Thank You, Jimmy Carter
by Rabbi Michael Lerner
www.TomPaine.com, December 6,
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
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.
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,