Shunning President Carter

Sermon delivered March 30, 2007, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


Attending a Houston private school, where several families were personal friends of Barbara and George Bush, I should not have been surprised by the outcome of the mock election during the 1980 presidential race. I was part of only eleven per cent of the student body that voted to reelect President Jimmy Carter!

Like many in the American Jewish community, I have long admired Jimmy Carter. The conventional wisdom is that Carter is a much better former President than he was as President, but I even think he was a pretty good in office. Along with President Ford before him, President Carter helped to heal a nation, traumatized by the Vietnam War and Watergate. He negotiated the Camp David Accords, so key to the well-being of both Israel and Egypt, and quite simply the right thing to do.

Perhaps most importantly, President Carter spoke the truth about American dependence on foreign oil. On the heels of the Arab oil embargo, President Carter told us that we suffered from a national malaise. He urged us to adopt a program of energy conservation and to develop alternative forms of energy. President Carter argued for laws that would have been painful in the short-term, but which might have prevented the mess in which our nation finds itself today. Because of our continuing energy dependence, we Americans are literally paying for the other side in the war on terror. Where do you think Osama bin Laden gets his billions? Our nation should have listened to President Carter, rather than embracing short-term ease and misplaced optimism.

Moreover, former President Carter has amassed a record of great and noble achievement, from promoting democracy by credibly policing elections around the globe to successfully combating insect-borne disease in poverty-stricken regions of Africa. He has been a model of social service, as a founder of Habitat for Humanity. With his wife Roselyn, he has also been the embodiment of personal ethics and morality. He continues to work hard, well into old age, with justice and peace as his guiding principles.

How disillusioning, then, for us to confront a darker side of President Carter. How sad to be forced to acknowledge a side of Jimmy Carter we cannot admire, traits that we abhor, and ultimately, a former President no longer worthy of our respect.

I’m speaking, of course, of Carter’s recently published book, grotesquely entitled: Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid.

Though I have heard President Carter speak on the matter repeatedly, I have not read the book. I have no plan to do so. The title alone suggests that the words on the pages inside the volume are not worthy of my eyes or yours. To brand Israel with the charge of “apartheid” is criminal. Worse, Jimmy Carter knows it. In interviews, the former President says that the term “apartheid” applies only to the Occupied Territories, not to Israel proper. And yet, as the author knows all too well, Palestine is a geographic term applicable to all of Israel, as well as the West Bank of the Jordan River, so Carter knows that his title brands Israel wrongly as an apartheid state. With his title staring us all in the face, Jimmy Carter markets not only his book, he is selling lies about Israel, calumnies about the Jewish people, and misrepresentations of the truth.

Moreover, Carter’s title cheapens the word “apartheid.” By analogy, consider that using the word “Holocaust,” to describe every injustice in the world diminishes the suffering of our own people. Similarly, throwing around the word “apartheid” to describe suffering for which the victims and their allies are largely responsible, distorts the truth of the horrors suffered by South Africans, Nelson Mandela’s sympathy with Carter notwithstanding.

A second reason I will not read the book is that I don’t have to do so. I am no expert in international relations. Many who are have read the book, and they are better positioned than I to point out its legion inaccuracies. Most notable has been Emory Professor Ken Stein, a long-time friend and associate of President Carter. Stein was there, with Carter, when many events misrepresented in the book took place. He offers eye-witness accounts to dispute many of the book’s allegations.

Lest anybody imagine that the difference of opinion between Carter and Stein is merely a difference of interpretation, consider the comparison suggested by another Emory professor, Dr. Deborah Lipstadt, world-renowned expert on Holocaust denial. Dr. Lipstadt says that, if a waiter makes a mistake in giving change, she may simply be bad at math. However, if the waiter errs repeatedly, and the miscalculations are always in his favor, we know that the waiter is a gonuf, a thief. Similarly, all of President Carter’s misrepresentations discredit Israel. No accident happened here.

Ironically, most Israelis agree with Jimmy Carter’s ultimate solution, as do the official stances of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, among others. The former President calls for a two-state solution, with independent nations of Israel and Palestine peacefully coexisting, side by side. Surely, lying about Israel and exaggerating Israel’s mistakes are not necessary to make the point that, if peace is ever to be achieved, a Palestinian State will need to be part of the solution.

