JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Desmond Tutu may have officially retired from public life, but he hasn’t gone far from the spotlight.
The former archbishop of Cape Town and Nobel Prize laureate began his retirement in early October saying he would watch cricket and sip tea with his wife. But he has sparked new controversy by stepping up his boycott campaign against Israel.
Last week Tutu called on the Cape Town Opera to cancel an upcoming trip to Israel. He said it would be “unconscionable” for the group to perform "Porgy and Bess," the groundbreaking Gershwin opera about black life in Charleston, S.C., in the 1920s, “until both Israeli and Palestinian opera lovers of the region have equal opportunity and unfettered access to attend performances.”
“Only the thickest-skinned South Africans would be comfortable performing before an audience that excluded residents living, for example, in an occupied West Bank village 30 minutes from Tel Aviv, who would not be allowed to travel to Tel Aviv,” Tutu said in a statement.
He said it would be as inappropriate for the opera company to perform in Israel as it had been for artists to perform in apartheid South Africa, “in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity.”
Tutu's campaign is not limited to the Cape Town opera. Last month, Tutu joined a campaign urging the University of Johannesburg to sever its links with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, a move that was supported by a number of high-profile South African writers and academics.
The two universities have been collaborating on biotechnology and water purification research. But now the University of Johannesburg has said it will terminate its relationship with Ben-Gurion University in six months unless certain conditions are met, such as the Israeli university working with Palestinian universities on research projects.
The Cape Town Opera responded gently but firmly to Tutu, saying that that while it “respects the views held by retired Archbishop Tutu,” its performances at the Tel Aviv Opera House next month will not be canceled.
“We are … first and foremost an arts company that believes in promoting universally held human values through the medium of opera,” managing director Michael Williams said in a statement. “Cape Town Opera welcomes the opportunity to perform within Palestine as well.”
The Israeli Embassy in South Africa hit back at Tutu, saying that his “call for a cultural boycott of the State of Israel is yet another phase in the biased campaign, waged by him and those who share his sentiments, that distorts and demonizes Israel, while singling it out.”
Tutu's call to the opera company was also opposed by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, which called for “constructive and positive engagements between Israel, South Africa and the Palestinian regions,” citing the use of music as a form of interchange and dialogue.
Boycotts, the group said, “serve only to harden attitudes on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.”
South Africa has a significant Jewish population, numbering about 70,000 people, and many Jews played important roles in the struggle against apartheid.
Tutu, who retired on Oct. 7 — his 79th birthday — earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his peaceful struggle against apartheid and has been described as the “moral conscience” of South Africa. He is known for brash public statements on a range of issues, including human rights abuses in Zimbabwe and corruption among South Africa’s political elite.
When Tutu announced his plan to retire, he said he would “shut up,” but added that “sometimes I might find I can't resist. Mostly I’m going to be shutting up, so bye-bye.”
He said he would remain a member of The Elders, a group of retired world leaders that includes Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan, who work together on major global issues.
Tutu has long been an outspoken critic of Israel, including its ties with South Africa during apartheid times. Israel officially opposed apartheid, although its connections with South Africa’s apartheid government were close.
It emerged earlier this year that in 1975, Israel offered to sell South Africa nuclear warheads, according to documents uncovered by American academic Sasha Polakow-Suransky. However, the deal did not go ahead, in part due to the high cost.