In what he called his first public statements on the 14-month-old Palestinian uprising, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu suggested that he and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel be asked to mediate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Tutu, the first black Anglican archbishop of Cape Town and a leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, said he had not consulted with Wiesel on his suggestion, nor thought out the details.
But he said he believed the idea to capitalize on the symbolic significance of the peace prize is “something that God is putting on me.”
An assistant to Wiesel said Tuesday that the author and Holocaust survivor had not learned of Tutu’s remarks and would not comment until he heard from the archbishop directly.
Tutu’s suggestion was the climax of a 35-minute speech Monday night at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan, where he was invited to receive the Reform congregation’s George Brussel Jr. Award for his battle against South Africa’s strict system of racial separation and discrimination.
The speech included the kinds of remarks that have made Tutu a controversial figure to Jews in the past: He criticized Israel for “collaborating” with South Africa’s white leaders on security and “nuclear matters.” And he said accounts of Israeli actions against Palestinian demonstrators “could be a description of what is happening in South Africa.”
NOT A ‘LIGHT AMONG NATIONS’
Tutu also repeated a charge, one he first made during a controversial speech to the Jewish Theological Seminary in November 1984, that Jews are too quick to label any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic.
On the other hand, Tutu denounced anti-Semitism and thanked God that Israel came into being. He said Israel has a right to “territorial integrity” and condemned “all forms of terrorism from any source.”
In a familiar approach, Tutu’s criticism of Israel was couched in terms of “disappointment” that Jews had strayed from their God-given role to be “a light unto the nations.” Much of his speech was dedicated to a celebration of that role, which he called a “precious gift” that God had given the world.
The diminutive Tutu, wearing a dark suit and bright purple shirt over his clerical collar, cut a charming and at times playful figure during the awards ceremony and speech.
He was warmly received by synagogue members, whose religious leader, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, has a long attachment to liberal causes.
Brickner introduced Tutu in an address condemning apartheid. He told the audience, which included many of New York’s prominent black leaders, that he had invited Tutu not “because we want to send a message to black Americans. We are not in the message-sending business, but we’re in the justice-building business.”
In the next sentence, however, he urged blacks and Jews to continue their effort to lessen tensions between them.
Black-Jewish relations were also on the agenda during a private ceremony prior to Tutu’s appearance, where he accepted a Jewish institute’s $100,000 grant on behalf of a non-profit corporation called Medical Education for South African Blacks.
The grant was presented by the Marjorie Kovler Institute for Black-Jewish Relations, which is part of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center on Washington.
The grant will finance the training of black South African medical workers. Peter Kovler, the Washington-based investor who founded the institute, said, “One way to strengthen black-Jewish ties in this country is to help the cause of blacks in south Africa.”
In his speech, Tutu also addressed black-Jewish relations in this country, saying they will suffer until Israel “categorically repudiates” its ties with the South African government.
He said Israel had cooperated with South African authorities on “nuclear matters” and “techniques for suppressing uprisings.”
“We blacks cannot understand how people with your kind of history (can) allow the government of Israel, as distinct from its people, to have the kind of relationship” it does with South Africa, Tutu said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.