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Clarence Page: We have a lot to learn from Archbishop Tutu. Even from his mistakes

Tutu left us with a lot of helpful lessons about how different groups can get along, including lessons he had to learn the hard way.

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In this photo from April 27, 2019, Archbishop Emeritus and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu attends an exhibition and book launch of notable photographs of his life, which have been turned into paintings in the center of Cape Town. Tutu died on Sunday at the age of 90.
RODGER BOSCH/AFP via Getty Images/TNS

As tributes poured in from world leaders for Archbishop Desmond Tutu after the Nobel Peace Prize laureate died Sunday at age 90, so did some heated criticism.

"Can I remind the world," said famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz in a Fox News interview the next day, "that although he did some good things, a lot of good things on apartheid, the man was a rampant antisemite and bigot?"

Dershowitz claimed that Tutu had downplayed the Holocaust and "compared Israel to Nazi Germany."

He added: "When we're tearing down statues of Jefferson and Lincoln and Washington, let's not build statues to a deeply, deeply flawed man like Bishop Tutu. Let's make sure that history remembers both the goods he did and the awful, awful bads that he did as well."

I can only imagine whether the archbishop, known affectionately as "The Arch," would be more saddened or amused by Dershowitz's sentiments.

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Among the good things he did, South Africa's first Black Anglican archbishop earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his strong and persuasive advocacy of nonviolence against apartheid and, as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, promoting restorative justice for its victims.

Opinions vary widely as to whether the restorative approach was more effective than the retributive justice method used during the Nuremberg trials to investigate Nazi atrocities during World War II.

But having been a reporter for the Tribune in South Africa when the Soweto uprising broke out during the mid-1970s, I was relieved like countless others that the racial bloodbath feared by pessimists did not materialize.

I credit leaders like Tutu's fellow Nobel laureates, Nelson Mandela, a lawyer who maintained his faith in the rule of law after 27 years in political prison, and F.W. de Klerk, the white-minority regime's last president.

In those often-rocky years of negotiations and transition in a society where tribalism is more than just a political theory, Tutu often praised the many South African Jews who worked alongside Black South Africans to make the transition from white-minority rule possible.

Yet, while he consistently defended Israel's right to exist and called on Arab nations to recognize Israel, too, even when speaking to Palestinian audiences, Tutu criticized Israel's occupation of the West Bank and questioned how people who had survived the Holocaust could perpetrate an occupation of another people.

"He didn't talk about the Israel lobby, he talked about the Jewish lobby," Dershowitz said, which to many ears implies some sort of ethnic conspiracy.

Tutu was sensitive to the complaint, but even as he tried to clear up misunderstanding in a 1984 speech at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, he still fanned more flames with references to a "Jewish lobby."

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As a man of words -- very important words -- I would think he would know better. At best, he sounds to me in such moments like an elderly uncle who means well but is so conditioned by a life largely spent in struggle against discrimination and other injustices that he just couldn't quite understand all the ways in which his words can be taken the wrong way.

We have seen similar offenses committed in America's racial politics, in which the wrong words or symbols can touch off a political firestorm in today's "cancel culture" and other forms of "political correctness."

Tutu was an excellent leader and speaker who happened to dive into some of the world's most controversial issues, including LGBTQ rights, as well as Palestinian rights and Israel's right to defend itself.

The problem with hazardous words like "Jewish lobby" is their tendency to credit or blame an entire group of people when the issue is really about political leadership.

I have found plenty to criticize about Israeli and Palestinian leaders who I think squandered some opportunities for peace. Maybe I'm right or maybe I'm wrong, but I don't want to be misunderstood as criticizing an entire group of people when the real problem is the mistakes of their leaders.

Tutu left us with a lot of helpful lessons about how different groups can get along, including lessons he had to learn the hard way.

We can learn a lot from both.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.
(C)2021 Clarence Page. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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