NEW YORK (JTA) – The president of the Zionist Organization of America is defending his organization’s use of a press release that incorrectly quotes Archbishop Desmond Tutu as comparing Israel to Hitler and apartheid.
The ZOA’s release, dated April 29, 2002, gained unexpected attention last week after it emerged that Tutu had his appearance at a Minnesota university canceled over remarks he delivered just weeks before the ZOA’s release.
According to the ZOA, Ha’aretz reported that at a pro-Palestinian conference in Boston, Tutu said that “Israel is like Hitler and apartheid.” The release also quotes Tutu as saying that “critics of Israel are being smeared.”
In fact, neither quote appears in the report from Ha’aretz, nor do they appear in a transcript of Tutu’s speech posted on the Internet.
Several right-wing commentators and activists in their condemnations of Tutu have cited the alleged Hitler line as it appears in the ZOA release. The JTA recently corrected a brief that relied on the ZOA’s account of the speech.
According to ZOA President Morton Klein, the organization intended to present the quotations in question as synopses of Tutu’s remarks that were attributed to Klein himself. Both of the incorrect quotations were followed in the release by the actual quotations from Tutu’s speech.
Klein conceded that the release was poorly drafted and told JTA on Tuesday that he would issue a clarification. Still, the ZOA leader said that the general thrust of the release was correct.
“I intended that to be a quote from me to describe what he said,” Klein told JTA. “I made the phrase to sort of encapsulate what he said. I never intended it to be his quote.”
ZOA quoted from an account of the speech in which Tutu’s only reference to Hitler came when he stated: “People are scared in [the United States] to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful – very powerful. Well, so what? For goodness sake, this is God’s world! We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust.”
Klein said there was little difference in criticizing Israel or criticizing its defenders in Washington. He added that his portrayal of Tutu’s remarks is substantively accurate, even if those exact words were not spoken.
“I stand by the fact that he compares Israel to Hitler and apartheid,” Klein said.
In a subsequent interview, Klein attempted to bolster his case by pointing to a transcript of the speech on the Web site of Friends of Sabeel – North America. He noted that, according to the transcript, Tutu immediately followed the passage in question by saying: “An unjust Israeli government, however powerful, will fall in the world of this kind of God.”
Klein acknowledged that he only recently became aware of the Sabeel transcript, but said it backed up his contention that Tutu compared Israel to Hitler.
According to the transcript, Tutu went on to say that “we don’t want for that to happen.” He then ended by uring the audience to tell the Israelis and the Palestinians that “peace is possible and that we will do all we can to assist you in achieving this peace which is within your grasp, because it is God’s dream that you will be able to live amicably together as sisters and brothers, side by side because you belong in God’s family.
An Internet search reveals that the “Israel is Hitler” quote found its way into other publications, including Front Page Magazine, which published an article in January 2003 by John Perazzo citing the quote.
Charles Jacobs, president of the Boston-based David Project, cited it in a column in August warning about Tutu’s visit to Boston later this month. And David Horowitz, Front Page’s editor, used it in an article slamming the divestment movement. Numerous bloggers also have cited the quote.
Klein told JTA that he didn’t see a problem using quotations that aren’t strictly accurate if they reflect the essence of a speaker’s intentions.
“I frankly don’t see the harm done when our encapsulation promotes what his statements essentially said,” Klein said. “I see no harm in it.”