Jimmy Carter's offensive against U.S. Jewry

By Bradley Burston

Haaretz

Tevet 26, 5767

Shortly after Jimmy Carter's "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" began appearing in bookstores, the former president stated that one ultimate goal of the book was "to help restart peace talks (now absent for six years) that can lead to permanent peace for Israel and its neighbors."

One might assume, then, that Mr. Carter might be troubled by the signal lack of interest and comment the book has stirred in Israel.

Unless Carter's beef was not really with Israel. Unless, that is, Carter's true intended target was the organized American Jewish community.

If Carter's intent had been to foster a revival of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, then - as scathing critics Alan Dershowitz and Abraham Foxman have both explicitly remarked - the book can indeed be judged by its cover, and written off as a failure.

Carter's use of the word apartheid, going so far as to say in an interview broadcast on Israel Radio that Israeli policies on the West Bank were worse than those which held sway in the former South African regime, assured that Israelis would associate his stance with that of Yasser Arafat at the close of his career, and dismiss the book out of hand.

In Israel, the Carter issue remains a non-issue. His words - by any measure, in America, fighting words - merit barely a passing nod in the Israeli national discourse.

In fact, even if Carter's intent, as some observers have suggested, was to curry favor with the Palestinians and be seen and celebrated as an honest broker on the Middle East, even that effort has fallen short.

"The glaring error in Carter's book," wrote UCLA Prof. Saree Makdisi in the San Francisco Chronicle "is his insistence that the term 'apartheid' does not apply to Israel itself, where, he says, Jewish and non-Jewish citizen are given the same treatment under the law. That is simply not true."

Organized U.S. Jewry, meanwhile, makes for the ideal Carter target.

Jimmy Carter knew just what to expect when he named his book. No matter how American Jewish leaders react, they do the former president's bidding. If they choose to ignore him, they lend evidence to Carter's contention that U.S. Jewish figures are cowed into silence over Israel. If they choose to lambaste him, they lend credence to Carter's argument that pro-Israel bias obviates any genuine discussion of the issues.

Best of all, from Carter's standpoint, is the blistering flak he has taken from an A-list of prominent American Jews. The criticism grants weight to Carter's carefully worded accusations as to Jewish control of the American media, a self-fulfilling charge if ever there was one, and one sure to keep the hardcovers flying off bookstore shelves.

"For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts," Carter wrote in the Los Angeles Times last month, in a reference to what may be called The Case for Palestine.

"This reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices," Carter wrote.

"When you think about the charge that he has made that the Jewish people control the means of communication, it is odious," Anti-Defamation League national director Foxman said in response to Carter's statements. "If the Jews controlled the media, how come he is traveling around the country speaking about this book on talk shows?"

What Carter reveals, in the end, is that he knows the organized Jewish community of the United States in ways he will never know the Jewish community - or for that matter, the Palestinian community - in the Holy Land. He knows America's Jewish leadership as do few American Jews. He was, after all, twice the nominee of the Democratic Party.

These people elected him president. They applauded him at Camp David. They sang his praises for forging the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab nation.

Carter knows these people, all right. He knows their vulnerabilities, their gut fears, their feelings for Israel. He knows what makes them tick. He knows what makes them squirm. He knows what makes them livid with rage. And Carter plays them, all of them, all at once, with the brio of a virtuoso on his farewell concert tour.

Jewish control of government? "It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defense of justice or human rights for Palestinians."

Jewish Control of the media? "What is even more difficult to comprehend is why the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines in the United States exercise similar self-restraint, quite contrary to private assessments expressed quite forcefully by their correspondents in the Holy Land."

Jewish fears over relations with African Americans? "The book describes the abominable oppression and persecution in the occupied Palestinian territories," Carter writes, adding "In many ways, this is more oppressive than what blacks lived under in South Africa during apartheid."

Small wonder, then, that on Thursday, when the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic body of the largest demonination of religiously affiliated American Jews, announced the cancellation of a scheduled visit to the Carter Center in Atlanta, and that it would "firmly disassociate ourselves from Mr. Carter and the Carter Center," the rabbis' dominant tone was one of having been betrayed by a once-cherished ally.

Speaking of "our sadness," the group noted how in the past Carter and his center had been known for dialogue, honest brokering, justice and lovingkindness.

For a final flourish, Carter at once set up and hyped the next round of confrontation with U.S. Jewry, likely to focus on a High Noon showdown with his academic nemesis, Dershowitz. Appropriately, Carter's challenge is framed as a kvetch:

"My most troubling experience has been the rejection of my offers to speak, for free, about the book on university campuses with high Jewish enrollment and to answer questions from students and professors."

If what Carter really wanted, as he relentlessly reiterates, was to stimulate discussion, he has succeeded beyond measure.

It may be no coincidence, however, that in this curious, furious Last Hurrah, the focus of the debate has not been Palestine, nor Israel, nor peace, but Jimmy Carter himself.