Carter Challenging Baptists On Conversions, Says Rabbi


Wading into the delicate fray over the alliance between Jews and pro-Israel Evangelicals, former President Jimmy Carter last week reportedly said it was a mistake for Jews to accept such ties, and that he was working to convince Southern Baptists to change the way they look at Judaism and the Middle East.

Christian Zionists can be better friends of Israel by challenging its government’s policies, while accepting Judaism as a legitimate path to God, Carter told a group organized by Rabbi Michael Lerner in California last week, according to the rabbi.

“He said it was a terrible error for Jews to become allied with Christian Zionists who actually desire our conversion or burning in hell,” Rabbi Lerner related in an interview Tuesday.

Carter, who has been assailed by many Jewish leaders for ideas in his recent book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” met on May 2 with a delegation of rabbis, Christians and Muslims organized by Rabbi Lerner, the editor of Tikkun magazine and a prominent voice of the Jewish left. Rabbi Lerner had previously interviewed Carter on his book for the January issue of Tikkun. Last week’s meeting took place following a lecture at the University of California.

“Carter described his efforts to counter the extreme right-wing Christian Zionists, and his efforts to help the Baptists understand that the real way to be allies to the Jews is not by giving unconditional support to the current government of the State of Israel,” Rabbi Lerner announced in an e-mail to supporters after the meeting. He said the comments were on the record, taped and would appear, in part, in Tikkun this summer.

In a phone interview from California, the rabbi said Carter, a devout Southern Baptist, “has been involved and continues to be involved in theological debate within the American Baptists on the issue of how best to serve Jewish interests …“He pointed out the strong connections between Christian Zionism and the desire to push the Jews eventually toward converting to Christianity or burning in hell. He pointed out that the Christian Zionist view is part of that general theology that essentially views the Jews as an obstacle, not as friends, but temporarily views the Jews as friends in the process of bringing back Jesus and at that point having all of us convert.”

Carter, said Rabbi Lerner, “says that Judaism is an equally legitimate path to God and does not believe that a second coming of Jesus requires destruction of the Jewish path to God … He argues that the book of Revelations from which this perspective has been derived is deeply misinterpreted by the fundamentalists.”

Rabbi James Rudin, the expert on Christian-Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee, took exception to the notion that Jewish leaders were acting against their interests.

“The Jewish community is much more sophisticated than maybe the president thinks,” said Rabbi Rudin. “We certainly understand that there are people such as he is describing, but that’s not the majority of Christian Zionists. There are many different views.”

Raising the issue now, Rabbi Rudin said, may be an attempt to counter criticism of his book. “If I had heard this from Jimmy Carter a year ago, perhaps it could be taken a little more seriously. He is making a straw man out of these extreme Christian Zionists and beating them down.”

Deanna Congileo, a spokeswoman for the Carter Center, the former president’s foundation at Emory University in Atlanta, did not immediately reply to a request on Tuesday for further comment about Carter’s remarks.

In his e-mail, Rabbi Lerner said he “invited eight rabbis, two nationally respected leaders of the Muslim world, several ministers and activists in the Christian world, several professors, and leaders in the Network of Spiritual Progressives and in Beyt Tikkun Synagogue, as well as Mitchell Plitnick, the national director of Jewish Voices for Peace, and one of the founders of Brit Tzedeck ve’Shalom.” Four Reform rabbis declined the invitation, he wrote, citing political differences.

Most of the hour-long meeting between Carter and the group, and a later one-on-one meeting between Carter and Rabbi Lerner, was spent discussing the fallout from Carter’s book. The rabbi said some critics were won over, and some asked Carter how they could help him spread his message.Rabbi Lerner, who strongly advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, generally supports the book’s thesis — that inequities between Jews and Arabs on the West Bank hamper peace efforts — but said he is not without disagreements, which he expressed in the meeting.

“It’s a mistake to use the term apartheid,” Rabbi Lerner said Tuesday. “It’s incendiary and really has the opposite effect to what he wanted, which is to have a serious discussion about Israel.”

Rabbi Lerner also faulted the book as lacking historical context. “It was a big mistake not to focus on the role that Arab states played before the creation of the state in relation to keeping Jews out of Palestine in the ‘30s and ‘40s when Jews were being murdered in Europe. They played a significant role in convincing Britain to impose a blockade … They had incurred a moral guilt that needed repentance. The failure to discuss that was in my mind a significant failure of the book.”

Further, Rabbi Lerner said Carter should have scrutinized Arab rejection of the 1947 Partition Plan and “didn’t give adequate attention” to the fears of modern Israelis generated by terror attacks.Carter accepted the criticism, said the rabbi, but said the book’s focus was primarily on the status of Palestinians after 1967.In the meeting, he said, Carter also insisted he believed pro-Israel lobbying by AIPAC, the subject of much criticism in his talks, was legitimate, but suggested those with contrasting views on the Mideast should form their own lobby.

Insisting it’s wrong to call Carter anti-Israel, Rabbi Lerner said the former president is “very critical of settlers on the West Bank, not of Israel … He insists over and over again that the majority of Israelis are not responsible for the behavior of settlers and would not support that behavior.”

Rabbi Lerner, who is part of the Jewish Renewal movement, said he was working to set up a meeting between Carter and leaders of the Reform movement.But a meeting between Carter and a more diverse Jewish audience seems unlikely in the short term.

Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Carter was “not willing to engage in serious dialogue. To have a closed-door meeting with people who share your point of view is not very significant. He’s essentially dismissed other people who don’t agree with him.”

Hoenlein noted that at Carter’s speaking engagements, “the questions have to be written in advance and predetermined. There is no serious dialogue and his views have become more and more extreme.”

The day after the meeting with Lerner, Carter spoke at University of California-Irvine, where he offered to raise money for students to visit Palestinian areas, JTA reported.

“I’d like to see the leaders form a combined group and take my invitation to go to Palestine and see what’s going on for yourselves,” Carter said Thursday at the campus, where relations between Jewish and Arab students are tense. “If you take me up on it, I’ll raise the money to pay for your trip.”

Jewish students peacefully protested the talk.