As we consider the past, many people living in the U.S. believe they would have supported the civil rights movement, even in the face of the white supremacists of the KKK and the Jim Crow stalwarts in Congress. If old enough, many likely believe they would have at least supported from afar the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa led by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. For too many people, of course, that is revisionist history. Many failed even to support the boycott and divest from South African apartheid movement by passing up a Coca-Cola.
Today, with the passing of Tutu, it is worth reflecting on the fact that in his later years he became an outspoken opponent of Israel’s practice of apartheid. Tutu was a supporter of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement for Palestinian freedom and equal rights.
For this, he is vilified by leading apologists of Israel’s anti-Palestinian racism. Yishai Fleisher, spokesperson for settlers in the Israeli-occupied city of Hebron where apartheid streets are a shocking reality, tweeted of Tutu’s passing: “An antisemite has died today.” This is a vile and untrue statement about one of the great moral voices of our time on the day of his death.
The Illinois Investment Policy Board (IIPB) stands against Tutu and his support of BDS. Thankfully, no such anti-boycott laws prevented his important work when he was pushing for divestment from apartheid South Africa, but these laws are very real today and hindering solidarity activist work on behalf of Palestinians.
Earlier this month, the IIPB voted unanimously to divest the state’s pension funds from investments in Unilever, which is the parent company of Ben & Jerry’s. This was a reprisal as this past summer Ben & Jerry’s took the limited step of deciding to cut off product sales in the illegal settlements of the occupied West Bank. For this, antisemitism.org, with its politicized definition of antisemitism, put forward Ben & Jerry’s board chair Anuradha Mittal as one of its three candidates for “antisemite” of the year.
No one deserves to be called an antisemite for standing against Israel’s military and economic occupation of Palestinian land. What we are witnessing today is an anti-Palestinian racism intended to shut down any advocacy for the rights and freedom of Palestinians. To put Mittal – or Dua Lipa for that matter – alongside Marjorie Taylor Greene for the “prize” is obscene.
Illinois acted after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated that Israel would “act aggressively” in response to Ben & Jerry’s courageous action. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the US, wrote a letter to 35 governors whose states have passed laws prohibiting boycotts on behalf of equal rights for Palestinians. “Rapid and determined action,” he claimed, “must be taken to counter such discriminatory and antisemitic actions.”
This turns reality on its head to conflate advocacy in solidarity with Palestinian freedom with “discriminatory and antisemitic actions.”
Similar abuse was hurled at Tutu when in 2012 he called for the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three companies doing business in the occupied West Bank.
And he knew the reality. In 2013, he wrote to students at Stanford University supporting their efforts to divest from the Israeli occupation: “I have visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and I have witnessed the racially-segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid.”
Israeli officials and the IIPB are seeking to prohibit, or at least undermine, organizing like the BDS movement on behalf of Palestinian rights. Julia Bacha has a new film out documenting limits being placed on free speech in the US related to Palestinian advocacy. Adam Leveritt, the publisher of The Arkansas Times, recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he contended that “states are trading their citizens’ First Amendment rights for what looks like unconditional support for a foreign government.”
These concerns were compounded for me during the Christmas season with the many contradictions embedded in how many people celebrate it in this country. The most obvious, of course, is the materialism that belies the very meaning of Jesus’ birth within Christianity. As an Arab American from a Christian family background, I am always astonished by the US establishment’s contradictory commitments to Christianity. This year, that’s been seen in the embrace of violent Christmas card imagery from Congresspeople Thomas Massie and Lauren Boebert.
It’s also seen in the news that Israel will only issue some of the permits Christians in Gaza need to travel to Bethlehem for Christmas. These are descendants of some of the oldest Christian communities in the world as Jesus is believed to have been born in Bethlehem and to have been crucified in Jerusalem – just a short trip from the open-air prison of Gaza when checkpoints are removed from the travel time. The U.S. makes much of religious freedom yet time and again has sided with Israel despite its limits on freedom of worship for Palestinian Christians and Muslims. At root, however, this is not a religious struggle but one of colonizer versus colonized with the U.S. repeatedly weighing in for the colonizer.
Tutu understood this imbalance. He was consistently, not selectively, anti-apartheid. From South Africa to Palestine, he stood with the colonized and the struggle for freedom. The IIPB and the state of Illinois have made their decision to stand with the colonizer, actively blocking efforts to promote equal rights.
U.S. culture makes much out of freedom fighters after they have passed. Yet government officials and the media generally scrub them to downplay their struggles for social transformation.
This can be seen in the treatment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and efforts reducing him to his “I have a dream” speech, while disregarding his concerns with poverty, militarization and some of his stances on the evils of racism. Something similar happened with Tutu as we saw the media honor the victories he won in South Africa while avoiding his message on Israeli apartheid where the struggle continues.
To truly honor the life’s work of Tutu, the IIPB should reverse its Unilever decision and the Illinois legislature should rescind its anti-Palestinian legislation. This, sadly, has little immediate likelihood of occurring as Governor J.B. Pritzker is already about the work of whitewashing Tutu’s full legacy. Almost immediately, the governor tweeted that Tutu was “a universal inspiration” and “may we continue to be inspired [by] his lasting legacy, standing arm-in-arm in the name of justice.”
Palestinians, Pritzker could have noted, need not apply. Hypocrisy has found a home in Illinois as the state promotes the “safe” Tutu while criminalizing those who take seriously his still-repressed message insisting upon freedom, equality, and justice for Palestinians.
Nadine Naber is Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). At UIC, she is the founding director of The Arab American Cultural Center.
Dr. Naber has served as an editorial board member of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP).