The Carter Controversy

MARCH 16, 2007

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

Friends, I have just returned from Atlanta, the home of CNN, Coca Cola, Martin Luther King, baseball’s Braves, basketball’s Hawks and those dirty birds the Atlanta Falcons. It is also home for the Carter Center, founded by former President Jimmy Carter to advance human rights and alleviate unnecessary human suffering.

I was in Atlanta attending the 118th annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, of which I had the honor and responsibility to be chair. This has been a project on which I have been working for two years. We had one controversy going into the event. We planned a variety of pre-convention trips to various Atlanta sites, one of them being the Carter Center.

Then along came President Carter’s book, released this Fall, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” The title alone is offensive and incendiary, so much for even handedness. My committee recommended we not go to the Carter Center and the CCAR Board created and distributed a statement as to why. Of course one group of rabbis felt this was wrong and decided they were going on their own, that by not going we were making the wrong statement, either because they felt Carter was right or at least that we should engage in dialogue with those with whom we disagree. I, and my committee, and the vast majority of the reform rabbinate disagreed.

Much has already been written on this book. You may have read about it in the Deep South Jewish Voice. I could have delivered this sermon based upon all the articles written. However I wanted to be open minded, so I hesitantly purchased the book and read it over Mardi Gras. After all, this is Jimmy Carter, not a great President but a contributing past President, always a seemingly just and upright human being, a religious man, without trying to impose his religion upon others, a great humanitarian, working on human rights around the world, and a strong supporter of Habitat for Humanity. He deserved my openness to what he had to say. And so I read it and was absolutely disgusted.

What was so offensive? It starts with the title and the picture on the cover. His title indicates that there will either be peace, which will come from those peace loving Palestinians, you know, the ones who turn down every opportunity for peace, the ones who send in suicide bombers into hotels, schools, restaurants and markets, which Carter acknowledges, but barely OR when the oppressive Israeli government withdraws to pre-1967 borders and ceases its persecution and denial of human rights to the Palestinian. For Carter it is the Israelis who have created apartheid- a heavy laden term indicating suppression of a people in its own country. For Carter that country is Palestine, the land on the other side of the 1967 borders, currently occupied by Israel. He totally discounts Israeli attempts to forge peace in the past including the withdrawal from Gaza. He ignores the fighting and bloodletting amongst the Palestinians.

Rather he shows a picture of what Israeli’s call the “security fence” and which Carter calls the “imprisonment wall”, a combination fence and wall which Israel has created as a defensive measure to limit access by would be terrorists, an unfortunate eye sore and regrettable strategy, but one that has proven effective in saving Israeli lives.

Then there is a picture of him looking at the wall and the Palestinians who are blocked out of coming into Israel. Perhaps this image is the whole book, for all Carter sees is the suffering Palestinian.

Friends, I do not support all actions of the Israeli government. I particularly see the continuing creating of West Bank settlements as an obstacle to peace, The War in Lebanon was a horrible miscalculation and abuse of military power. A recent picture of Israel’s Defense Minister looking out on the battlefield, with covers still on the lenses says a great deal. At the same time, Israel has bent over backwards, taken courageous positions for the sake of possible peace.

Let me share with you some of his positions in his own descriptions and words. Early on after describing in a fair handed way, what some of the basic issues are for there to be peace he writes: “It is Israel that remains the key, the vortex around which swirl the winds of hatred, intolerance and bloodshed.” (p. 17) This refers not only to the crisis between the Palestinians, but that all wars in the Middle East are because of Israel and Israel’s supporters.

Looking at the Camp David Accords, when Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula and offered Gaza, but was rejected, he writes: “We all knew that Israel must have a comprehensive and lasting peace, and this dream could have been realized if Israel had complied with the Camp David Accords and refrained from colonizing the West Bank, with Arabs accepting Israel within its borders.” (P. 53) He discounts the response in the Arab world, including the assassination of Anwar Sadat.

He spends time describing the key players with a very sympathetic description of the Palestinians, but when coming to describe the Israelis he begins with their connection to the land with 19th century Zionism, ignoring centuries of national hope through prayer and ritual, discounting a continuing but small Jewish presence in the land, limited by expulsions, not willingness and depicting Israel’s leaders in unsympathetic ways. He describes the many Palestinians “forced out of Israel”, but makes no mention of the thousands of Jews expelled from Arab lands.

There is a chapter on the other neighboring countries, which have impact on the situation, but barely refers to Iran the nation that pays rewards to the family of suicide bombers, which provides arms and funding to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.

He often makes reference to his religious roots in Hebrew scripture. Pre-1967 Israel was the good Israel, moral and cultural, just as in the Good Book. Post 1967 Israel- has “policies shaped by a refusal to acknowledge and respect the basic human rights of the citizens.” (P.112) again failing to acknowledge the reality that the people he wants respected desire Israel’s demise and actively work towards that end.

