Best known as the winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to South Africa’s former system of apartheid, or racial separation, Archbishop Desmond Tutu compared the policies of the current Israeli government with the segregationist rule of his homeland’s last white regime in a recent speech at American University.
Saying that Israel’s roadblocks and security fences reminded him of the actions of his country’s apartheid regime, the former archbishop of Cape Town declared that he was “glad that there are very many Jews that feel disgusted at the policies of the Israeli government.”
“You can never get security from the barrel of a gun,” Tutu said. His message for the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon: “You are helping to destroy your people.”
Tutu spoke of the need to “condemn the government, not the people” of Israel, just as he “condemn[ed] the Reagan administration for its constructive engagement policies,” which “help[ed] to perpetuate our oppression and humiliation.” Much of the audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
“I remember coming to this country in the eighties, and especially being exhilarated by particularly young people,” Tutu said. “I used to go to university campuses and college campuses and meet up with students who ought to be worried about grades and degrees of that sort. And they were doing nothing of the kind.”
“There were young people,” the archbishop recalled, “sitting out in the baking sunshine, in their demonstration, seeking to persuade their institutions to divest—worrying about people ten thousand miles away. Fantastic!”
“Who is the most admired statesperson in the world today?” Tutu later asked rhetorically. “It’s not someone heading a country that is militarily powerful, economically prosperous. Almost without any doubt Nelson Mandela is regarded, everywhere, universally, as a remarkable human being.”
“When the world expected that, after twenty-seven years of incarceration, he would emerge consumed by bitterness and resentment and anger, he awed the world by an exhibition of quite extraordinary magnanimity,” Tutu said of the former South African president. So complete was Mandela’s feeling of forgiveness towards his persecutors that he invited his white former jailer to his presidential inauguration in 1994, Tutu noted.
Tutu then spent several minutes making the point that all people are part of the human family: “All, all, all, men, women, children, old, young, white, black, red, yellow. All, all, all, all, all. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All, all, all, all, all. All belong. All. Sharon, Arafat belong in this family; Bush, Bin Laden, family, family.”
“It’s explosive stuff really,” Tutu continued. “Imagine if they really believed it—if as you took off with your bombers you realize, hey, I will drop these on my family, my sisters, my brothers. If we accepted this, how in the name of everything that is good, can we justify spending as much as we spend, on what we call budgets, defense budgets?”
At the end of his applause-filled speech, Tutu took a few questions from members of the audience. One student remarked that many of his “fellow progressives” were distrustful of religious leaders and asked how Tutu, a liberal archbishop, would address that sentiment.
“Religion in and of itself is morally neutral,” Tutu replied. He criticized those who blame Islam for the acts of Muslim terrorists such as the September 11 hijackers. “You don’t blame the faith for the miscreant who happens to belong to the faith,” he said.
“Christians have a great deal for which they ought to be ashamed,” Tutu stated. He mentioned the Oklahoma City bombers and “the Christians who were responsible for the Holocaust,” without giving any details, or even proof.
Pointing out that Tutu had credited the divestment campaigns of the 1980s and 90s with helping to bring down apartheid, another student asked the archbishop whether he thought a similar campaign might be useful for ending the policies of the present-day Israeli government.
Responding with a hearty laugh lasting several seconds, Tutu attempted to evade the question. “You must work out for yourselves what is the most effective way of bringing about change,” he finally said.
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report Online.