I’m a bit late to the Jimmy Carter party. The great firestorm of debate and criticism surrounding former President Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, happened back in December and January. His troubling book and the intense reaction it engendered from the community of Israel supporters, both Jewish and Gentile, has largely subsided. Key moments in the conflict were a meeting between Carter and a group of rabbis in Phoenix, the public resignation of members of the Carter Center Board, a well-publicized speaking engagement at Brandeis University, and the cancellation of a visit to the Carter Center planned by the Central Conference of American Rabbis at our March convention in Atlanta.
But the book is still in print, and there is an occasional news story about it. The latest involves a “conspiracy” by Jewish students at George Washington University to make sure that only critical questions were asked during the Q&A following Carter’s talk there. The conspiracy was carried out, apparently, by arriving early and sitting near the microphones (aren’t we malevolent?) Knowing that we had this Israel Synaplex on our calendar, I chose to wait until now to offer my reactions to the book. I hope they are worthwhile, if not all that timely.
* * *
On this Shabbat, seeking to forge the connection between our Synaplex theme and the weekly Torah portion (Shemini), let me utter an instantly memorable phrase: “Jimmy Carter is a pig.”
Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid, provides the evidence we need to sustain this claim, especially when considered in light of the eleventh chapter of Leviticus. That chapter, which includes the lengthy list of forbidden animals, teaches that the criteria which make land animals fit for eating are cloven hoofs and the chewing of the cud. Cleft-footed ruminants are in; all the rest are out. The camel, the daman, the rabbit, all out. And, most famously, “the swine — although it has true hoofs, with the hoofs cleft through, it does not chew the cud: it is unclean for you.”
That the pig has cleft hoofs – the outward sign of kashrut – but does not have a multi-chambered stomach led the Rabbis to derive a moral lesson from it. In the Midrash, we learn that the pig is a symbol of hypocrisy. “Look at me,” says the pig, sitting daintily with its cloven hoof thrust out for all to see. “Look at how kosher I am.” Meanwhile, of course, on the inside he’s pure, unadulterated treif. Beware of creatures that present themselves as one thing but are in fact something different altogether.
As I consider Carter’s book, it occurs to me that many of its flaws are the result of just that sort of misrepresentation. Let’s consider a few ways in which Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid is not what it claims to be.
* * *
In the first place, Carter presents this book as a sort of presidential record, a high-minded extension of his diplomacy. A former US president, a Nobel Peace Prize Winner, deeply respected around the world for all that he’s done to promote democracy and fair elections in his very active retirement, Carter wants us to read this as a book with gravitas.
And yet, if you read the book you’ll find something very un-presidential about it. Page after page, what we have here is a hatchet job on Menachem Begin. Carter perceived that Begin had betrayed his trust – a perception argued against by others who were present at the time – and he gives that perceived slight far too much control over his feelings about the Middle East. Everything is filtered through that moment. Listen to this bewildering passage:
[blog note….I read aloud from the book, pp. 106-107 – “Now we were together again…the number on the door was 242.” It’s nuts. You can look it up. If someone wants to type it out, I’ll be happy to paste it in]
Carter’s antipathy for Begin colors the whole book, and perhaps contributes to some of the more significant flaws. Arafat’s great failure to lead his people from war toward peace – a failure widely recognized by people across the spectrum of opinion – is almost a non-issue for Carter. For Carter, Arafat is no less the statesman than Sadat, while Rabin and Peres are latter-day Begins, not to be trusted.
Is Jimmy kosher? Carter presents the hoof of a former President, but his stomach is that of a jilted boyfriend. He cannot see the Middle East clearly, because everything reminds him of that no-good Menachem who stood him up at the altar of final status talks, running off instead to build settlements with his new beau, Ariel Sharon. Kosher on the outside, treif where it counts, in the kishkes.
* * *
Even more troublesome than the book’s very un-presidential obsession with sticking it to Menachem Begin is its misrepresentation of facts. The book is riddled with errors, sins both of omission and commission. I am not one of those “Israel, right or wrong” types who think the answer to an anti-Israel lie is to skew hard in the other direction in some attempt to convince the public that “the truth must be somewhere in between.” I believe in telling the unvarnished truth and letting thoughtful people find their way to it. And, I’m a center-lefty on Israel. So believe me when I say that Carter’s fact-checker needs to be fired. His timeline presents an alternate universe to the one in which we live. His selective (and I think deliberate) misreading of published documents is unconscionable. His recollections of behind-closed-doors meetings have been rebutted by others who were in the room. Jimmy Carter has a story to tell about a racist and belligerent Israeli government, and he has no qualms about shaping the facts to fit that narrative. This is shameful when done by home-team propagandists, and is doubly shameful when done by the man who more than anyone else would have us believe he is an “honest broker.”
I am not going to take you through the inaccuracies in detail; Havdalah would be here before we knew what hit us. One example will suffice. I’m quoting here from the web page of CAMERA: The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
Page 57: The 1949 armistice demarcation lines became the borders of the new nation of Israel and were accepted by Israel and the United States, and recognized officially by the United Nations.
The 1949 armistice lines separating the West Bank from Israel never became permanent borders recognized by Israel, the United States or the U.N. Security Council. On the contrary, the Jordanian-Israeli General Armistice Agreement of April 3, 1949 specifically notes that the lines are not borders: “The Armistice Demarcation Lines defined in articles V and VI of this Agreement are agreed upon by the Parties without prejudice to future territorial settlements or boundary lines or to claims of either Party relating thereto.”
I encourage you to go to this website: camera.org. Type “carter” in the site’s search feature, and then click on the “Comprehensive Collection of Jimmy Carter’s errors.”
The evidence is clear, and it is overwhelming. While it would be stretching the truth to put Carter in the category with James Frey, who wrote a work of fiction and passed it off as memoir, it wouldn’t be stretching by much. Carter would like us to believe that his book is dispassionate and clear-headed, but colored by his skewed viewpoint it is in fact muddy and imprecise. For this reason as well, Carter isn’t kosher.
* * *
Carter has suggested that the incendiary title of his book is a good thing for having stirred the pot. Never mind that he’s needed to back away from the word “Apartheid” in several different ways – “I didn’t mean in Israel, only the territories;” “I didn’t mean race, I only meant property and land,” and more. In reacting to some of his critics he has suggested that Jewish criticism has been overblown, and a few of his comments have veered pretty close to antisemitic.
I don’t believe Jimmy Carter is antisemitic, and the fact that the book – and some of his interviews since it appeared – give such a claim creedence disturbs me. But it is plain as day to me that his Begin-fixation sullies the book as presidential memoir, and his skewing of the facts to fit his storyline put the lie to his status as an honest broker. But what is most sad is the way that the president almost universally referred to as a “decent” man gives us any reason at all to suspect otherwise.
The coincidence of a Carter book review and parashat shemini made the “Carter is a pig” line possible, and I must admit, irresistible. Now let me qualify it a bit. I do have great respect for much of what Carter tried to do as President, and for much of what he’s done since. I think he’s a decent man who wrote a flawed book, and the homiletical device of comparing him to our cloven-hoofed non-ruminating friend should be seen as just that: a homiletical device. But if, in reality, Jimmy Carter isn’t a chazer, this much can at least be said without qualification: Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is chazerai.