Peter Beinert says, “Jimmy Carter Deserves an Apology Before He Dies”

I read Jimmy Carter’s September, 2007 Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid within a month after it appeared.

By that time I had led my first four “Solidarity Tours” to Palestine and Israel and Indiana Center for Middle East Peace had within the previous few months hosted two of our most important early programs:

 + A day-long meeting with Dr. Don Wagner (North Park University) and Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak (JewsOnFirst) on “Christians, the Bible, and the Holy Land,” and

 + a Symposium, “Palestine and Israel: History at the Crossroads,” with Corinne Whitlatch (Churches for Middle East Peace) and HE Ambassador Phil Wilcox (Foundation for Middle East Peace).

Both programs were very well attended, more than 150 people at each, which provided us the encouragement to host monthly programs and become a 501c3 organization.

All this is to say that we were in our infancy back then but learning and growing and devouring all the information we could about the political, historical, religious, and moral landscape which is Palestine and Israel. Today, Israeli and other human rights organizations (Yesh Din, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International), the UN, Christian denominations, governments, labor groups, and others have designated Israel as an apartheid settler colonial regime (even worse than South Africa, according to the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others); but in those days, other than Palestinians, the only other person I knew who was using “apartheid” to describe Israel was ICAHD’s Jeff Halper.

So it was that Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid hit the bookshelves like a bombshell. I have to admit that I was rather disappointed in the book; I found his argument rather tame, settling for a two-sidesism that didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t believe then – and still don’t – that he went far enough, not in his book nor even in his later statements, in his criticism of Israel and Zionism (I attributed it to his Southern Baptist view of the Bible). But he really pushed the conversation forward and for that I’m grateful.

But his critics didn’t care about the content of his book, it was the title – to even use Israel and Apartheid in the same breath was just too much to take. And so the knives came out, and he was vilified not only among conservatives who felt betrayed by a fellow Bible-believer (on this and many other issues) but also, and especially, from the Left, from liberal Zionists.

Now comes Peter Beinert, who himself has been on a journey, from Zionism and Israel apologist to critic, with an essay applauding Carter’s foresight and courage. I share it with you here.

It’s a reminder that each one of us has a role to play in changing the conversation, and our own pursuits of justice and personal acts of courage. It’s in our hands now, and we’re grateful for President Carter’s fearless and faithful witness.

Jimmy Carter Deserves an Apology Before He Dies

Peter Beinart, The Beinert Notebook, February 20, 2023

Many of you will have seen the news that Jimmy Carter has entered hospice and does not have long to live. And when I saw that I took the opportunity to go back and look at the reception to his 2007 book, Peace Not Apartheid. And I wanna say something about the reception of that book because I want to suggest that in these last remaining days that he has alive, there are some people who should apologize to him. Whether they do so publicly or privately that doesn’t matter so much. But the man is owed an apology, and I hope he gets it before he dies. And I think it would be a very, very healthy salutary thing for that to take place.

Now, Carter’s book, Peace Not Apartheid, is not a perfect book. There are, I think, legitimate criticisms of it. One of the odd things about it is that it uses the word “apartheid,” but it doesn’t spend very much time in the book actually explaining in detail what Carter means by that. But Carter does make it clear that he’s referring only to the West Bank, not to all of Israel. And that actually is striking because now we’re in a situation 15 years later where some the world’s most prominent human rights groups and Israel’s, including in addition of course to Palestinian groups, have not only labeled Israel’s control of the West Bank “apartheid.” But some have gone further than Carter and actually said that Israel is practicing apartheid in the entire territory between the river and the sea because Palestinians don’t have legal equality in any of that territory. And Carter’s book has other flaws. Carter wasn’t a scholar of Israel-Palestine. The book is kind of a bit of a weird mix of argument and kind of memoir. And perhaps Carter could have been savvier going into the political minefield that he was gonna be going into when he wrote that book.

But none of that remotely excuses the I think pretty shameful way that the book was received by many significant people. So first, there were just the outright charges of antisemitism. Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, said that Carter was engaging in antisemitism. Debra Lipstadt, who is now the Biden administration’s global antisemitism envoy wrote a column for The Washington Post entitled, “Jimmy Carter’s Jewish Problem.” Fifteen members of the board of the Carter Center in Atlanta resigned and wrote in their letter, “your use of the word ‘apartheid’ has already energized white supremacist groups.” Again, that’s not an engagement with the legitimacy of the term but just that you’re involved in antisemitism because you have said this thing that some white supremacists may also have said.