Moreover, much of the substance of President Carter’s critique is also shared by many Israelis, and certainly by Reform Judaism, as articulated in more than a few resolutions adopted by both our congregational Union and our rabbinic Conference. We agree that Israel should never have built settlements in the Occupied Territories, and that those settlements and their residents are obstacles to peace. We agree that the occupation must end, as part of achieving peace.

President Carter, though, fails to emphasize that the Jewish people accepted a two-state solution in 1947, when the U.N. voted to establish two nations in Palestine, one Jewish and the other Arab. Israel was prepared then, as she is now, to live peacefully, side-by-side with Palestine. The Arabs rejected that solution then, just as the actions of most Palestinians and other Arabs continue to make a two-state solution impossible today. Just as the hardships of the occupation do not build trust among the Palestinians, continued terrorism is not the way to convince Israelis to cede beloved and holy land for a Palestinian State. Those who seek peace will acknowledge that both terrorism and the occupation are obstacles to peace. Even though we don’t believe that occupation and terrorism are equivalent, we don’t soft-pedal the evils of either. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, writes as if terrorism were the natural, even inevitable, result of the occupation. He lets the terrorists off the hook. The former President of 2007, unlike the President who negotiated the Camp David Accords in 1978, seems not to recognize that making peace requires acknowledgement that both sides have legitimate needs and problems, and that both sides have done wrong.

Some have suggested that Jimmy Carter is an anti-Semite. I use that term most sparingly, so as not to diminish its impact when it applies most clearly. President Carter understands that the State of Israel must continue to exist, within defensible borders. His personal interactions and public statements over long years of public service do not suggest anti-Semitism. His book and his numerous public statements in its wake indicate deep insensitivity to the Jewish people, and even a willingness to dissemble where Israel is involved. Though I would not label him an anti-Semite, he has earned our contempt.

Earlier this month, the Central Conference of American Rabbis held its annual convention in Atlanta, gathering nearly 500 Reform Rabbis from across North America and around the globe. On one day of the convention, delegates and their spouses were offered a variety of programs, scattered at sites of interest around Atlanta. When the program was planned, well before the publication of Carter’s book, one of those visits was to have been to the Carter Center. The former President’s installation on the campus of Emory University has done great work over the last quarter century. It is, in many ways, a model of what a presidential library and museum ought to be, continuing to carry out the most noble goals of the presidency.

After the publication of Carter’s hatefully-titled book, though, the leadership of our rabbinic Conference decided to cancel the Carter Center visit. A statement said: “Our cancellation of the visit to the Carter Center reflects our continuing commitment to Israel, Zionism, and America’s role in the establishment of a just and lasting peace between the State of Israel and all her Arab neighbors.” In other words, an official rabbinical visit to the Carter Center would have been tantamount to abandonment of Israel and Zionism. It would also have implied that the book is an acceptable contribution to discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle.

Moreover, a rabbinical organization that favors a two-state solution would have particularly endangered the cause of peace, had the visit not been cancelled. Were we to associate ourselves with President Carter, we would have misled all who join us in the search for peace, by suggesting that we may pursue peace by exaggerating Israel’s warts and minimizing Palestinian terror. We would also have given comfort to those on the right, who claim that joining the large Israeli majority that supports a two-state solution is somehow as anti-Israel as President Carter.

A group of rabbis who disagreed with the Conference’s cancellation made a private visit to the Carter Center. They later reported that they engaged in meaningful conversation with the Center’s director. They aired their complaints about the book. They were assured that their concerns would be shared with President Carter.

Discussion between those who disagree is almost always warranted and rarely contemptible. The difference between an official program and a private occasion is vast.

Publicly shunning President Carter by canceling the conference engagement with his center made a clear public statement. We must not be seen publicly associating with one who publishes calumnies intended to bring disrepute upon the Jewish State. No matter what his merits, and they are legion, we are now compelled to count Jimmy Carter among the growing numbers on the American left who are grossly insensitive to the plight of our people in Zion. We must rebuke President Carter, for the sake of Israel. We must shun President Carter, for the sake of peace.

Amen.