Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has been (no kidding, with a title like that) the center of some heated controversy. Some have accused Carter, who is harshly critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, of anti-Semitism. This is a vexing issue; I do think some champions of Israel are too quick to label all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. However, I also believe that some criticism of Israel and its supporters has employed anti-Semitic tropes — from the “Jewish conspiracy” meme, unmistakeably present in much of the talk about “the Jewish lobby,” to the “Christ killer” meme — and has often conflated the terms Israeli and Jew. (I addressed some of these questions in a column in Reason three years ago.)
I don’t think Carter is an anti-Semite. However, I think that his book is a very skewed treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that some of his rhetoric is disturbing — such as a passage that draws a parallel between the Pharisees of the New Testament and modern-day Israeli authorities. And I agree with historian Deborah Lipstadt’s charge that in defending his book, “Carter has repeatedly fallen back — possibly unconsciously — on traditional anti-Semitic canards”; for instance, he has equated criticism from Jewish commentators who write for mainstream publications such as The New Yorker or The New York Times with criticism from “Jewish organizations.”
Incidentally, social liberals might be startled to learn that in the book, Carter chronicles the fact that on a trip to Israel in the 1970s he remonstrated with then-Prime Minister Golda Meir for the overly secular nature of the Labor government. He even took it upon him to lecture Meir about the fact that in the Bible, “a common historical pattern was that Israel was punished whenever the leaders turned away from devout worship of God.” (Paging Pat Robertson?) But I digress.
The specific occasion for this post is Carter’s visit to Brandeis University the other day. According to InsideHigherEd News:
Carter’s invite spurred a campuswide discussion about academic freedom and the religious identity of Brandeis, an institution that was founded by Jewish leaders in an era of Jewish quotas at top institutions. Brandeis is not officially a Jewish university but has always attracted many Jewish students, faculty and donors.
A Brandeis trustee initiated contact with the former president during the fall term, and the proposed event had Carter squaring off in a debate with Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and staunch supporter of Israel. But Carter nixed that format. Some saw the decision to propose a point-counterpoint event as a sign that Brandeis was unwilling to consider Carter’s ideas alone.
“Lots of faculty felt that if you invite a president, you don’t ask him to debate anyone. You want to hear him speak by himself,” said Gordon Fellman, chair of the peace, conflict and coexistence studies program at Brandeis.
Still, others argued that not allowing Dershowitz to speak at the event violated his freedom of speech and would allow Carter to emerge from the event without being challenged on his views.
After weeks of back-and-forth at Brandeis, more than 100 students and professors signed a petition inviting Carter to speak alone. A committee of faculty members and students extended the new invitation to Carter, and he accepted. So on Tuesday, the former president gave a 15 minute speech and answered questions that had been selected in advance — a decision that some students and faculty criticized.
Dershowitz spoke in a separate event later that night.
About 1,700 students, faculty, and other members of the Brandeis community will
attend a university forum tomorrow to hear Jimmy Carter discuss his controversial new book about Israel, but their questions will be limited to those selected by a committee that invited the former president.
After weeks of furor over Carter’s visit to promote his book “Palestine: Peace Not
Apartheid,” students and faculty will be allowed to ask at most 15 questions, said members of the committee, composed of five faculty and one student sympathetic to Carter’s views. They added that no follow-up questions would be allowed.
[C]ommittee members said the questions, which will be limited to 45 seconds, reflect a range of views and represent an efficient use of limited time. Carter has agreed to answer questions for about 45 minutes.
Some faculty and students, however, worry the screening and lack of follow-up questions will hamper a free exchange of views on the predominantly Jewish campus, where many hoped Carter would debate Alan Dershowitz , a professor at Harvard Law School who has criticized the former president’s book.
Aside from the media, Carter’s talk will be closed to anyone outside the Brandeis community, university officials said. … One of those being excluded from attending the forum is Dershowitz, who pleaded with campus officials to be allowed to attend. … A designated protest area will be set up across the street from the hall, on property belonging to the City of Waltham, said Dennis Nealon, a university spokesman.
Nealon said Dershowitz “does not have a ticket, has no Brandeis ID — therefore he does not get into the hall.”
However, Dershowitz, invited to speak at Brandies by a separate group of faculty and students, will be allowed to address the forum — after Carter is finished speaking and has left the hall, Nealon said. The Harvard professor will be allowed to watch the former president’s appearance on a closed-circuit television outside the hall.
“I think it’s really foolish that they won’t let me in,” said Dershowitz, adding that he would allow students and faculty to ask as many unscreened questions as they like, including follow-ups. “I’m going to encourage hostile questions. I want to show the difference between allowing filtered and screened questions chosen by a pro-Carter committee.”
He said he invites Carter to remain at the hall to join his discussion. He also decried the university’s decision to ban signs and leaflets inside the hall where Carter will speak. “He wrote a book saying he encourages debate, but he won’t debate — me or anybody,” Dershowitz said.
Now, I’m not a big Alan Dershowitz fan, on many counts. And I realize that his “I’m open to all debate” posture is partly just that, a posture. (If grandstanding were an art form, Dershowitz would win a prize.) But better noble posturing than open cowardice.
Morton Keller, emeritus professor of history at Brandeis, told The Globe that the format chosen for the event was “like a Soviet press conference.” Indeed.
I agree with my friend Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, who told InsideHigherEd News that “Brandeis was under no obligation to give Carter the whole stage, nor was it obliged to find a speaker with a different viewpoint,” and that just because a college invites a speaker without a “counterpoint” to balance him does not mean it endorses his views. But allowing a pro-Carter committee to pre-screen the questions? Keeping Dershowitz out of the auditorium until Carter had left the stage? Surely there is something about this that should offend anyone committed to the free exchange of ideas.
