Prominent leaders like Abraham Foxman and Alan Dershowitz don’t speak for the entire U.S. Jewish community in condemning former President Jimmy Carter for comparing Israeli occupation of the West Bank with South Africa’s system of apartheid.
A New York Times photo with a caption describing an anti-Carter protest Tuesday at BrandeisUniversity ironically featured prominently an Antiwar League banner reading, “US and Israel, Hands Off Iran. No More Wars for Oil Empire and Israel.”
Alongside the Antiwar League at the Brandeis rally were members of Jewish Voice for Peace, a decade-old activist organization working for peace, social justice and human rights informed by Jewish tradition.
Jewish Voice for Peace is gathering signatures on an on-line petition urging Congress to heed Carter’s leadership in “crafting a Middle East policy leading toward a just peace.”
Carter’s latest book on the Palestinian problem has received criticism among Jewish leaders, who say it contains errors and is biased against Israel. Most widely denounced, however, is the book’s attention-grabbing title: Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
Mitchell Plitnick, director of administration and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace, endorsed the book in a blog but said Carter made a strategic mistake in using such a provocative title, because it served to distract from the book’s substance.
“I am concerned that public discussion of my book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid has been diverted from the book’s basic proposals: that peace talks be resumed after six years of delay and that the tragic persecution of Palestinians be ended,” Carter wrote in a Washington Post op-ed republished with permission on EthicsDaily.com.
In the book, Carter repudiated “a system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights.”
Speaking to a crowd of about 1,700 at Brandeis, a non-sectarian school in Massachusetts founded by American Jews and with a current student body that is about half Jewish, Carter said he was hurt by accusations he is an anti-Semite, a liar and a plagiarist.
Carter said he realized his use of the word “apartheid” caused concern in the Jewish community. He said he did not mean to equate Zionism with racism but rather to point out “that this cruel oppression is contrary to the tenets of the Jewish religious faith and contrary to the basic principles of the state of Israel.”
Despite the outcry, Carter isn’t the first to draw the comparison. Uri Avnery, an Israeli journalist and peace activist, found similarities between Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert’s vision of a non-contiguous Palestinian state and planned enclaves set up by South Africa’s white regime that were supposed to be “homelands” but really amounted to “racist concentration camps.”
“Because of this, we are right when we use the term ‘apartheid’ in our daily struggle against the occupation,” Avnery wrote. “We speak about the ‘apartheid wall’ and ‘apartheid methods.’ The order of General Naveh has practically given official sanction to the use of this term.”
Shulamit Aloni, an Israeli Prize laureate who served as minister of education under Yitzhak Rabin, weighed in with: “The U.S. Jewish Establishment’s onslaught on former President Jimmy Carter is based on him daring to tell the truth which is known to all: through its army, the government of Israel practices a brutal form of apartheid in the territory it occupies.
“Its army has turned every Palestinian village and town into a fenced-in, or blocked-in, detention camp. All this is done in order to keep an eye on the population’s movements and to make its life difficult. Israel even imposes a total curfew whenever the settlers, who have illegally usurped the Palestinians’ land, celebrate their holidays or conduct their parades.”
A comment on Plitnick’s blog from someone who used to live in Israel and worked in the West Bank/Gaza area said the word apartheid was applied so liberally there he wondered if Carter might have appropriated the term from people like him.
Also defending Carter was Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine author the national best-seller The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.
“Jimmy Carter was the best friend the Jews ever had as president of the United States,” Lerner wrote. “He is the only president to have actually delivered for the Jewish people an agreement (the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt) that has stood the test of time.”
“Unfortunately, this peace is impeded by the powerful voices of AIPAC and the mainstream of the organized Jewish community who manage to terrify even the most liberal elected officials into blind support of whatever policy the current government of Israel advocates,” Lerner commented.
“Ironically, this blind support has had the consequence of pushing many morally sensitive Christians and Jews to distance themselves from the Jewish world (which makes blind support for Israeli policies the litmus test of anti-Semitism!). Younger Jews cannot safely express criticisms of Israeli policy without being told that they are disloyal or ‘self-hating’ ….”
“It’s time to create a new openness to criticism and a new debate,” Lerner wrote. “Jimmy Carter has shown the courage to try to open that kind of space with his new book, and he deserves our warm thanks and support.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.