Jimmy Carter likes Jews. Or at least that's what he wants you to believe.
Speaking to a packed auditorium of over a thousand at The George Washington University on Thursday, the poet, peanut farmer, and former president was hell bent on convincing the audience that he's pro-Semitic.
Carter opened his speech by discussing the efforts during his presidency to help Soviet Jewish dissidents, to set up a commission to create a Holocaust museum ("Elie Wiesel served as chairman"), and to broker the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt.
Of course, more recently, he has been in the news for writing a book describing Israeli policy toward Palestinians as "apartheid."
"I realize that this has caused some concern in the Jewish community," Carter said. But there's no need to overreact, because he wasn't referring to policies within Israel, only policies in the Palestinian territories. "Let me make clear that the forced segregation and domination of Arabs by Israelis is not based on race and should give no aid or comfort to those who attempted to equate racism with Zionism."
Apartheid, of course, has a very specific connotation, and refers to a policy in Africa of state-imposed racial segregation and oppression. The United States withdrew from the notorious 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban precisely because words such as "apartheid" were being used to describe Israeli policies in an effort to equate Zionism with racism. At the time, Carter criticized the Bush administration for leaving the conference.
"The driving force for the terrible oppression and persecution in Palestine comes from a minority of Israelis and their desire to confiscate and colonize Palestinian lands," Carter said Thursday. A trade of land for peace would be acceptable to most Israelis, he said, "but not to a minority of the more conservative leaders who have intruded into Palestine and who are unfortunately supported by AIPAC and most of the vocal American Jewish communities."
Following the publication of his book, Carter has received a lot of criticism, both for his inflammatory title, numerous errors, and failure to include footnotes or citations. Outside GWU's Lisner auditorium, about a dozen protesters held signs, passed out flyers, and chanted: "Carter Is A Liar."
In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Carter elaborated on why he's been criticized: "Book reviews in the mainstream media have been written mostly by representatives of Jewish organizations who would be unlikely to visit the occupied territories..."
Lest anybody get the wrong idea from such comments, in his speech to GWU students, Carter was sure to explain that he doesn't buy into old stereotypes.
"I am personally familiar with the management of major news organizations," he said, naming Cox Enterprises, Knight-Ridder, and Gannett. "I have never claimed, nor believed, that American Jews controlled the news media."
In the question and answer period, one student asked Jimmy how he felt about the 14 members of the Carter Center advisory board who resigned in protest over his book. Though Carter said he regrets their decision to resign, he was gracious to them: "They all happen to be Jewish Americans, I understand the tremendous pressures on them."
One questioner asked Carter how he thinks the United States should deal with an emboldened Iran.
"After the Shah fell, I was still president, and we established very quickly diplomatic relations with Iran," he reminded the audience. "They opened an office in Washington, and we opened an office in Tehran, and it was those members of our ambassadorial staff who were taken hostage." He failed to specify that 52 Americans remained captive for 444 days.
Carter said his policy during this period "was that we should have diplomatic relations and discussions with Iran, if not with a full ambassador there, at least with a large staff so we could communicate with each other, and I think that would still be the preferable approach to Iran, and also, by the way, to Syria."
Who can argue with success?
Another questioner asked Carter why he refused to debate the content of his book with figures such as Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz and former Ambassador Dennis Ross, especially given that one of the supposed aims of his book was to provoke debate.
"I don't see any reason for me to debate a man from Harvard who knows very little of anything about present circumstances in the West Bank," Carter responded. He also provided the audience with some autobiographical details.
"I've never been afraid of debates," Carter said. "As a matter of fact, when I was a peanut farmer I debated the President of the United States three times...and, of course, I debated my challenger, President Reagan."
God Bless the Gipper.