Jimmy Carter’s long-awaited speech at Brandeis University did little to assuage many of the critics angered by the former president’s controversial book that blames Israel for the lack of Middle East peace.
Despite two months of a highly publicized campus debate over whether Carter would or would not be invited to campus, sparks did not fly at Tuesday’s event.
In response to a question criticizing a section of his book that appears to justify the use of terrorism, Carter admitted it was a mistake.
Calling the wording "stupid," Carter said, "I apologize to you personally and to everyone here." He said he has asked his publishers to change the wording in future editions.
"Repeatedly I call on all to terminate the use of violence," Carter said.
Still, Carter largely defended both the book and the title, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," before a crowd of some 1,700, mostly Brandeis students who greeted him warmly with a standing ovation.
In his speech, Carter said he was accustomed to being stigmatized in political campaigns, but he confessed that he has been hurt by some of his critics.
"This is the first time I’ve ever been called a liar and an anti-Semite and a coward and a plagiarist," Carter said.
Carter’s visit was considered historic for the university, the first by a former president since Harry Truman delivered the school’s commencement address 50 years ago, according to Dennis Nealon, a university spokesman.
In his opening remarks, Carter said that except for the invitation by the U.S. Congress to deliver his inaugural speech, this was the most exciting invitation he had ever received.
Carter was invited to Brandeis by a group of faculty and students who had earlier petitioned university President Jehuda Reinharz asking that Carter be invited by the university. Carter had turned down an invitation to debate Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard University law professor who has been a vocal critic of the Carter book and authored several books on Israel.
Dershowitz took the stage after Carter had left the premises, in accordance with an agreement that had been worked out with the university, whose student population is about 50 percent Jewish.
Dershowitz commended the former president for using the occasion wisely to modify and clarify some ambiguities, and to make clear his strong commitment to Israel.
"If Carter had written a book more like his comments, I do not believe there would have been so much controversy," Dershowitz quipped in his one-hour rebuttal.
"You heard the Brandeis Jimmy Carter today and he was terrific. I support almost everything he said. But if you listen to the Al Jazeera Jimmy Carter, you’ll hear a very different perspective."
The excitement among students on campus was palpable. With tightened security, a long, orderly line snaked its way from the entrance to the center, around the building, up a long flight of stairs and across a bridge onto the main campus.
About 50 demonstrators stood outside on the sidewalk across from the center, a mixture of pro-Palestinian groups from outside the campus and a smaller number of Israel activists who handed out flyers citing inaccuracies in Carter’s book.
Banners were not allowed inside but several students wore their views, some with pro-Israel T-shirts and buttons, one with a T-shirt promoting divestment from Israel.
Once inside, Nicholas Brown, an undergraduate from Newton, Mass., had the good fortune to snag a front-row, center seat in the large gym. Brown, like many other students, waited on line for three hours the week before the event for a free ticket.
"To me, a former president, you don’t pass up an opportunity to see him," Brown told JTA minutes before Carter’s talk. "A lot of people are forming opinions without knowing what Carter says in his book. I think he’s advocating for both sides."
Carter has drawn harsh criticism for his book by scholars and former colleagues who have read it, including Emory University Professor Kenneth Stein, a former executive director of the Carter Center. Stein resigned his position as a fellow at the center in December to protest the book.
Dershowitz, Stein and others argue that Carter has become too much of an advocate for the Palestinians rather than a broker for peace. They say he is making resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too simple, ignoring the years of continued terrorist attacks and killings.
Earlier this month, 14 Jewish members of the center’s board of councilors also resigned in protest.
Steve Berman, an Atlanta real-estate developer who was among the 14 who resigned, told JTA after the speech: "The president is still not sending a clear and consistent stand on terror and the use of terror in the conflict."
"He’s still saying one thing in the Arab media and another thing in the public arena here in America."
Asked if he agreed with Dershowitz’s suggestion that there are two Carters, Berman said, "I would say there’s two Jimmy Carters — maybe three or four."
In his presentation to a hushed, respectful gathering, Carter set the historical stage back to the late 1970s when he first took office, years before this audience of mostly undergraduates was born.
He spoke proudly of his efforts to dramatically increase the number of Russian Jewish emigres, of creating the U.S. Holocaust Museum, as well as negotiating the 1978 Camp David Accords, which led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
"I left office thinking Israel would soon realize peace with its neighbors," he said.
Carter defended his book, saying it does not give aid or comfort to those who espouse the notion equating Zionism with racism.
He also acknowledged that the use of the word "apartheid" in the book’s title is disturbing to the Jewish community.
"I chose that title knowing that it would be provocative, but in the long run it has precipitated discussion and there has been a lot of positive discussion," Carter said.
Among students on campus, there was mixed reaction to Carter’s speech..
"I was particularly impressed with his apology," said Sarah Mulhern, a junior from Salt Lake City. "It came across as absolutely genuine."
Ido Givon, a student from Israel and a former member of the Israel Defense Forces who posed a question probing Carter’s criticism of Israel’s excessive use of checkpoints, criticized the former president.
"Throughout his lecture he was really biased, taking just one side of the conflict," Givon said. "I would like him to express his knowledge that Israelis are a victim in this story as well."
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.