Desmond Tutu and the Labour Party’s Phonies on Israel

Photograph Source: Skoll Foundation – CC BY 2.0

“I support Zionism without qualification”

– Keir Starmer, Labour party leader, 4 April, 2020

“I’ve been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa. I have seen the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about”.

– Desmond Tutu, 21 December, 2006

“Desmond Tutu was a tower of a man, and a leader of moral activism. He dedicated his life to tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed. His impact on the world crosses borders and echoes through generations. May he rest in peace”.

– Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) 26 December, 2021

“Tutu was the rock on which non-violent resistance to Apartheid was built. His integrity, passion and urgency was integral in mobilising South Africans to protest, resist and keep the faith while rallying the global community to compassion, solidarity and sanctions”.

– David Lammy, UK Shadow Foreign Secretary, 26 December 2021

“I regret nominating Jeremy Corbyn [to be Labour leader] and if I had known what I am doing now I would never have nominated him. I never thought he would become leader. That was a mistake and I’m sorry”.

– David Lammy, speech to Jewish group, 28 December 2021

 Both mainstream and social media have pointed out that Jeremy Corbyn’s and Tutu’s positions on Israel are virtually identical, namely, that Israel is an apartheid state, and BDS is a legitimate way to oppose it. So, as a matter of logic: if Corbyn is an “antisemite” for holding this position, then so is Tutu.

But Labour’s hypocritical luminaries simply can’t bring themselves to take this logical step.

Any credible eulogy of Tutu can’t therefore discount, however tacitly, his unyielding opposition to Israeli apartheid, just as Starmer’s “unconditional support for Zionism” can’t be squared with the spirit, if not the letter, of his claim that Tutu spent “his life to tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed”. Tutu “tackling injustice and standing up for the oppressed” includes inextricably his support for the Palestinian people, which in turn is irreconcilable with any “unconditional support for Zionism” (predicated as it is on Palestinian subjugation).

Starmer was the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions before he entered politics, and if his levels of legal reasoning in that position paralleled his lamentably poor implicit reasoning about Israel and Palestine, it would be astonishing if he managed to secure a single conviction as the UK’s top prosecutor.

Of course the impediment in this seeming inability to connect the logical dots between Tutu’s unqualified antiracism and anti-Zonism and Starmerite “unqualified support for Zionism” is pure hypocrisy and craven opportunism– in truth, it has nothing really to do with the inability to apply basic logical principles.

Starmer’s position is also at odds with his own party, when despite the best efforts of its leadership to kill all active support for the Palestinian cause, delegates at its annual conference in September 2021 voted in favour of a motion declaring Israel an apartheid state. The conference motion also called for sanctions against Israel’s illegal settlements on seized Palestinian land, as well as the cessation of the UK’s sales of arms to Israel.

The motion also demanded an end to Israel’s belligerent occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza, and upheld “the right of Palestinians to return to their homes”— a right of return for Palestinians expelled by Israel since 1948 upheld in international law but ignored by the UK.

Although an embarrassment for Starmer, who participated wholeheartedly in a campaign by the media, Jewish leaders, and his own party’s HQ to merge and identify support for Palestinian rights with antisemitism, his current lead over the Tories in the polls will give him leeway to ignore the position of his own party on Israeli apartheid.

It should be noted that David Lammy is a Harvard-educated lawyer. In his bio he makes much of the fact that he is the first black Brit to get a Harvard law degree.

Lammy has much else to apologize for. He voted for Blair’s participation in the illegal war on Iraq (in Starmer’s shadow cabinet, John Healey (shadow defence secretary) and Yvette Cooper (shadow home secretary/interior minister) also voted for the war).

Lammy voted for the disastrous bombing of Libya, along with several members of Starmer’s current shadow cabinet.

Lammy also has a history of shady stuff with regard to parliamentary expenses. His constituency is only 28 minutes away by Tube from Parliament, but Lammy claimed £12,041/$16,243 for a second home between April 2003 and March 2004 (saying he spends 3 nights a week there when working in parliament), despite having a main home on the Harringay Ladder, 28 minutes from Westminster by Tube (where he said he spent the rest of the week).

Lammy got away with this obvious fiddle, as did numerous other MPs, crossing all party divides.

Incidentally, Lammy’s companion expense fiddlers included MPs who claimed £5,822/$7,853 for the heating of horse stables; £1,645/$2,219 for maintaining a shelter in a duck pond; £680/$917 for removing wisteria from the MP’s chimney; £20,700/$27,923 for roof repairs to the bell tower of the MPs stately home; a £115/$155 payment to workmen to replace 25 light bulbs; £97/$130 for 2 toilet seats; £380/$513 worth of horse manure over 4 years; 55p/77c for a mug of the malt drink Horlicks in the House of Commons tea room; 8p/11c for a 0.2 mile car journey.

In most cases these MPs were millionaires or multimillionaires.

In 2012 Lammy also supported the right of parents to beat their children.

Lammy apologizes for none of the above, but sheds crocodile tears for having been, however briefly, a supporter of the “antisemite” Jeremy Corbyn.

This Labour hypocrisy over those with a direct experience of apartheid South Africa who maintain that Israel is an apartheid state, extends beyond Tutu, and includes Mandela, as well as the lesser-known Ronnie Kasrils (1938- ).

Kasrils, a Jew, served as the Chief of Military Intelligence of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC. The commander of MK was another Jew, Joe Slovo (1926-1995). When apartheid ended, and Mandela became president of South Africa, both Slovo and Kasrils served in Mandela’s first cabinet.

Kasrils has been highly critical of Israeli policies in the occupied Palestinian territories, for instance, saying in his 2008 article “Sixty years after Deir Yassin”:

“Unless Israel confronts the past, as so many have attempted to do in South Africa, it will continue to be viewed with revulsion and suspicion. Israelis will continue to regard Arab life as worthless and will continue to live by the sword and deceit, feigning surprise when Palestinians violently respond. Without dealing with the agony it has caused there can be no healing and no solution”.

Would anyone guess what Ronnie Kasrils would say today to the above-mentioned Labour hypocrites if he had any time for them?

Desmond Tutu may no longer be with us, but if he were, and given his legendary unstuffy demeanour and impish sense of humour, we can imagine him saying to these Labour phonies, with their palpable insincerity, and bendy and incoherent lines of reasoning: “begone, the miserable lot of you!”.

(The presence of obvious scoundrels in its leadership notwithstanding, I remain a member of the Labour party.)


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.