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Carter Speaks the Truth, and That’s Good for the Jews

December 7, 2006
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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. There have been bad vibes at subsequent times between Israel and Egypt, but there has never been 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 hold back intense critique.

That’s why a majority of Americans, and 86 percent of American Jews, voted 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.”

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. That is 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: 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.

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, of which I am an editor, 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 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.

Jimmy Carter is speaking the truth as he knows it. Doing so is very good for the Jews. Liberal and progressive Jews know that the mainstream Jewish community, including the Jewish press in America, has disowned them. Younger Jews cannot safely express criticisms of Israeli policy without being told that they are disloyal or self-hating.

It’s time to create a new openness to criticism and a new debate. I hope that Jimmy Carter’s book helps make that possible.

(Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue, which meets in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., and national chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. He is the author of “Healing Israel/Palestine.”)

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