And then even beyond the people who didn’t say that Jimmy Carter was an antisemite, there was a remarkably kind of, I would say, condescending and dismissive response to him. So, he was thrown under the bus by leading members of his own Democratic party: Howard Dean, who was then the chair of the Democratic party; Nancy Pelosi, who said, “it is wrong to suggest that the Jewish people would support a government in Israel, or anywhere else, that institutionalizes ethnically-based oppression.” It’s a really bizarre statement if you think about it, right? She’s not saying that the facts on the ground are such that there isn’t ethnically based oppression. Essentially, she’s saying, I like Jews and Jews would never support this kind of thing because Jews are good people. Well, you know Jews are good people, a lot of us, I like to think. But, in fact, any group of people, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, race can be complicit in systems of legalized supremacy. And, in fact, that’s what the facts on the ground clearly showed back then and Nancy Pelosi kind of just didn’t engage with that whatsoever. She just threw Carter under the bus in this very cavalier way. Similarly, Bill Clinton said that, “if I were an Israeli, I wouldn’t like it.” Well, OK, that may well be the case if he were Israeli, but striking that Clinton never asked how he might feel were he a Palestinian, which was typical of the reception of the book, you know. In the mainstream outlets that I looked at I didn’t see a single review by a Palestinian. They were almost all by Jews. And the reviews, again, had this quality where they just dismissed Carter as an idiot without feeling the need to actually engage with the substance of this claim.

So, in The New York Times, Ethan Bronner wrote, “the biggest complaint against the book, a legitimate one”—meaning a legitimate critique—“is the word ‘apartheid’ in the title, with its false echo of the racist policies of the old South Africa.” Bronner didn’t elaborate. He didn’t explain why that was false, right, let alone actually engage with the fact that apartheid has an international legal meaning, which doesn’t mean that a system is exactly the same as what happened in South Africa. But actually apartheid means under international law legalized oppression and domination by one group over another, right. But Bronner just breezily kind of waves it away without even any argumentation.

Michael Kinsley wrote a column in Slate that was reprinted in The Washington Post that called Carter’s argument “moronic,” and said, again, another sweeping kind of assertion that Palestine is no Bantustan. Well, I mean, this was in 2006, he wrote this right when actually Israel was in control of all of Area C—60% of the West Bank—and Palestinians in the West Bank were crowded into these disconnected cantons, villages, and towns, overcrowded, with the Israeli army in between, with no sovereignty. So, I’m not sure why it was so self-evident that those Palestinian territories in the West Bank were not actually a Bantustan. Bantustans were territories where Black South Africans were crowded into while the white population took the vast majority of the land. And these territories were not sovereign, which meant that basically Black South Africans had no real rights vis-à-vis the government that controlled their lives. I don’t see how that’s so fundamentally different than the situation for West Bank Palestinians. But Kinsley just kind of waved it away with a statement that Palestine is no Bantustan.

And I think that there would be something profoundly valuable for some of those folks in this time that we have left to apologize to Carter. I don’t say that from some kind of high horse position. I myself have had to publicly apologize for positions that I’ve taken that have proved to be egregiously wrong, and I probably will at some point in the future. And I’ve been kind of very grateful that people have been willing to not see it as the sum total of my career as a writer and commentator. But I think that the ability to recognize that you’re wrong, that certain facts have made it clear I think, that what Carter was saying in 2007 was really ahead of its time, and that Carter was not just right, but he was showing a very unusual form of political courage. There is no former President in the United States, maybe no other national politician, who was shown as much courage as Jimmy Carter. Not just on the question, I think, of Israel-Palestine, the human rights of Palestinians, but on the question of human rights in general. And I think that for Carter, I think, also as a human being, I think deserves that apology in these last days of his life.

In Masechet Yoma, Tractate Yoma in the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Yonatan says, “great is repentance, which hastens the redemption.” And, of course, he’s talking about redemption in the kind of messianic sense. But I think one could also say that repentance of the kind that is now due for those people who attacked and slandered Jimmy Carter could also produce a kind of redemption, since it seems to me in any situation of systemic oppression, part of what needs to happen is that people who supported it, people who attacked those who are trying to change it, need to be encouraged and also given the space to go through an act of repentance so that we can move to a better place. And I think there is a kind of repentance that’s necessary if we’re to move towards genuine freedom and equality in Israel-Palestine. And I think Jimmy Carter is one of the people who deserves that act of repentance towards him in these last days of his life. And I hope it’ll happen. 

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