Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Jimmy Carter:
Israel, Palestine; amplifications, denunciations

Jimmy Carter has gone and spoken the unspeakable. By titling his new book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, he has put the simple truth that "zionism is a form of racism" back out in public view in the United States. For many years that notion was locked away in closet along with other unmentionables (think "George W. Bush is a narcissistic sociopath"), but Carter has sprung it amid great wailing from those who thought they'd staked it firmly in oblivion.

"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

a system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights. This is the policy now being followed, although many citizens of Israel deride the racist connotation of prescribing permanent second-class status for Palestinians. As one prominent Israeli stated, " I am afraid we are moving toward a government like that of South Africa, with a dual society of Jewish rulers and Arab subjects with few rights of citizenship. The West Bank is not worth it."

An unacceptable modification of this choice, now being proposed, is the taking of substantial portions of the occupied territory, with the remaining Palestinians completely surrounded by walls, fences, and Israeli checkpoints, living as prisoners within the small portion of land left to them. ...

The United States is squandering international prestige and goodwill and intensifying global anti-American terrorism by unofficially condoning or abetting Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories. [pp. 215-6]

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:

it's a sweet and haunting book, in which he gives an intimate portrait of how he came to learn about many aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and much well-presented information about the nitty-gritty of the Israeli-Palestinian encounter in the occupied territories. But really, I wish he'd done a bit more with that title of his.

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.)

They have nominal Israeli citizenship, and unlike blacks in apartheid South Africa, they do vote for the country's parliament. Yet this is where any sense of equality ends. ...

Discrimination against non-Jewish citizens both informal and legalized is systematic. Non-Jewish children attend separate schools and live in areas that receive a fraction of the funding of their Jewish counterparts. ...

Much of the land of the country, controlled by the quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund, cannot be leased or sold to non-Jews. ...

A 2003 law stipulates that an Israeli citizen may bring a non-citizen spouse to live in Israel from anywhere in the world, excluding a Palestinian from the occupied territories.

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.

Israel has spent the last five months unleashing missiles, attack helicopters and jet fighters over the densely packed concrete hovels in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army has made numerous deadly incursions, and some 500 people, nearly all civilians, have been killed and 1,600 more wounded. Israel has rounded up hundreds of Palestinians, destroyed Gaza’s infrastructure, including its electrical power system and key roads and bridges, carried out huge land confiscations, demolished homes and plunged families into a crisis that has caused widespread poverty and malnutrition.

Civil society itself—and this appears to be part of the Israeli plan—is unraveling. Hamas and Fatah factions battle in the streets, despite a tenuous cease-fire, threatening civil war. And the governing Palestinian movement, Hamas, has said it will boycott early elections called by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, done with the blessing of the West in a bid to toss Hamas out of power. (Remember that Hamas, despite its repugnant politics, was democratically elected.) In recent days armed groups loyal to Abbas have seized Hamas-run ministries in what looks like a coup.

The stark reality of Gaza, however, has failed to penetrate the consciousness of most Americans.... [Truthdig.]

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.

The problem is Carter has always displayed an animus for Israel. ...

In every conflict with the Palestinians, Carter has always blamed Israel; thus the book is hardly a revelation. During the most recent war in Lebanon, he chastised Israel for bombing the "entire" country.

It is actually sad to witness Carter, once the most powerful leader of the free world, write what amounts to nothing but propaganda.

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:

No such civility would have prevailed if Carter had shared the stage with Alan Dershowitz, whose low opinion of Carter is matched only by his high opinion of himself. The Harvard Law professor wrote an op-ed piece in this newspaper last month calling the former president a hypocrite and a coward and a bully. Carter's sin was not so much writing a book that Dershowitz didn't like. It was Carter's refusal to debate him about the merits of that book that rankled the smartest man in Cambridge. Dershowitz delivered a rebuttal after Carter left the building last night. ...

Carter's refusal looked more like common sense than cowardice to anyone who remembers Dershowitz's debate with Noam Chomsky of MIT about Israel at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, an exchange that degenerated into personal attacks that Chomsky later characterized as infantile.

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).

It was one thing to have [an Israeli war resister] give a talk inside Israel, [a zionist speaker] said. "Outside of Israel, you're playing with fire."

This chilling statement was a candid expression of the goals of the Israel lobby. A member of a Jewish organization was saying that it's OK to have a wide-open discussion of these issues in Israel, but it's dangerous to have such a discussion here. Why? Because America is the mainstay of support allowing Israel to continue its policies in the Occupied Territories. The Israel lobby fears that Americans, if left to their own devices, will abandon Israel, out of indifference, or anti-semitism. So Americans must be influenced—in this case by having the information they get about Israel/Palestine vetted...


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.

Carter’s contribution has been to remind Americans why they ought to be having a discussion on their responsibilities in respect of, as he put it, seeking peace for Israel and peace and justice for the Palestinians.

Definitely "read the whole thing" material.

Israeli historian Tom Segev, writing in the newspaper Haaretz calmly mulls the long and the short of Carter's book.

One reason the book is outraging "friends of Israel" in America is that it requires them to reformulate their friendship: If they truly want what's good for Israel, they must call on it to rid itself of the territories. People don't like to admit that they've erred; therefore, they're angry at Carter. But the belief that a withdrawal to the Green Line will bring peace has been around ever since the Six-Day War. What else is new?

Israel has remained in the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights mainly because the United States has not compelled it to withdraw. As optimistic as only a God-fearing person can be, the former U.S. president also essentially only propose that we all try to be nice to one another, in the spirit of the ... Christmas holiday. He has no new ideas to offer and thus his book is something of a let-down, though this does not justify a rebuke.

Not to Carter. We owe him for the peace with Egypt.


Anonymous said...

Since the establishment of the state of Israel, jews have enjoyed no pogroms or holocausts. In 50 years of jewish statehood, less than 20,000 jews have died in wars, and in the 50 years before, countless millions were massacred by jew hating gentiles. WE WILL GIVE UP OUR STATE WHEN HELL FREEZES OVER. You people compare Israel to South Africa all the time, well, guess what, South Africa under black rule is a nightmare, full of corruption, insane levels of crime, and a 20 year drop in lifespan. BTW, there are 20 arab countries and they all deny voting rights to jews, why should israel allow arabs to vote?

Joel Keller said...

Real "racism" exists in the Arab countries surrounding Israel, not in Israel or the disputed territories. In Jordan, anyone can own land, "except a Jew." Try wearing a cross on a chain in Saudi Arabia and see what happens. Carter should stick to construction of homes for Habitat for Humanity, where he does some good. He was one of the absolutely worst presidents of the 20th century, and possibly of all time.

Battal Agha said...

This is the most stupid comments I have ever read. Maybe you should go to Israel and see by yourself the reality on the ground before telling all this BS.....

sfmike said...

Wow, there's a reason sensible people don't venture into this particular hornet's nest, but youand President Carter are right, it's important. And the Jewish community in the United States needs to wake up fast. Their martyrdom/vendetta style of behavior is dooming the planet.

Nell said...

Thanks for this, Jan.

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