When Desmond Tutu stood up for the rights of Palestinians, he could not be ignored

After visits to Israel and Palestine, Tutu used his moral authority to speak out and, despite abuse, refused to back down. He wanted liberation for everyone

Even amid the torrent of praise for the revered former archbishop Desmond Tutu in the days since his death, the anti-apartheid champion is not being universally mourned. Alan Dershowitz, the renowned US constitutional lawyer and ardent defender of Israel, took a moment to brand Tutu as “evil” and “the most influential antisemite of our time”.

“The world is mourning Bishop Tutu, who just died the other day. Can I remind the world that although he did some good things, a lot of good things on apartheid, the man was a rampant antisemite and bigot?” he told Fox News.

Dershowitz accused Tutu of minimising the Holocaust and of comparing Israel to Nazi Germany – an extreme interpretation of the former archbishop’s statements that takes some convolutions to reach.

But Tutu’s real crime in the eyes of Israel’s most unrelenting supporters was to liken its rule over the Palestinians to apartheid and then refuse to back off in the face of an onslaught of abuse. On his visits to Israel and Palestine, Tutu would have immediately recognised echoes of his homeland in the forced removals, the house demolitions, the humiliations of checkpoints and systems of control on movement, the confiscation of land for Jewish settlements, and the confining of Palestinians to blobs of territory, reminiscent of the Bantustan black homelands. Above all he saw one people controlling another who, like black South Africans until 1994, had little say in their governance.

Tutu was not alone in his view. Former US president Jimmy Carter drew similarly vitriolic accusations from Dershowitz and others when he published his bestselling book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, in 2006. But Tutu was harder to attack. He not only had the authority of a Nobel peace prize awarded for his courageous stand against white rule in South Africa but he knew apartheid when he saw it.

Nearly two decades ago Tutu told a conference in Boston: “I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa.”

A few years later he was even more direct. “I know first-hand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed,” he wrote in 2014 in a call for the Presbyterian general assembly in the US to back sanctions against Israel.

A figure of Tutu’s stature drawing parallels between a system constructed on racism and the reality of Israel’s domination of the Palestinians, and calling for boycotts to end it, alarmed the government in Israel. With the two-state solution moribund at best, Israel is faced with a growing movement that sees the conflict through the moral prism of civil rights and injustice – a framing that has historic resonance in the US in particular and has taken on additional significance in the age of Black Lives Matter.

While Tutu was critical of Palestinian attacks, his implicit likening of Israelis to white South Africans during apartheid challenged the Jewish state’s longstanding narrative to portray itself principally as a victim of Arab aggression and terrorism, and to exclude the part played by occupation and settlements in the conflict.

Others have made the charge, including a string of former Israeli cabinet ministers and officials who say they can no longer deny the reality that their country is practising a form of apartheid. Two former Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, have drawn parallels with the old South Africa. But Tutu carried a moral authority wielded surpassed only by the man who epitomised the anti-apartheid struggle, Nelson Mandela.

Tutu justified the calls for a boycott of Israel in the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz. South Africa, he said, had extraordinary leaders at the time it mattered. “But what ultimately forced these leaders together around the negotiating table was the cocktail of persuasive, nonviolent tools that had been developed to isolate South Africa, economically, academically, culturally and psychologically,” he said.

The former archbishop knew that it would only happen if ordinary people mobilised, having witnessed considerable western collusion with apartheid. The US government listed the African National Congress as a terrorist organisation while backing white South Africa’s war in Angola. Margaret Thatcher was an ardent opponent of sanctions against the apartheid regime.

Separately, Tutu warned that it was not possible to be a neutral bystander.

“Those who turn a blind eye to injustice actually perpetuate injustice. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” he said.

All of this earned Tutu a particular ire from some of Israel’s defenders. The Anti-Defamation League accused him of antisemitism over his boycott call. Others dug into the distant past and latched on to a call Tutu made for forgiveness during a visit to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem memorial for Europe’s murdered Jews in 1989. “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,” he said.

Dershowitz characteristically gave Tutu’s call the most extreme interpretation by describing it as having “demanded that Jews forgive the Nazis for killing them”. In reality, Tutu consistently sought to reassure Jewish communities around the world that he understood their history and their concerns, but he saw no reason not to continue calling the occupation as he saw it.

The former archbishop would have been pleased that others increasingly embraced his perspective. This year, Human Rights Watch in the US and Israel’s most prominent human rights group, B’Tselem, published groundbreaking reports describing Israel’s domination of the Palestinians as apartheid.

But ultimately Tutu’s intent was not to condemn. His calls for forgiveness fitted with his belief that it is an essential step toward justice and peace – a view central to his chairing of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Tutu saw how everyone was liberated, white people included, when apartheid ended in South Africa. He wanted Israelis to liberate themselves from the burden of apartheid too.