openness you now seek to create through the boycott of Israel. Trust can never be created by force. In fact, it is force, put to bad use, that has shattered trust.

We face a different kind of challenge also because of cultural gaps that may be much deeper than those you experienced in South Africa. You headed commissions that were tasked with “truth”, as one of their key components. The problem with living in our part of the world is that it is next to impossible to retrieve truth, and as you know from your experience - without truth there will be no reconciliation. Having spent decades in dialogue with Palestinian Muslim partners, I realize how deep the gaps are in owning past and recent memory.

In Palestinian society, and throughout the Arab world, Jewish historical memory is being systematically denied, effaced. There was no ancient Temple, the Holocaust is a Zionist myth or at best an exaggeration. On what basis can reconciliation happen if there isn't the most basic respect for the other's history and identity?

I would also like to hope that you are able to provide a nuanced narrative of how we got to where we are today. I am highly suspicious of anyone who is able to reduce humanity’s longest ongoing political battle (now in its third century) to a simple, black-and-white formulation, that allows one to point a finger at one side, laying the blame to their door only.

In writing to us you are well aware of your standing as a global religious leader. Your being a Nobel Peace Prize laureate confers upon you a kind of global status of wisdom and vision that far exceeds whatever authority the episcopate can confer. You are, accordingly, a global voice for peace and justice, and your message to us is addressed with that voice.

Which leads me to pose a very simple question:

Have you ever proposed this strategy publicly as a solution to any other crisis on the planet? If, as I believe is the case, Israel is the only one to benefit from your religiously inspired vision, manifesting through an economic-political instrument of boycott and divestment, there is something deeply disturbing about being singled out in this way. Couldn’t the plight of Syrians who are being slaughtered by their own regime, and who can suffer on a given day the same number of casualties that Gaza has seen in the space of a month, be alleviated through BDS? What about tackling the Chinese occupation of Tibet, full of injustices and human rights violations, with the same tools you propose for Israel? This double standard seriously undermines the credibility of your global religious voice.

And so, dear Archbishop Tutu, I fear you have not brought healing to our desperate region. I urge you to deepen your listening to both sides, to understand the story in its full complexity. For the time being, we may not be able to do much better than to follow the advice of another global religious leader, Pope Francis, whose takeaway from his recent visit to the Holy Land amounted to a call for prayer. We are certainly in need of prayer - including yours.

Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein has been the director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute since 1997. From 1989 to 1999, he was a member of the Shalom Hartman Institute for Advanced Studies, Jerusalem, where he also served as director for interreligious affairs. He has also served as director of the Center for the Study of Rabbinic Thought, Beit Morasha College, Jerusalem. His Beyond Idolatry – The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism will be published shortly.

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