There was at least one positive moment during the evening. According to the Globe story:
In response to a question, Carter apologized for a sentence in his book that he acknowledged seemed to justify terrorism by saying that suicide bombings should end when Israel accepts the goals of the road map to peace with Palestinians.
“That sentence was worded in a completely improper and stupid way,” Carter said. “I’ve written my publishers to change that sentence immediately in future editions of the book. I apologize to you personally and to everyone here.”
The apology is a good step. But shame on Carter for refusing to discuss his ideas in a format where they could be challenged freely. (Globe columnist Eileen McNamara defends Carter’s decision not to debate Dershowitz, on the grounds that it would have been an “exercise in egotism” on the part of the attention-seeking lawyer; but if Carter had objections specifically to Dershowitz, he could have asked for another opponent.) And shame on Brandeis for agreeing to this format.
By the way, Dershowitz levels some fairly scathing criticism at Carter here (and unlike Carter, he does engage in open debate with critics on the site). He focuses in particular on the financing of Carter’s project, the Carter Center, by some rather reprehensible figures in the Arab/Muslim world. For instance:
Carter has also accepted half a million dollars and an award from Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, saying in 2001: “This award has special significance for me because it is named for my personal friend, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan.” This is the same Zayed, the long-time ruler of the United Arab Emirates, whose $2.5 million gift to the Harvard Divinity School was returned in 2004 due to Zayed’s rampant Jew-hatred. Zayed’s personal foundation, the Zayed Center, claims that it was Zionists, rather than Nazis, who “were the people who killed the Jews in Europe” during the Holocaust. It has held lectures on the blood libel and conspiracy theories about Jews and America perpetrating Sept. 11.
Dershowitz’s demand that Carter disclose all his ties to “Arab money” has a nasty whiff of ethnic stereotyping — which is particularly ironic since he ends his article with a plea to “stop invoking discredited ethnic stereotypes.” But Dershowitz does seem to make a pretty strong case that a major source of funding from the Carter Center is not just any “Arab money,” but money from shady individuals with ties to radical Islam and to criminal activities (such as Pakistani banker Agha Hasan Abedi, founder of the BCCI). And that’s pretty disturbing, if true. Admittedly, Dershowitz’s main source, Rachel Ehrenfeld of the American Center for Democracy, may not be entirely reliable, at least judging by this 1993 exchange in the New York Review of Books. But surely these charges are worth looking into. Maybe Carter should have had to field questions about his financial and personal ties to people like Abedi and Sheik Zayed in his appearance at Brandeis.
More: A reader informs me that if I don’t think Carter is an anti-Semite, “that is because you are too weak to confront reality,” and sends me a link to a story on WorldNetDaily in which said reality is, presumably, to be found. While the sender is an obnoxious jerk all too typical of a certain breed of right-wing netizen (when I asked if insulting people was really a good way to convince them of anything, he replied that he wasn’t trying to convince me and added, “Let someone else rouse you from your stupor”), and WND has about as much credibility as Michael Moore, the story, posted last night, is of some interest:
Former President Jimmy Carter once complained there were “too many Jews” on the government’s Holocaust Memorial Council, Monroe Freedman, the council’s former executive director, told WND in an exclusive interview.
Freedman, now a professor of law at Hofstra University, was picked by the council’s chairman, author Elie Weisel, to serve as executive director in 1980. The council, created by the Carter White House, went on to establish the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Freedman says he was tasked with creating a board for the council and with making recommendations to the White House on how best to memorialize the Holocaust.
He told WND he sent a memo to Carter’s office containing recommendations for council board members.
He said his memo was returned with a note on the upper right hand corner that stated, “Too many Jews.”
The note, Freedman said, was written in Carter’s handwriting and was initialed by Carter.
Freedman said at the time the board he constructed was about 80 percent Jewish, including many Holocaust survivors.
He said at the behest of the White House he composed another board consisting of more non-Jews. But he said he was “stunned” when Carter’s office objected to a non-Jew whose name sounded Jewish.
Freedman said he could not provide the historians name to WND because he did not have the man’s permission.
“I got a phone call from our liaison at the White House saying this particular historian whose name sounded Jewish would not do. The liaison said he would not even take the time to present Carter with the possibility of including the historian on the board because he knew Carter would think the name sounded too Jewish. I explained the historian is Presbyterian, but the liaison said it wouldn’t matter to Carter.”
What to make of this? Freedman’s credentials are pretty impeccable and confer a high level of credibility. However, his refusal to name the mystery Presbyterian scholar with the Jewish-sounding last name sets off some alarm bells, particularly since the man’s privacy does not seem to be implicated in any way. The White House liaison is not named, either, making the story impossible to verify. And why would Freedman want to squander his credibility on a cyber-rag like WND? I plan to drop him a line and ask. Stay tuned.
More: In the comments, Joel asks what it would take for me to consider Carter an anti-Semite. He writes:
From what I know about Carter, it’s long been clear to me that he is an antisemite, of roughly the same stripe as Pat Buchanan, even absent this most recent report; the only thing that’s new in this new report, if true, would be his recklessness while in office.If you haven’t come to the same conclusion, it’s because
a: you haven’t followed Carter’s history of at best questionable behavior as closely as I have,
b: you have a different standard for evaluating whether or not somebody is an antisemite, or
I think the most likely answer is (a). If Monroe Freedman’s story does pan out (and he has now told it on Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes), I would have no difficulty calling Carter anti-Semitic. Other disturbing allegations from the past are reported here.