Thank You, Jimmy Carter
Rabbi Michael Lerner
December 06, 2006
Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue, which meets in San Francisco and Berkeley, and national chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. He is the author of Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003) and of the national best-seller The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right (Harper San Francisco, 2006).
Jimmy Carter was the best friend the Jews ever had as president of the United States.
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. Since the treaty, there have been bad vibes between Israel and Egypt, but never a return to war, once Israel fully withdrew from the territories it conquered in Egypt during the 1967 war.
To get that agreement, Carter had to twist the arms of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat. Sometimes that is what real friends do—they push you into a path that is really in your best interest at times when there is an emergency and you are acting self-destructively.
When the U.S. government is following a self-destructive policy, even a policy backed by people in both major political parties, its best friends are those who try to change its direction and are not afraid to offer intense critique. That’s why a majority of Americans, and 86 percent of American Jews, voted in the 2006 midterm elections to reject Bush’s war in Iraq and his policies suspending habeas corpus and legitimating wire-tapping and torture. Not because we were disloyal, but precisely because we love America enough to challenge its policies even when Vice President Cheney questions our loyalty. We know that critique is often an essential part of love and caring.
That is precisely what Jimmy Carter is trying to do for Israel and the Jewish people in his new book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
So it’s astounding to see the assault on Carter that has been launched by the ADL chair Abe Foxman, law professor Alan Dershowitz and a bevy of other representatives of the Jewish community. I recently received a mailing from our local Jewish Community Relations Council containing four such attacks on Carter, with zero representation of American Jews who support the Israeli peace movement.
Of course, any selection of facts is always going to be a choice, and those who buy the mainstream narrative of either the Palestinian or Israeli partisans are going to be unhappy with moments in which their narrative is not the dominant one in this book.
Carter recognizes the mistakes on both sides—precisely what the “You are either for us or against us” crowd in both camps cannot stand. Nuance, recognition that both sides have at times been insensitive to the legitimate needs of the other, insistence that both sides need to take steps that are currently rejected (by Hamas in the Palestinian world, by the Israeli government in the Jewish world—this is what makes for rational discussion.
Here’s an easy way to tell an extremist on Israel/Palestine issues: Just ask that person if he or she can list at least three terrible errors his/her side has made in this struggle, errors that deserve moral condemnation. If they can’t, chances are that no amount of evidence or moral reasoning is ever going to open their minds.
Instead, you’ll hear Palestinians who talk about their own refugee status but never acknowledge that, when Jews were refugees trying to escape the Holocaust in Europe, the Palestinian leadership convinced the British to not allow any Jews to come to Palestine. Nor will they talk about the human suffering that results when Palestinian terrorists explode bombs in cafes, movie theatres or dance halls in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Or you’ll hear the right-wingers in the Jewish crowd claiming, quite mistakenly as we’ve demonstrated in Tikkun, that Palestinians rejected a reasonable deal presented to them at Camp David in 2000. They’ll make the equally absurd claim that the Gaza pull-out of troops in 2005 “gave the Palestinians what they’ve been asking for and yet they continue to fight.” In fact, the Palestinian Authority had pleaded with Sharon not to pull out unilaterally but to negotiate an end to the occupation of both Gaza and the West Bank, recognizing that negotiations would give credence to the Palestinian Authority for being able to deliver something in return for the nonviolent stance it had taken since the death of Arafat, while unilateral withdrawal would give Hamas an important chip (which it was able to use to parlay itself to electoral victory, claiming that it was their violence that had driven the Israelis out). Similarly, the apologists for the current policies of the State of Israel simply ignore the ongoing suffering that constitutes collective punishment for the entire population of Palestine when Israel cuts off food and funds and allows tens of thousands of people in the Occupied Territories to suffer from malnutrition. The partisans always have to see themselves as “righteous victims” and the other side as “the evil other.”
Carter does not claim that Israel is an apartheid state. What he does claim is that the West Bank will be a de facto apartheid situation if the current dynamics represented by the construction of the wall, by the passage of discriminatory legislation and by the inclusion of racists in the leadership—most recently that of pro-ethnic cleansing Israeli Cabinet member Avigdor Lieberman—continue. The only way to avoid Israel turning into an apartheid state is a genuine peace accord.
In an interview that will appear in the January issue of Tikkun magazine, Carter points out that he is “not referring to racism as a basis for Israeli policy in the West Bank, but rather the desire of a minority of Israelis to occupy, confiscate and colonize Palestinian land.” To enforce that occupation of Palestinian land, Israel has built in the West Bank separate roads for Jewish settlers and Palestinians, built separate school systems, has totally different allocations of money, water, food and security for each population, wildly privileging the Jewish settlers and discriminating against the Palestinians whose families have lived there for centuries.
What Carter is arguing is that the best interests of Israel and the United States are not served by the current policies. Some still cling to the fantasy that holding on to land in the West Bank will improve Israeli security, but, as the recent war with Hezbollah conclusively showed, increasing sophistication of military technologies makes holding land no serious barrier for those who wish to send rockets and bombs hundreds of miles away.
The only real protection for a small country like Israel is to have good relations with its neighbors, and that is precisely what the occupation systematically undermines. The Geneva Accord provides a good foundation for the lasting peace both sides say they want. And it will eventually provide the foundations for any settlement: the creation of a Palestinian state on almost all of the West Bank and Gaza, with full control of its own borders; full recognition and security agreements for Israel with all of its neighbors; joint coordination on security and anti-terrorism between Israeli and Palestinian police and military forces; reparations for Palestinian refugees; and a peace and reconciliation process that dispels the lies and propaganda that have become “accepted truths” in the diaspora communities of both Jewish and Arab worlds.
Jimmy Carter is speaking the truth as he knows it, and doing a great service to the Jews.
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. 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,” and elected officials tell me privately that they agree with Tikkun’s more balanced “progressive Middle Path” which is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. But we’ve found that even Jews in the mainstream media have ignored or condemned our new organization, The Network of Spiritual Progressives, which is, among other things, trying to be an interfaith alternative to AIPAC.
It’s time to create a new openness to criticism and a new debate. Jimmy Carter has shown courage in trying to open that kind of space with his new book, and he deserves our warm thanks and support.