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Nobel Laureate Tutu Discusses Middle East Conflict

By Rima Arnaout


Nobel Peace Prize winner and famed anti-apartheid spokesman Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke in Boston’s Old South Church last Saturday, speaking this time for a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Approximately 200 people gathered outside Old South Church during Tutu’s speech, holding signs calling for justice in the Middle East and welcoming the Nobel Laureate.

Bilal Zuberi G was one of them. “I think all of us outside the church were simply there to listen to Desmond Tutu, a hero for a great many people in this world, and to protest against the massacre being committed by Israel in Jenin and elsewhere in Palestine,” he said.

In his speech, Tutu expressed his support for both Jews and Arabs, while criticizing the Israeli government’s current occupation of Palestinian lands. “I’ve been very depressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us blacks in South Africa,” Tutu said. “I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks suffer like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.”

Tutu’s speech was the keynote address of a two-day conference called “Ending the Occupation,” hosted by the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, Friends of Sabeel-North America, and Friends of Sabeel-New England. The latter two organizations’ goal is to support and coordinate with the Sabeel Ecumenical Theology Center, based in Jerusalem.

Tutu questions memory of Jews

Tutu began his address by citing “the noble religious traditions” of Judaism, beginning in ancient times, and recounting how many Jews aided in struggles for human rights around the world.

“In our struggle against apartheid, some of our greatest allies were Jews,” he said. “And in the civil rights movement, Jews were on the side of the disenfranchised ... why are our memories so short that our Jewish sisters and brothers have forgotten the humiliation of wearing yellow arm bands ... have they forgotten their own history so soon?” Tutu said.

Tutu equated apartheid to the Israeli occupation, saying he believed in Israel’s right to have secure borders, and he said that Arab states make a mistake in not recognizing Israel’s sovereignty. “What was not justified, however, was what Israel did to another people to ensure its safety,” he said.

Tutu also said that the demolition of homes as a way to find suspected terrorists amounted to “collective punishment” of the Palestinian population. While he condemned suicide bombers, Tutu said that because of media censorship, “you don’t see what these tanks are doing to just ordinary people.”

Applauding the works of grassroots peace efforts in places like college campuses, he urged people not to be discouraged by what they may see as a small part in a large dispute. “Remember that there is only one way to eat an elephant: one piece at a time,” he said.

Moral obligation to activism

As an archbishop, Tutu framed the importance of speaking out against wrongdoing in a religious context, speaking about the “God of salam and shalom.”

“God is omnipotent ... but is also utterly impotent. God does not dispatch lightning bolts to remove tyrants, as we hoped he would. God waits for you ... [He] is only as weak as the weakest of [His] partners,” Tutu said.

In closing, Tutu encouraged the audience to “put out a clarion call to the government of Israel and the Palestinian people that peace is possible.”

Much of the crowd was moved by Tutu’s words. “Desmond Tutu’s honest speech awoke these emotions in me -- questions which all of us should ask of ourselves, especially in this country since we are able to influence things around the world much more than others,” Zuberi said.

“I hope others present inside the hall and outside, and those who read his speech later on felt the same.”