No, I haven't read THE book, Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid. And I may not read it anytime soon. I was a commercial printer and book publisher for 25 years. I experienced firsthand what the megalopolis of national and international publishing has become and what it has done to the world of publishing. So I've acquired a certain aversion to dropping $27 for a hard cover book into the corporate coffers. I'll either pick it up at a used book store someday, borrow it from a friend, or wait until it comes out in paperback. But in response to interviews with Jimmy Carter I have heard, as well as his recent article in the Los Angeles Times, I take exception to some of his assertions regarding Israel and Palestine.
First things first. Let's consider the source. Often touted by progressives as one of our best Presidents ever, Jimmy Carter has been given a free pass for the egregious international behaviors of his administration. Though he has redeemed himself to a certain extent through his humanitarian efforts since retiring from public life, he still has a great deal of amends to make for his foreign policy initiatives while in office. The United States is an imperialist nation. Our presidents are instruments of that paradigm. But some of them have been more reckless than others.
During his term as President, Mr. Carter ordered the CIA to train death squads (benignly labeled "contras") based in Honduras to oppose the Sandinistas after they overthrew the dictator Somoza in Nicaragua. Nice. This little bit of creative obstructionism was expanded during the Reagan administration and would later become what is commonly known as the Iran-Contra scandal. After a coup in El Salvador, Carter sent aid and weapons to the El Salvadoran military who proceeded to massacre tens of thousands of civilians. Good work Mr. Carter.
His generous foreign policy initiatives weren't limited to Central America. Carter increased the supply of arms and munitions to the Indonesian government despite their invasion of East Timor. More than 200,000 civilians were slaughtered there, nearly a third of the population. Remember the Islamic fundamentalist Mujahideen? Carter funded their military buildup in order to entice the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan. This resulted in the complete devastation of that country which led to the rise of the Taliban, friends of Osama Bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the attacks of 9/11. History has long fingers that touch us in ways never anticipated when its hand is first lifted.
The trail of blood left by the Carter administration has dried to a dark stain which is largely ignored by his admirers. Who was it that supported the Khmer Rouge while they committed genocide in Cambodia? Jimmy Carter. He also was a good friend to the Shah of Iran, the monstrous dictator we installed in 1953 after our CIA overthrew the democratically-elected government of Iran. Carter endorsed and supported dictator Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, brutal Pakistani General Zia al Huq, and Saudi King Faud, among other notable human rights abusers. The list of Mr. Carter's dictatorial pals while he was in office is quite impressive.
Okay. So maybe we shouldn't attack the messenger. People grow and change over time. Perhaps Mr. Carter is ready to tell us the whole truth now. Let's consider comments he has made concerning Israel while promoting his new book.
Certainly, not enough can be said about how wonderful it is to hear a former President of the United States use the word apartheid in relation to Israel. One has to appreciate Carter for having the courage to speak the truth about the theft of Palestinian lands, the colonization of the West Bank, and other crimes being committed against the Palestinian people by Israel. Especially since this particular former president is one who opposed Palestinian statehood, refused to meet with Palestinian leaders and was a strong supporter of Menachem Begin. Mr. Begin was Prime Minister of Israel at the time, but he was formerly wanted by the British Government as a "terrorist" for his work with the Irgun, a Zionist militia responsible for countless acts of terrorism in Palestine prior to the creation of the state of Israel. After Israel became a state, Begin's label of "terrorist" curiously morphed into "freedom fighter."
Carter fans keep reminding us that he is a huge international celebrity and that we couldn't buy this kind of publicity to expose the horrors being perpetrated by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. But before we become too enamored of Mr. Carter, we need to ask some important questions. Since when isn't apartheid racism? According to Jimmy Carter's new glossary, it isn't. In his recent piece in the Los Angeles Times, in reference to the segregation of Palestinians by Israel's apartheid wall, Carter writes (with a straight face I assume), "I have made it clear that the motivation is not racism but the desire of a minority of Israelis to confiscate and colonize choice sites in Palestine, and then to forcefully suppress any objections from the displaced citizens."
This statement is breathtakingly surreal. We are expected to believe that even though the segregation of Palestinians in the West Bank is based solely on their racial and ethnic origin, somehow this particular version of apartheid isn't racism. Instead, it's only the confiscation and colonization of their land and resources. Oh, and by the way, when Palestinians resist this theft, Israel's suppression of that resistance isn't racially motivated. In addition, all of these crimes are supposedly only being committed by "a minority of Israelis." Wonderful. Too bad that Zionist "minority" he refers to happens to run the country, and has for the last sixty years. It's a good thing Mr. Carter has enlightened us with his new definition of apartheid. Racism has such a negative connotation, after all.
Continuing to peruse Carter's glossary, one notices his definition of democracy seems to be different than any we are familiar with. He claims democracy is thriving in Israel. He says his book "is devoted to circumstances and events in Palestine and not in Israel, where democracy prevails and citizens live together and are legally guaranteed equal status." I suspect the Bedouin people in the Negev desert in southern Israel would view this statement with some degree of skepticism.
