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A Tempest Over Tutu

A Tempest Over Tutu

(Cape Town, South Africa)The fat lady will sing in Israel next week, so to speak, but the battle to silence Israel isn’t over in South Africa.

That’s the opinion of leaders of South Africa’s Jewish community, who say the decision last week by the Cape Town Opera to stage its production of “Porgy and Bess” in Tel Aviv as originally scheduled — despite the urging of Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu — will not slow down the international effort to delegitimize Israel.

In an open letter last week to the Cape Town Opera, Tutu, the winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize for his opposition to South Africa’s apartheid, and a frequent critic of Israel, repeated his support for a widespread boycott of Israel and its representatives. He said the opera company’s appearances in Israel, beginning on Nov. 12 with an all-black cast performing George Gershwin’s opera about daily life in the segregated American South of the 1920s, should be suspended until Israel changes its treatment of Palestinians that he called “discriminatory” and racially exclusive.

The archbishop, who had retired from public life earlier this month, advised the Cape Town Opera to suspend its productions in Israel, more than a dozen in a two-week period, “until both Israeli and Palestinian opera lovers of the region have equal opportunity and unfettered access to attend performances.”

He equated a boycott of Israel with the worldwide boycott of South African businesses, athletes and cultural representatives that was given credit for helping to end the country’s apartheid policies in the early 1990s.

But after several days of controversy that made the front pages of South African newspapers, Michael Williams, managing director of the Cape Town Opera, said his troupe will go to Israel. “I am proud that our artists, when travelling abroad, act as ambassadors and exemplars of the free society that has been achieved in democratic South Africa,” he said in a statement. He said the company was “reluctant to adopt the essentially political position of disengagement from cultural ties with Israel or with Palestine.”

“In particular, Cape Town Opera welcomes the opportunity to perform within Palestine as well,” Williams said.

But the damage caused by Tutu’s support for a boycott of Israel will endure, the South African Jewish leaders said. A boycott endorsed by a figure with Tutu’s stature gives strength, both in South Africa and overseas, to the effort to isolate Israel in cultural, academic and economic circles, they said.

“Without Tutu, a heavyweight, the campaign is not going too far” in South Africa, said David Jacobson, executive director of the Cape Council of South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies, the community’s umbrella organization. There is concern that Tutu’s support for the Israeli boycott may influence the South African government, which has not taken an official position, to endorse the boycott, he said.

“The members of the community are splitting blood,” said Mervyn Smith, president of the Board of Deputies. Many South African Jews, he said, feel that Tutu’s latest actions cross the line from criticism of Israel to outright anti-Semitism.

While “I don’t believe for one moment that Archbishop Tutu is an anti-Semite,” said Philip Krawitz, chairman of the Board of Deputies in Cape Town, “he’s [often] anti-Israel … [critical of] the policies of Israel today.”

The South African public is divided on the issue of the Cape Town Opera appearing in Israel, Smith said. To many citizens, he said, the issue represents “the Jews and Muslims [fighting] again.”

The Board of Deputies and other Jewish organizations have not decided on a long-term strategy for dealing with the fallout from the opera company controversy, he said. “We’re not going to lie down.”

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