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Jimmy Carter's Sin Against Israel

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Message Charles Lenchner
We all knew Jimmy Carter was in for it. Before anyone had read a single paragraph of his book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," well known heavy hitters in the media were taking pot shots at the ex-president. Jennifer Siegel of the Forward got it right in saying that "critics of the former president probably will be most offended by his use of the word 'apartheid.'"(1) In so doing, Carter departed from a particular script that leaders of the pro-Israel community were willing to tolerate from U.S. critics of Israel.

The Israel lobby - Jews and non-Jews -- has devoted enormous resources and political capital to supporting Israel. They've done a great job, strategically speaking, by funding think tanks, newsletters, endowed chairs, academic centers and media activism shops. These resources are deployed in part to secure short-term victories around policy issues. The larger and ultimately more important role is setting the limits of allowable debate.

The terms of debate in the U.S. are: Israeli actions and policy may be criticized, as long as everyone affirms Israel's motives of only wanting peace and security. However, in Israel proper, other motives are debated constantly. These include a racist desire to subjugate Arabs to Western and Jewish control, greed for land, profit from a captive market, the wish to serve U.S. interests in the Middle East, and of course, classic stupidity, of the kind detailed in Barbara Tuchman's "The March of Folly."

In choosing to use the word "apartheid," Carter violates the terms of U.S. debate. True, he does not actually accuse Israel proper of being an apartheid state. Also, he does not consider Israel's motives to be racist. The term does however, connote moral obtuseness, a suggestion that some part of Israeli policy is wrong in the sense of "evil," not just wrong in the sense of "misguided." We should remember that to its dying days, the white South African regime that gave us the word "apartheid" claimed that it was only acting in its role as a bulwark against communism and anarchy, and not on behalf of the white race.

Gandhi famously said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." When John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote an academic paper about the Israeli Lobby, they were ridiculed for appearing to support the myth of Jewish control of Congress and the media. But they did succeed in getting widespread notice. Carter follows the path they cleared, with the powerful footsteps of an ex-president known for ensuring fair elections and housing the homeless. Where Mearsheimer and Walt evoked learned essays, Carter has provoked hysterical gnashing of teeth. (Just look at poor Alan Dershowitz jumping up and down in Cambridge, virtually screaming, "Listen to me, not Carter!")

Carter has succeeded, because he gave an emotional narrative of particular appeal to this country's Christians - still a large majority . He not only explains the facts, he includes the story of how he learned them, as a former president and elder statesmen with extensive Middle East experience. Carter's view - that Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine, along with its apartheid policies, violation of UN resolutions, and well documented human rights violations, constitute the driving force of the conflict -- support my own conclusions, and those of most Europeans and our own State Department, although they clash with the self image of Jewish supporters of Israel who wish to preserve their own status as peace- and freedom-loving victims, angry at the Arabs because they "force us to kill their sons."(2) End the Occuption with the creation of a viable Palestinian state and the conflict will end. This is Carter's position and one PDA enthusiastically supports.

I grew up in Israel and served in her army(3). I live and work in the Jewish community in New York. And of course, I recognize that Israel faces real dilemmas about how to achieve peace and security. Nonetheless, the occupation (in the West Bank) and imprisonment (in Gaza) of Palestinians cannot be described as primarily "misguided." Occupation is an ongoing and brutalizing evil, carried out by people with limited moral vision and overwhelming military might. It is not in the long-term interests of peace in the region for supporters of Israel gloss over this fact. Nothing can justify what is being done by Israel to the Palestinian people, not even Palestinian terror, extremism and incompetence. The refusal to end the occupation over the last 39 years is most of all a failure of will, not some unfortunate result of Palestinian intransigence.

Carter's book will persuade more Americans to point a finger at Israel, and even consider applying serious, option-closing consequences (sanctions) to Israeli actions. If we care about Israel's survival, we must care enough to apply U.S. political power and will to end the occupation.

1 The Forward, Carter Book Slaps Israel With 'Apartheid' Tag, Provides Ammo to GOP 10/17/06
2 "We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours." Golda Meir to Anwar Sadat.
3 I was a refusenik in 1987-1988, preferring to go to prison rather than enter the West Bank as a soldier.
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Charles Lenchner grew up in Israel and was a refusenik during the first Intifada. He lives in Brooklyn.
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