Not long ago Nadine Gordimer, a South African Nobel Laureate in literature who happens to be Jewish, visited Israel—reluctantly. Why so? Well, for one thing, the great South African race reformer, Bishop Desmond Tutu, told her not to go. And no, he wasn’t worried about her safety.
Tutu was long one of my heroes. He played a key role in Nelson Mandela’s movement to end apartheid, always exercising moral leadership. After their triumph, he became a visiting professor at Emory University, where I teach; one year he gave a commencement address marked by eloquence, vigor, spirituality, and trademark humor.
He also spoke at my youngest daughter’s high school commencement—just an ordinary public school, but one that happened to include the Bishop’s grandson, a terrific boy who had been in my home many times.
So why was my hero telling a Jewish Nobel Prize winner not to go to Israel? Well, she would be giving aid and comfort to the Palestinians’ oppressors. Gordimer, like many South African Jews, had fought against apartheid; she knew the importance of keeping prestigious people away from that regime.
Fortunately, she decided to go, and witnessed the debates that Israeli Jews constantly have about the treatment of the Palestinians and the path toward peace. She gravitated toward leftists, of course, but at least she went, watched, and listened.
Bishop Tutu is of course not alone among black South African leaders in condemning Israel. Nelson Mandela is with him on this. And both are part of a group self-styled as “The Elders,” formed in 2007.
Among others, the group includes former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who has been under house arrest for years, Mary Robinson, formerly President of Ireland and then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and our old friend Jimmy Carter.
None of these people has ever shown much sympathy for Israel—some have been openly biased, others know little or nothing about it, still others reflexively believe what Palestinians say. It would take too long to go into the record, but it is clear.
That’s why when the Elders wanted to go to the Middle East in April to make peace, Israel said, No thanks. As Dan Gillerman, Israel’s UN Ambassador, said, “"This is an initiative out of which no good can come. Most of the members of the group, particularly Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter, are people with a bias who have proved to be hostile to Israel.”
It’s fascinating how this illustrious group has time to focus on Israel’s bad deeds. To their credit, some of them visited Darfur last fall, but the genocide goes on, and they haven’t done much about it since the report on their visit. Didn’t do much about the junta’s crackdown in Burma this spring either. Or the Chinese crackdown in Tibet. Nor did they try to stop the Chinese from using the Olympics to whitewash their image. They issue statements, sometimes. That’s about it.
Africa, of course, is the place in the world where suffering is by far the greatest. Kofi Annan sat on his hands through the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and ordered UN troops to stand aside, so we know what to expect from him. But I am most intrigued by Mandela and Tutu, the South African heroes.
I think of them planning their Israel-bashing trip to the Middle East. Let’s imagine their flight from Jo’burg to Ben Gurion Airport. First they would have flown over their own country, where many thousands of desperate refugees would soon be victimized by rioters—Mandela and Tutu’s fellow countrymen. One would self-immolate in protest to draw attention to their plight. But they didn’t get much attention from the Elders.
Then they would fly over Zimbabwe, where dictatator Robert Mugabe has savagely destroyed his own country and hundreds of thousands of its people by ruling for decades with an increasingly iron hand. What did the Elders do about this? They talked.
Looking down on what used to be Zaire, they might remember how little effort they made as individuals to stop the war that killed millions. As they passed over Rwanda perhaps they would remember how little any of them—several already distinguished leaders—did to stop that mass murder in 1994.
Overflying northern Uganda, they could look down on the Lord’s Resistance Army, a supposedly Christian group that specializes in the abduction, rape, maiming, and killing of civilians, including children. I don’t find that crisis on their web site. And then, of course, Darfur, where genocide is ongoing.
Ah, but these problems are hard to address in any meaningful way if you are an African Elder. Some of your people may think you are a traitor to their cause. You may pay a very big price in public opinion.
So you hop on your airliner and fly six miles above all those massive, truly tragic humanitarian crises, all too close to home, and you land in the Middle East, criticize Israel’s “apartheid wall,” its blockade of Gaza (a policy with widespread international support), and its oppression of Palestinians.
Then you can take a deep, satisfying breath, fly back over all of Africa’s huge tragedies, and land in Johannesburg again. Hopefully on the drive home from the airport you won’t run into a pogrom carried out by black South Africans against refugees. When you get home, you can rest in your favorite chair, knowing you have done something important for the world—because, of course, nobody suffers more than the Palestinians.