Morgan Freeman attends the AFI Life Achievement Award Honoring Shirley MacLaine at Sony Studios on June 7, 2012 in Culver City, Calif. The AFI Lifetime Achievement Honoring Shirley MacLaine airs on June 24, 2012 at 9 p.m. on TV Land. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Cape Town - Hollywood star Morgan Freeman, who portrayed Nelson Mandela in the Rugby World Cup-inspired film Invictus, has been asked by two anti-apartheid icons to explain his decision to accept an award from a group linked to an Israeli university.

They are Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and former Robben Island prisoner and anti-apartheid stalwart Ahmed Kathrada.

On Monday night in Toronto, the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem held an event described by the organisers as “A celebration of excellence to honour individuals who have changed the world and impacted lives through the advancement of knowledge”.

“Morgan Freeman… will be awarded the The Key of Knowledge Award for his dedication to combating racism and promoting knowledge and education worldwide.

“His philanthropic leanings are as legendary as his acting.”

The event was to raise funds for Medical Research Israel-Canada which, according to the organisers, “brings together the brightest minds from across Israel and Canada to find solutions to medical problems such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and brain-related disorders”.

On Tuesday, Tutu spokesman Roger Friedman said: “Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has written to Morgan Freeman to request clarity on the issue and has copied the Nelson Mandela Foundation in on the letter.”

In November, Tutu appealed to the UN and the world’s most powerful countries, “with vested geopolitical and economic interests in the region”, to prioritise the development of a solution for sustainable peace and security in the Middle East.

This had to include the “return of illegally occupied land”, and the creation of two nation states. He added that the process should be overseen by UN peacekeepers.

His letter is echoed by Kathrada, who wrote an open letter to Freeman referring to his “surprise” that the award was going to the actor. “What immediately came to mind were the words of Madiba: ‘But we know too well that our freedom isn’t complete without the freedom of the Palestinians… “

He said he would have hoped Freeman visit Palestine before accepting the award. Kathrada had recently returned from a trip to the area.

He said:

“I have now personally witnessed the plight of the Palestinian people. They are living under conditions of permanent martial law. I came back convinced that Israel is indeed an apartheid state. And in certain respects it is worse than apartheid.”

Cape Argus