Jimmy Carter's Jewish Problem

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By Deborah Lipstadt
Saturday, January 20, 2007

It is hard to criticize an icon. Jimmy Carter's humanitarian work has saved countless lives. Yet his life has also been shaped by the Bible, where the Hebrew prophets taught us to speak truth to power. So I write.

Carter's book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," while exceptionally sensitive to Palestinian suffering, ignores a legacy of mistreatment, expulsion and murder committed against Jews. It trivializes the murder of Israelis. Now, facing a storm of criticism, he has relied on anti-Semitic stereotypes in defense.

One cannot ignore the Holocaust's impact on Jewish identity and the history of the Middle East conflict. When an Ahmadinejad or Hamas threatens to destroy Israel, Jews have historical precedent to believe them. Jimmy Carter either does not understand this or considers it irrelevant.

His book, which dwells on the Palestinian refugee experience, makes two fleeting references to the Holocaust. The book contains a detailed chronology of major developments necessary for the reader to understand the current situation in the Middle East. Remarkably, there is nothing listed between 1939 and 1947. Nitpickers might say that the Holocaust did not happen in the region. However, this event sealed in the minds of almost all the world's people then the need for the Jewish people to have a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. Carter never discusses the Jewish refugees who were prevented from entering Palestine before and after the war. One of Israel's first acts upon declaring statehood was to send ships to take those people "home."

A guiding principle of Israel is that never again will persecuted Jews be left with no place to go. Israel's ideal of Jewish refuge is enshrined in laws that grant immediate citizenship to any Jew who requests it. A Jew, for purposes of this law, is anyone who, had that person lived in Nazi Germany, would have been stripped of citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws.

Compare Carter's approach with that of Rashid Khalidi, head of Columbia University's Middle East Institute and a professor of Arab studies there. His recent book "The Iron Cage" contains more than a dozen references to the seminal place the Holocaust and anti-Semitism hold in the Israeli worldview. This from a Palestinian who does not cast himself as an evenhanded negotiator.

In contrast, by almost ignoring the Holocaust, Carter gives inadvertent comfort to those who deny its importance or even its historical reality, in part because it helps them deny Israel's right to exist. This from the president who signed the legislation creating the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Carter's minimization of the Holocaust is compounded by his recent behavior. On MSNBC in December, he described conditions for Palestinians as "one of the worst examples of human rights deprivation" in the world. When the interviewer asked "Worse than Rwanda?" Carter said that he did not want to discuss the "ancient history" of Rwanda.

To give Carter the benefit of the doubt, let's say that he meant an ongoing crisis. Is the Palestinians' situation equivalent to Darfur, which our own government has branded genocide?

Carter has repeatedly fallen back -- possibly unconsciously -- on traditional anti-Semitic canards. In the Los Angeles Times last month, he declared it"politically suicide" for a politician to advocate a "balanced position" on the crisis. On Al-Jazeera TV, he dismissed the critique of his book by declaring that "most of the condemnations of my book came from Jewish-American organizations." Jeffrey Goldberg, who lambasted the book in The Post last month, writes for the New Yorker. Ethan Bronner, who in the New York Times called the book "a distortion," is the Times' deputy foreign editor. Slate's Michael Kinsley declared it "moronic." Dennis Ross, who was chief negotiator on the conflict in the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, described the book as a rewriting and misrepresentation of history. Alan Dershowitz teaches at Harvard and Ken Stein at Emory. Both have criticized the book. Because of the book's inaccuracies and imbalance and Carter's subsequent behavior, 14 members of the Carter Center's Board of Councilors have resigned -- many in anguish because they so respect Carter's other work. All are Jews. Does that invalidate their criticism -- and mine -- or render us representatives of Jewish organizations?

On CNN, Carter bemoaned the "tremendous intimidation in our country that has silenced" the media. Carter has appeared on C-SPAN, "Larry King Live" and "Meet the Press," among many shows. When a caller to C-SPAN accused Carter of anti-Semitism, the host cut him off. Who's being silenced?

Perhaps unused to being criticized, Carter reflexively fell back on this kind of innuendo about Jewish control of the media and government. Even if unconscious, such stereotyping from a man of his stature is noteworthy. When David Duke spouts it, I yawn. When Jimmy Carter does, I shudder.

Others can enumerate the many factual errors in this book. A man who has done much good and who wants to bring peace has not only failed to move the process forward but has given refuge to scoundrels.

The writer teaches at Emory University. Her latest book is "History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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