There is a full chapter on visits with the Palestinians as they share tales of persecution, validated by Carter by a left wing Israeli group hyper critical of Israel-

which can happen in an open society. In Palestinian territory anyone who dares to be supportive of Israel or critical of Palestinian leaders is killed. There is no chapter on his visit with Israelis and their tales of losing sons and daughters.

He attributes the perceived Christian exodus from the Holy Land to the Israeli government, again not referring to the Islamic attacks on Christians in Bethlehem and Nazareth. His reading of every peace initiative from Oslo onward depicts Israel as the winner and the Palestinians made to suffer.

He does mention how Arafat and the PLO may have squandered opportunities for peace, but never does he detail what Arafat and other Palestinian leaders told their own people, nor the anti-Semitic propaganda taught in the schools and spread through the media.

Not until p. 147 of the book does he mention suicide bombings that gave Netanyahu the election over Peres, who would have continued the path of peace established by Rabin.

Carter blames all the woes of Gaza since withdrawal upon Israel. In his chapter on the most recent Israeli and Palestinian elections, he dedicates 10 pages on Hamas being elected as response to Fatah corruption and ineffectiveness and one paragraph on Ehud Omert’s election and what it represents.

He saves the worst for last. Describing the wall/fence, he writes: “Utilizing their political and military dominance, they are imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation and APARTHEID on the Muslim and Christian citizens of the occupied territories.” He refers to it as a unilateral border, which ultimately it may be, but there is no mention of any Israeli perspective, how Israel’s courts at some points have modified the path, and how terrorism incidents have decreased since its creation.

Carter believes if Israel recognizes the Palestinians and creates a state, it will bring full recognition from all the Arab world. Somehow I don’t see Iran, Malaysia and other Islamic countries jumping on that band wagon. It’s all Israel’s fault: “Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land.”(p. 208)

Then in what sounds like good old anti-Semitism, he writes: “because of powerful political, economic and religious forces in the United States, Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned, voices from Jerusalem dominate in our media, and most American citizens are unaware of circumstances in the occupied territories.” (p. 209) The “religious forces” may refer to the religious right as well as that Jewish lobby. And of course there all those powerful Jews who control the media. .

I am sorely disappointed by this book and the man who wrote it, someone I admired and I am not alone. Dr. Kenneth Stein was one of President Carter’s key advisors on the Middle East. A Professor at Emory University he was one of the first directors of the Carter Center, accompanied the past-President on his early visits to the Middle East and has now publicly resigned his relationship with the Center, along with 14 other members of a community board. I’ve known Kenny Stein, son of Holocaust survivors, since I was in Junior High. He was a friend of my older brother’s. I recall having lunch with him in Jerusalem in 1973, as I was a rabbinical student and he was pursuing his doctorate. I can only imagine how difficult it was for him to dramatically break from and criticize a man he had admired.

In a scathing, scholarly article in the Middle East Quarterly he writes of  this book and President Carter as follows: “He does what no non-fiction author should ever do: He allows ideology or opinion to get in the way of facts. While Carter says that he wrote the book to educate and provoke debate, the narrative aims its attack toward Israel, Israeli politicians and Israel’s supporters. It contains egregious errors of both commission and omission. To suit his desired ends, he manipulates information, redefines facts and exaggerates conclusions. Falsehoods, when repeated and backed by the prestige of Carter’s credentials, can compromise an erroneous baseline for shaping and reinforcing attitudes and policymaking.

Rather than bring peace, they can further fuel hostilities, encourage retrenchment and hamper peacemaking.” Stein then methodically demonstrates how this occurs throughout the book.

President Carter has responded to some of the criticism. In most instances he stands by his words, his recollections and methodology. He does regret one phrase, where he seems to actually endorse terrorism, but it is too late.

I am sad to say that this book will have negative impact on the attempt to find peace in the Middle East. My colleague Jeff Salkin in Atlanta reports that it has already precipitated anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements, including Jewish teens being harassed. Granted this is Atlanta, the focus city of the controversy. Others point out that this is part of an overall movement to blame Israel for all the problems in the Middle East. As if to say, if Israel and the Palestinians work out their problems, the Sunnis and Shia of Iraq will bury the hatchet; the King of Jordan will feel secure; and Saudi Arabia will end its authoritarian regime denying rights to its people.

Our role is to respond, to make it clear that Israel is not the villain in this ongoing saga. Rather, Israel continues to be the victim of false information, an international Islamic effort to isolate it. Let us do all we can to encourage our government to continue in its support for Israel, not uncritically, but realistically. Groups like Hadassah are pivotal in spreading this message. I encourage travel to Israel, inclusive of our congregational trip this June or the community trip in October. In the face of falsehood, we must not be silent.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *