Since leaving office in 1981, Jimmy Carter has been by far our most active former president. His efforts through the Carter Center to help fledgling democracies, and his support of poverty initiatives and other humanitarian concerns helped him win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
But now the peacemaker is being cast in the role of troublemaker. In a recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Carter makes the claim that Israel has been too heavy handed in dealing with the Palestinians.
Carter writes, “Israel’s continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land.”
Beyond that, Carter also charges that Jewish influence on American news media has stifled debate in this country concerning the Middle East situation. As a result, Carter believes, the Palestinian side of the story has not been fully told.
Reaction to the book from the Jewish community has been sustained and angry. Just this past week fourteen members of the CarterCenter advisory board resigned in protest over views expressed in the book. Most if not all those who resigned are Jewish.
Barbara Kaufman, one of the members of the advisory board explained her decision to resign to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “I love Jimmy Carter, and I’ve always loved Jimmy Carter. But this is not the Jimmy Carter that I’ve always known and loved. And I thought we needed to let him know that.”
Adding fuel to this fire is Carter’s decision to use the word “apartheid” to describe the relationship between Israel and Palestine. Apartheid recalls, of course, the racial separation and subjugation that existed in South Africa for nearly 50 years. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took issue with the term and said, “It is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel or anywhere else that institutionalizes ethnically based oppression, and Democrats reject that allegation vigorously.”
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, accused Carter of deliberately seeking to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. “The title is to de-legitimate Israel, because if Israel is like South Africa, it doesn’t really deserve to be a democratic state,” Foxman told the New York Times. “He’s provoking, he’s outrageous, and he’s bigoted.”
Carter, for his part, asserts he was deliberately confrontational in choosing the title. “It was obviously going to be somewhat provocative,” Carter said. “I could have said ‘A New Path to Peace,’ or something like that.” But Carter said he believes apartheid was the most “pertinent” word he could use. He hopes the book will “provoke” dialog in this country about the situation between Israel and Palestine.
The irony here, of course, is that the singular accomplishment of Carter’s presidency was a brokered peace between Israel and Egypt–a peace which stands unto this day. Carter is also a Baptist, and Baptists have traditionally been strong supporters of Israel.
Of course Carter argues that he is not opposed to Israel at all, but is in fact for peace in the region. He believes the way to that peace is for the United States to take a lead role along with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, to help both Israel and Palestine follow the Road Map to Peace that was put forward and later championed by President Bush four years ago.
Whether or not Carter is right to use the word apartheid, he is certainly right about the need for all parties to renounce violence and begin to engage in fruitful dialog.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.