By Danny Glenwright
Desmond Tutu is a dishonest bigot. At least according to a group of 350 or so South Africans who recently took time out of their lives to put their names to a petition calling for Tutu to be removed as patron of South African Holocaust centres.
It’s the funniest thing I’ve read in months. I had to check the top of my screen to see if it was April Fools’ Day.
The group accuses Tutu, winner of a Nobel Peace Prize and one of the most respected men in the entire world, of dishonestly calling Israel a racist society. How outrageous! What blasphemy.
Sadly, it’s the truth.
But let’s get some facts straight first. Desmond Tutu is internationally famous for his vocal, decades-long stand against apartheid in South Africa, and more recently the apartheid structure currently characterising Israel/Palestine. Indeed, South Africa and beyond, there are not many noble causes Tutu has not spent at least some of his 79 years campaigning on behalf of. From HIV and Aids to homophobia to poverty, Tutu is a living legend. The list of international humanitarian awards he has won is almost as long as his remarkable CV.
Israel would be so lucky to have a public figure and humanitarian of Tutu’s stature. Instead, unfortunately for Israelis, its politicians and leaders are more often in the news for rape (see Katsav, Moshe, former president); graft (see Sharon, Ariel, former prime minister); racism (see Lieberman, Avigdor, current foreign minister) and piracy (see MV Mavi Marmara, Gaza aid flotilla). If the 350 good citizens of South Africa are looking for dishonesty and racism, they should get on the first flight to Tel Aviv.
Israel is currently illegally occupying Palestinian land, which it has held in direct contravention of international law since 1967. It is the longest illegal military occupation in history and it continues voraciously. Illegal Israeli settlements are going up as I write. Israeli leaders lie about this fact on a daily basis. So does much of the Israeli media and academia.
J Street, a non-profit American advocacy group made up mostly of Jews, writes on its website that “Israel’s settlements … have, for over forty years, been an obstacle to peace. They have … eroded the country’s ability to uphold the rule of law” and “the arrangements that have been made for the benefit of settlers and for security — checkpoints, settler-only roads, the route of the security barrier — have all made daily life more difficult for Palestinians”.
The situation in the Middle East is complex and next to hopeless. The list of atrocities committed by the state of Israel and its American sponsors against the Palestinian people could fill encyclopaedias. And yes, the Palestinians have also committed atrocities against the Israeli people, nobody denies that. However, anyone with a basic, honest knowledge of the politics of the region (admitting my connection: I lived and worked in the West Bank and Israel for almost two years) would have to be blind, deaf and mute to think this age-old conflict is somehow a fight between two equal sides.
This fact aside, Israel is a racist country with racist laws.
Rather than dredge up the typical, accurate and very long list of crimes committed by Israel (see eight-metre-high apartheid wall; illicit use of white phosphorus; targeted assassinations; home demolitions; open-air Gaza concentration camp; Sabra, Shatila, Gaza and Jenin refugee camp massacres, among many others) it might be appropriate to mention some blatant examples of racism which are not often cited.
Before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the (well-documented) ethnic cleansing of more than 800 000 Palestinians, 531 villages and almost 100 000 Bedouins, the Bedouin owned 98% of the Negev. From that day until the present, the Israeli government has ignored their claim and stolen most of it from them.
I met several Negev Bedouin, including Atiya Al Atameen, whose village has no running water, no electricity, no paved roads, no garbage collection, no telephone or postal service, no transport system and no healthcare. The land under his village has been desiccated — the water used to provide forests and fountains in unsustainable nearby Jewish towns. His children travel eight kilometres to go to school. Homes in his village are regularly demolished by the Israeli military, crops are destroyed and poisoned, sewage from Israeli towns runs through the streets and, despite being citizens of Israel (many in his community have even served in the army), they live in fear that their village — which has existed much longer than the state of Israel — will be destroyed by it at any moment.
If all this is not bad enough, the municipality of Tel Aviv dumps its waste in the Bedouin areas of the Negev and the government houses most of its unsafe infrastructure there, including a nuclear reactor, petrochemical factories and a toxic waste incinerator. Cancer and mortality rates are higher than anywhere else in the country and one study called it a “public health crisis”.
Across the highway from Atiya’s “unrecognised” village sits a gated community of hundreds of “Jews” from India. Flown to Israel to boost Jewish numbers, their community was created in the middle of the Negev on stolen Bedouin land. They have running water, garbage collection, electricity, schools and social services, all provided by the state of Israel. They have a Disneyland oasis of trees, gardens, football pitches and parks, all courtesy of stolen Negev water resources.
Palestinians living in Israel suffer similar racism and discrimination. Their neighbourhoods are not maintained while Jewish areas are manicured on behalf of the state, their water is cut off first during droughts, and their children (many under 12 years old) are subject to arrest and detention at ages much younger than Jewish children and often held for months without being charged, usually without access to legal help or Red Cross staff.
Non-Jewish immigrants are required to pledge allegiance to the Jewish state of Israel in order to receive citizenship and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza married to Israeli citizens are not allowed to live in the country with their spouses. The list goes on.
Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s most respected international organisations, has said: “Palestinians face systematic discrimination merely because of their race, ethnicity, and national origin, depriving them of electricity, water, schools, and access to roads.”
There is no other word for such Israel policies but racist. The country is not a democracy, it is an ethnocracy — if you’re not Jewish you might as well get out or give up.
If Desmond Tutu was brave enough to travel to the region and say this in a world where claims of anti-Semitism are thrown around like confetti at a wedding, good for him. We need more Desmond Tutus and we need them to speak up and to never be silenced.
Everyone should visit this tiny piece of disputed land. There is no way you will not be humbled and disgusted. I dare anyone to look at that high cement wall surrounding Palestine (jutting into its territory and stealing valuable aquifers, surrounding towns and cutting off families) and not be viscerally touched, to the core, at the tragic example of a crime against humanity and apartheid of our generation.
While we will never forget the Holocaust — and many always live in guilt — I think if we don’t work to do something about this modern tragedy we will also always be guilty at what we allowed to occur while we sat idly by and did nothing but talk about how nice peace might be for Israelis and Palestinians, if only they would hurry up and find it. Some of us would rather waste time writing ridiculous petitions against a global hero.
Danny Glenwright is a Canadian journalist and human rights do-gooder currently based in Johannesburg. For several years he has lived and worked in Africa and the Middle East, writing about human rights, gender issues and various other topics that get him worked up.