The mainstream media has been waxing lyrical over the moral force of the anti-apartheid icon Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Following the announcement of his death at the age of 90, newspapers and TV channels in Europe and the U.S. celebrated the life of Tutu, whose ethical outlook and lucid articulation was instrumental in bringing an end to racial apartheid in South Africa.
But, whilst journalists and editors – from the liberal Guardian to the right-wing Spectator - are ready to appropriate Tutu’s irrefutable moral standing to buttress the reputations of their media organizations, there has been a silence over the late Archbishop’s support for causes beyond the shores and borders of South Africa.
Desmond Tutu's body lies in state in his old cathedral https://t.co/4mHcMFTKB8— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) December 30, 2021
Tutu’s impassioned call for the rights of Palestinians against the brutal occupation of their land has been airbrushed from most mainstream obituaries and news pieces following his death on 26 December.
Tutu was a unique moral voice when it came to the Palestine issue. His principals, which often transcended contemporary political infighting, rested on universal ethical values derived from his religious faith.
“I wish I could keep quiet about the plight of the Palestinians. I can’t!” Tutu said in 2013. “What’s being done to the Palestinians … it’s the kind of thing we experienced in South Africa," he said, citing the Wall, the surveillance of Palestinians, and the apartheid between peoples.
Almost uniquely, Tutu showed compassion towards those forced to perform brutalizing acts as well as standing up for their victims. In this vein, he criticized Israeli policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza for what it does to young Israelis conscripted to monitor Palestinians at checkpoints, pull down their homes, and occupy the land once home to families and communities.
Remembering #DesmondTutu: “I would not worship a God who is homophobic… I have to tell you, I cannot keep quiet when people are penalised for something about which they can do nothing… I oppose such injustice with the same passion that I opposed apartheid.” pic.twitter.com/rv06dEn01A— Richard Coles (@RevRichardColes) December 26, 2021
In a statement following a 2008 UN fact-finding mission to investigate the Israeli bombing of the Beit Hanoun district in Gaza which left 19 Palestinians dead, Tutu referenced the Torah:
“In terms of the scripture that Jews and Christians alike invoke, the blockade is contrary to the teaching of those scriptures. Those scriptures speak about a God: a God of the Exodus, a God notoriously biased in favour of the weak, of the oppressed, of the suffering, of the orphan, of the widow, of the alien.”
“The siege is contrary to the Jewish tradition of siding with the oppressed,” the statement goes on to say. “In South Africa, the most outstanding stalwarts in our fight against apartheid were often Jews. People like Helen Suzman, people like Joe Slovo. Almost instinctively, Jews must be on the side of freedom, justice and peace.”
This flies in the face of liberal and right-wing media organizations who have traditionally maintained a hard-line against the criticism of the Israeli occupation, frequently in opposition to critical voices from within Israel itself.
“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness”.- Archbishop Desmond Tutu pic.twitter.com/ONpOsJSU91— Da Director™️ ⭕️ (@Mike_Yezi) December 26, 2021
After the Guardian published an obituary of the archbishop, social media users pointed out that comments which drew attention to the article’s omission of Tutu’s stance on Palestine had been removed.
Comment, when it comes to the Palestine issue, is not "free" then, despite what the Guardian's marketing team would have us believe. But there is an issue beyond straightforward censorship here.
Without a strong moral voice from editorial teams in the mainstream media, the ability for people like Tutu to raise unpopular opinions, as he did again and again throughout his life, will be dampened.
Furthermore, it does a disservice to Tutu's life to pick and choose causes which align with editorial stances. Perhaps more than any other, Tutu's principals were drawn from foundational ethical principals that stood on the side of victims and above party politics.
One such unpopular opinion was his support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against the Israeli occupation. In an article for Haaretz in 2014 where he supported BDS, Tutu wrote about his attendance at a pro-Palestine demonstration:
“I appealed to Israeli sisters and brothers present at the conference to actively disassociate themselves and their profession from the design and construction of infrastructure related to perpetuating injustice, including the separation barrier, the security terminals and checkpoints, and the settlements built on occupied Palestinian land.”
Tutu's appeal to those on all sides, his refusal to stand in support of any form of injustice, and his belief that "sometimes the voice of the people is the voice of God," will make all of Tutu's fights against injustice inspire anyone fighting for the rights of all living beings, no matter how unpopular.
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