The Negev is considered to be Israel's "land bank" for future expansion of their population. Consequently, the Bedouins who happen to live on that land need to be removed. Israel has been kind enough to set up seven Bedouin "Settlements" where these primarily rural-agrarian people are forced to live under extremely crowded urban conditions. They suffer chronic unemployment, economic despair and social dysfunction due to the disruption of their cultural underpinnings. In order to receive funding from the state, schools in these townships are required to teach Bedouin children Hebrew as well as Jewish history. No funding is provided for curriculum related to their own history and culture. But they are generously allowed to teach these subjects as after school electives.
Half the Bedouin population, about 70,000 people, live in these townships, while the other half live in dozens of what are cleverly designated "unrecognized villages." Because Israel wants the Bedouin's land in order to expand Jewish population centers, they refuse to provide municipal services such as water, electricity, sewage, and roads to these villages. By withholding basic services from tens of thousands of Israeli citizens, issuing home demolition orders and forcibly relocating Indigenous populations based solely on race, Israel has certainly put democracy in motion in the Negev. This is also another example of Carter's new definition of apartheid. Remember, it's not racism, just land and resource theft.
Then there is the housing situation in places like the central Galilee, home to about 25,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel. Jonathan Cooke, a British journalist based in Nazareth, writes about luxury Jewish communities known as "mitzpim." These "mitzpim" are surrounded by extensive areas of land zoned for construction of new residential housing. Residents of these communities are required by law to screen the applications of anyone who wishes to build there. Surprise, surprise; also by law, non-Jews are not allowed to apply to join these communities. Very clever. The Jewish residents of the "mitzpim" can claim they don't discriminate against Palestinians because no Palestinians ever apply. Why? The law prohibits them from doing so. Plausible deniability is everything.
Meanwhile, in Palestinian villages like Sakhnin, also in the central Galilee, Palestinians are denied permits to build on their own land because Israel's Planning and Building Law has rezoned the property in a way that prohibits new construction. I wonder if "by law," Israel would permit Jimmy Carter to build a home in Sakhnin. I wonder if "by law," they would allow him to submit an application to one of the "mitzpim." Maybe someone will ask him those questions at his next book signing.
Let's take a look what Carter considers "equal status." Israel's High Court recently upheld a law denying Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who are married to Israeli citizens the right to live in the country with their spouses. This law applies only to Arab spouses. Anyone from any other ethnic group married to an Israeli citizen is entitled to residency. Israelis married to Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza will either have to move to the Occupied Territories or live apart from their spouses. If you happen to be an Israeli citizen, be careful who you fall in love with. Israel's bright and shining democracy is likely to "prevail" over the institution of marriage.
Welcoming the High Court's decision, Israeli Immigration Absorption Minister (yes, there really is such a position) Zeev Boim said, "We have to maintain the state's democratic nature, but also its Jewish nature." This chillingly racist statement illustrates the cornerstone of Zionism. In order to preserve the "Jewish character" of Israel, the Arab population must be oppressed and reduced if necessary so that there will never be any threat to Jewish dominance. But in Mr. Carter's glossary this isn't defined as racism.
Are you tired of this litany of stellar egalitarian practices in Israel? I'm sure the Palestinian and Bedouin Israelis are tired of experiencing them. I wish Jimmy Carter would tire of claiming that racism and apartheid don't exist within Israel. How can a government that legislates ethno-religious supremacy and segregation ever be considered a democracy, even by the standards of a person who supported dictatorial governments and genocide around the globe during his presidency?
Jimmy Carter is engaged in the practice of soft Zionism. He acknowledges that Palestinians are being exploited, but suggests these wrongs are committed by a "minority" of Israelis while most are behaving in a fair and impartial manner. Israel's policies may be apartheid in nature but he denies they are racist. He admits Zionism is exclusionary but insists it is also democratic. Unfortunately, these two concepts are incompatible. The bread can't be leavened and unleavened too. A Jewish state cannot foster a culture that includes Palestinians on an equivalent basis because this would threaten the very Jewish majority which the state is intended to preserve.
I applaud Jimmy Carter's willingness to indict Israel for their mistreatment of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories. But his promulgation of the myth that Israel is a democratic society, and his dissonant assertion that their apartheid policies are not racist is dangerously misleading. This kind of apologist rhetoric continues to deny the Palestinian people the equality they deserve.
Talking tough about human rights abuses is the next best thing to doing something to end those abuses. But it is only the next best thing, not a solution. Until the Israeli people and Jews everywhere reject the racist ideology on which Israel is based there will be no justice for the Palestinian people and no peace for Israel. You can't condemn the poisonous waters of hatred and oppression that are drowning the Palestinian people and yet ignore the river of Zionism from which these waters flow.
Getting it half right is the same as getting it half wrong. Carter is well more than half wrong in his comments about the situation in Israel. We can appreciate his attempt to normalize certain terms and concepts which are currently taboo in the dialogue concerning Palestine, but we shouldn't excuse his denial of the root of the problem. And just on general principle, I'm still waiting to hear an apology from him for the crimes against humanity he committed while in office.
Joe Mowrey is a peace and social justice activist living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He manages an email correspondence program connecting students from Bethlehem University in Palestine with partners here in the United States. For more information about this program contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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