Photo: Deanna Dent
Pro-Israel protesters gather outside of the plaza where former president Jimmy Carter held a book signing at the Changing Hands Bookstore on Dec. 12,in Tempe, Ariz.
By Ben Harris
NEW YORK, Dec. 17 (JTA) — For Jimmy Carter, a meeting with a group of Phoenix-area rabbis was the high point of his tour to promote “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” a new book in which the former U.S. president blames Israel for the absence of Mideast peace.
For members of the Phoenix Board of Rabbis’ executive committee, who hoped a face-to-face meeting could help repair Carter’s relationship with the Jewish community, the Dec. 12 encounter was a disappointment.
“As a Jewish community, we have had a great deal of respect over the years for the human-rights work you have done and your commitment to the peace process,” Rabbi Andrew Straus told JTA, describing the group’s message to Carter. “But your new book has hurt our relationship with you and hurt our understanding of who you are and what you’re trying to do.”
The meeting, which lasted more than an hour, was described as cordial and respectful, but the rabbis left disheartened.
Carter claimed to be unaware of significant political differences within the American Jewish community with regard to Israel, and refused to speak out on behalf of Israeli soldiers being held captive in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.
He also told the rabbis that his use of the incendiary term “apartheid” was meant to apply only to the West Bank and Gaza and not to Israel itself, which he described as a vibrant democracy.
The rabbis professed to be “shocked” by the revelation, noting that the book did not convey any sense of admiration for Israel. Carter promised he would be more explicit in drawing that distinction in subsequent media interviews.
Carter also expressed his willingness to condemn Palestinian terrorism more vociferously and to consider traveling to Israel with the rabbis, provided they also agreed to visit locations he deemed significant for his understanding of the conflict. The meeting concluded with participants joining hands in prayer.
In a subsequent phone call with Carter, Straus asked the former president if he saw the Palestinians as bearing any measure of culpability for the breakdown in the peace process.
“He couldn’t see any failures,” Straus said.
“Somehow or another, he has accepted the Palestinian vision and understanding of the Israeli-Arab dialogue, and is not able to be critical of the Palestinian community,” said Straus, of Temple Emanuel of Tempe, Ariz. “You read through the book and there’s almost no criticism of Palestinians, almost no mention of terrorism.”
Released last month, Carter’s book has come under intense criticism from Jewish organizations who have blasted everything from its title — which evokes comparisons to apartheid South Africa — to its scholarship, which has been described as shoddy and riddled with errors.
The Anti-Defamation League, in particular, has taken Carter to task, sponsoring an ad campaign in major American publications and devoting a section of its Web site to criticizing the book.
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, told JTA that Carter is “engaging in anti-Semitism” by suggesting that his book is a reaction to stifled debate on Israel.
Criticism of Carter has not been restricted to Jewish organizations.
Writing in the Washington Post, Michael Kinsley called the apartheid analogy “a foolish and unfair comparison, unworthy of the man who won — and deserved — the Nobel Peace Prize.”
The chorus of outrage was heightened by the resignation last week of Kenneth Stein from his post as a fellow of the Carter Center, the former president’s human rights foundation based at Emory University in Atlanta.
In his letter, which ended a 23-year association with the center, Stein claims the book is “replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments.”
Carter has stood his ground, as he did in the Phoenix meeting. In interviews he has said that in some instances, Israeli conduct is “even worse” than South Africa’s. And in a recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times, he said there are “severe restraints” imposed on any discussion of the issue.
Last Friday, Carter released a letter to “Jewish citizens of America,” denying that he had ever claimed that U.S. Jews control the media and clarifying that what he sees as “overwhelming bias for Israel” comes from the Christian community. He also acknowledged that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s efforts to build support for Israel in Washington are legitimate, but lamented what he called the absence of countervailing voices.
Many have noted the irony that it was during Carter’s presidency that Israel achieved its most significant breakthrough in relations with its Arab neighbors: the 1979 peace treaty signed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Carter presided over the negotiations at the presidential retreat at Camp David.
But that history only further saddens those who would look to Carter as a peacemaker. Noting the coincidence of the Iranian conference on the Holocaust and the Carter meeting, Rabbi Bonnie Koppel, who serves three congregations in the Phoenix area, told JTA she was saddened by the experience.
“I can’t say that I came away from the meeting feeling satisfied,” Koppel said. “I just came away feeling that this is a very hard week to be a Jew.”
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