"Apartheid" is not a terribly specific or meaningful term in U.S. consciousness, especially now that majority rule in South Africa has been a fact for over a decade. I suspect it connotes, vaguely, an evil system of racist discrimination enforced by a bad government, nothing more precise. So to the casual consumer of U.S. culture (and it doesn't matter how much of a best seller Carter's book becomes, most will know of it only casually), the former President has said that Israel is a racist state.
Bravo, I say, as a citizen of another racist state still locked in a struggle to overcome its racist origins. Carter is really only restating what was the international consensus throughout the 70s and 80s according to U.N. resolutions approved by a majority of nations. Since Israel came into being as a nation at least in part because of U.N. resolutions designed to end the British mandate over Palestine in 1948, having its nationalist ideology labeled "racism" by the United Nations was profoundly threatening to Israelis and their supporters. In 1991, U.S. pressure forced the U.N. to rescind its statements. I suspect that the underlying belief remains the world's majority position.
So what does Carter actually say in this controversial book? Not much that is novel. The guts of his argument is as follows: the current situation in Israel/Palestine is
He arrives at this summary through a narrative of his many years of involvement in peace efforts, including the Camp David Accords signed on during his term of office, and his gradually expanding understanding of how Israelis have victimized Palestinian residents of the occupied territories. I agree with Helena Cobban:
And like Cobban and many other reviewers, I wish he'd admitted that Arab citizens of Israel, though much better off than Palestinians behind the Wall in the West Bank and Gaza, are also less than full citizens of "their country". Even to this distant observer, simply reading some English-language Israeli press, it was obvious last summer during the Lebanon war that Arabs in Israel felt their lives were expendable; bomb shelters for this population were simply not a priority. Ali Abunimah ran down the situation of Arab residents of Israel in a Wall Street Journal article (sub. req.)
The current Israeli cabinet includes Avigdor Lieberman who recently "called for Israel to become 'as much as possible' an all-Jewish country without an Arab minority" according to the Scottsman. (Via the Christian Science Monitor.)
What about the situation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, literally beyond the Wall? Chris Hedges, author of War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, urges us to pay attention to what is happening in Gaza after purported Israeli unilateral withdrawal.
Let's hope that Carter has opened the way for slightly more people in the United States to pay attention.
There are many people who want very much to shut Carter up. Though noisy, they are not doing that well, being up against both the megaphone of a Nobel Peace Prize winner ex-President who makes himself accessible -- and reality on the ground in Israel/Palestine. Here's a sample from the Detroit News.
Little argument, no references to different sources of information, just denunciation.
The leader of the Carter denouncers is Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. I'll be blunt about this one. He forfeited any credibility he might ever have had with me when he advocated for torture by U.S. authorities after 9/11. He's obviously lost any moral compass he ever had, though he gets a lot of press. Boston has been rocked by a kerfluffle about whether Carter would debate Dershowitz before a student audience at Brandeis University. They ended up speaking the same night, in orderly sequence. Ellen McNamara, a Globe columnist and part time journalism teacher at the school reported:
Carter's critics are clearly afraid that if he gets a hearing, somehow Israel, the Jewish people, will suffer, despite Carter's professed concern for Israel's future. Philip Weiss of the New York Observer watched a similar campus kerfluffle (not involving Carter) and came away with an insight (my emphasis).
Has Carter's book encouraged any really interesting commentary? Fortunately, yes. Tony Karon, a Jewish South African who was part of the anti-aparthied struggle and is now a Time magazine journalist, has written a couple of moving and sensible blog essays about Carter and Israel/Palestine.
Definitely "read the whole thing" material.
And Israeli historian Tom Segev, writing in the newspaper Haaretz calmly mulls the long and the short of Carter's book.