It was only nine months ago that former President Jimmy Carter issued an open letter to the American Jewish community asking for forgiveness for the pain he had caused by his comments that may have stigmatized Israel. Mr. Carter went on to imply that he would avoid in the future the kind of biased remarks about the Jewish state that have been his hallmark for so long.
Among the more egregious comments that the ex-president had made were those comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa and those agreeing with Profs. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s conspiracy theory about Jewish control of American policy.
What does one do when a former president begs forgiveness? It would not have been responsible or seemly to ignore this kind of outreach by a distinguished public figure. On the other hand, it would have been naÃ¯ve simply to accept this apology as indicating a major transformation. So I welcomed the statement as the “beginning of reconciliation,” but added, “to what extent it is an epiphany, time will tell. There certainly is hurt which needs to be repaired.”
At that time, I suggested several criteria to measure whether Mr. Carter was, in fact, living up to his plea for forgiveness. First, was whether he continued to use explosive negative imagery about Israel such as the apartheid comparison. Second, whether his statements would be balanced in their criticism of both sides. And third, whether the complexity of Israeli actions and decision-making would be taken into consideration.
On Mr. Carter’s most recent visit to the Middle East his actions and comments were so problematic that one would hardly have known that he had publicly expressed contrition only months before.
Again, he used extreme pejorative language that cast Israel in a bad light. Visiting Damascus, he told the media that the residents of Gaza “are held in a cage or prison while their human rights are taken away.”
The majority and intensity of his criticisms during his visit to the region were directed at Israel. The Israeli blockade of Gaza was deemed illegal and an obstacle to peace and the fact that Hamas remains a terrorist entity committed to Israel’s destruction was not mentioned while he called for its involvement in peace negotiations.
And he ignored the challenges facing Israel in the form of the long history of terror and rockets coming out of Gaza.
In sum, by any objective measurement, Mr. Carter has gone back on his public word to the Jewish community not to stigmatize the Jewish state.
Was his statement of last December mere puffery or, even worse, was he pandering to Jews because his grandson was running for state office in Georgia? Each is possible, but I think there’s something deeper going on that is more insidious.
I want to take Mr. Carter at his word when he made his statement. He may well have intended to apologize for the hurt he may have caused and he may really have believed that he would in the future act differently.
The fact that he hasn’t doesn’t have to signal disingenuousness as much as how really difficult true atonement is. It takes not only a statement of commitment but, critically, a change in one’s thinking. Unfortunately, Mr. Carter’s worldview works against Israel and leads to the bias we have seen time and again.
Rather than focusing on Israel as the only democracy in the region, the one that protects individual rights, including for women and gays, through the rule of law and that has been under siege from the Arab world since its birth, Mr. Carter views the Jewish state through the prism of Western guilt for centuries of racism, colonialism, and supremacist ideas. Whatever the good intentions that surfaced when he offered his apology, they are overwhelmed by the interaction of his worldview with the words and images he encounters when he goes to the region.
As it turns out, he can’t break out from his preconceptions. So Gaza is a “cage or prison” rather than a complex situation brought on at least as much by Hamas terror and attacks as by Israeli initiatives.
It is sad. I don’t regret keeping an open mind last December. In the end, however, as difficult and sensitive as it may be to condemn an ex-president who won the Nobel Peace Prize, we will have to continue to do so when appropriate so that his biased views don’t take hold even more profoundly than they already have.