Casual observers can be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. When the editors of the Cardozo Law School’s Journal of Conflict Resolution decided to give a peacemaking award to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, they set off a firestorm of controversy. Graduates of the school, which is part of Yeshiva University in New York City, have protested the decision, stating “Jimmy Carter is anathema to the aspirations of the Jewish people and the survival of the state of Israel.”
Much of the anger toward the former president is a response to Carter’s 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid an error-laden text that that downplayed Palestinian hostility and violence toward Israel and demonized the Jewish state.
But not everyone felt this way. Despite the factual errors in his book, Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid, former president Jimmy Carter continues to enjoy a reservoir of credibility as a commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict in many parts of American society – particularly in mainline Protestant churches and on the Evangelical left.
This credibility is in part a consequence of his reputation as a devout and thoughtful Christian. In particular, President Carter’s involvement with Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organization that builds homes for the poor, and his devotion to Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, where he has taught adult Bible classes since 1982, have burnished his reputation as a man of faith and good intentions.
Admiration for Carter cuts across denominational boundaries. Father Robert Drinan, a Roman Catholic priest, lauded Carter’s 1996 book, Living Faith, in reverential terms, writing that Carter is “a Christian who accepts the Bible as the word of God and the person of Christ as the greatest grace God has given to all his sons and daughters (National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 1997).”
President Carter’s reputation as a thoughtful, progressive Christian was cemented by his decision to disassociate himself from the Southern Baptist Convention (while still remaining a member of his local church) in 2000 over what he called the denomination’s “increasingly rigid” doctrines, particularly those regarding women in the pulpit (Cox News Service, Oct. 19, 2000). The Atlanta-Journal Constitution compared Carter’s decision to leave the SBC to the fall of the Berlin Wall (Oct. 25, 2000). His departure even elicited an expression of sadness from the denomination’s theologically conservative president, Rev. James Merritt, who called the former president “a man of sincere faith (Cox News Service, Oct. 19, 2000).”
Respect for Carter as a devout Christian was a powerful asset for the former president in the debate about his error-laden book, Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid. Because of his reputation as a well-intentioned Christian, commentators tend to downplay, excuse, or completely ignore the factual misstatements in the text. For example, Charles Kimball, writing in the April 1, 2007 issue of Sojourners, a magazine for progressive Christians, acknowledged errors in Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid, but refrained from offering robust criticism for these errors. After acknowledging that a passage on page 213 of Carter’s book “can be taken to imply that terrorism and suicide bombings have validity,” Kimball writes:
Although the book and Carter’s life work leave no doubt that he denounces terrorism, he acknowledged at Brandeis that this sentence was a serious mistake, “improper and stupid” in its working, and promised that all future editions will be corrected.Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid is framed by Carter’s orientation as a Baptist with deep emotional and religious roots in the Holy Land. As an unapologetic follower of Jesus, Carter takes seriously the call to be an agent of reconciliation in a broken and hurting world.
While commentators are willing to give the former president’s factual errors a pass because of his religious beliefs, they seem uninterested in assessing how his Christian beliefs “undergird” his attitude toward the modern state of Israel. While Carter is no pre-millenial dispensationalist, his writings make it perfectly clear that Biblical depictions of ancient Israel still figure prominently in his religious imagination, and color his views of the modern state of Israel.
When Israeli General Yitzhak Rabin invited Carter to Israel in 1973, Carter, who was then serving as Governor of Georgia and quietly preparing for his 1976 run for the Presidency, responded enthusiastically.
Having studied Bible lessons since early childhood and taught them for twenty years, I was infatuated with the Holy Land, and my wife, Rosalyn, and I arranged to accept his invitation in 1973. In preparing for this trip, we pored over maps and reviewed both the ancient and modern history of Israel. Our choice of how to spend the ten-day visit was a series of compromises because I was torn between the pleasure of visiting the Christian holy places I had always longed to see and the knowledge that I should concentrate on preparing for another political career. (Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid, page 22).
Carter’s attitude toward the Holy Land differs from that of Christian Zionists. Unlike Hagee, Carter has repeatedly called for Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (which Hagee regards as God-given to the Jewish people). Nevertheless, he does believe that God has indeed given some portion of land in the Middle East to the Jewish people. In a Nov. 16, 2006 interview with Jennifer Siegel writing for Forward.com, Carter stated that his belief is “that God ordained that the Jews should have a homeland there, and I think that international law beginning in 1948 says the same exact thing, and that’s what I believe.”
Carter regards the Jewish homeland as contingent on the faithfulness of its people and leaders to the rules that come with God’s promise of land outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures. [See note below.] In an extended passage in The Blood of Abraham, his 1985 book on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Carter recounts the story of ancient Israel, laying particular emphasis on the requirements that come with the land of Israel.
God promised David that because of his faithfulness, his kingdom would be established forever.However, Moses had made it clear to the Israelites that God’s promises always obliged his chosen people to be obedient and faithful to the covenant and divine law. David and his son Solomon had many successors, almost all of them disobedient, under whom the land was ruled as two separate nations, Judah and Israel. Both nations failed to meet God’s standards of loyalty and justice and so were destroyed by their enemies, Israel in about 722 B.C. and Judah in about 586 B.C. The Jews were taken into captivity, but some of them subsequently returned to Jerusalem, where they lived under foreign domination but were able to preserve their customs and religious faith. (The Blood of Abraham.)
It is important to note that Carter’s history leaves out an important fact: Jews, after returning from the Babylonian Captivity, did not always live under foreign domination. They were independent from the time of the Hasmonean rebellion until the Jewish kingdom’s subjugation to Rome; a period of about a century.
In any event, both The Blood of Abraham and Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid, Carter makes it clear that, to his thinking, the rules that come with a Jewish presence in Israel are not vestiges of Jewish history with heuristic value for all of humanity, but are still-operative principles that can be used to assess and judge modern Israeli society. In essence, he distinguishes the Jews’ claim to a state as different from that of any other ethnic/national community. Others have what is generally recognized as a virtually universal “right of self-determination.” In contrast, Jews are entitled to their state, in Carter’s view, only if they adhere to the obedience and faithfulness to which they are enjoined in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, Carter sets himself up as the judge of that obedience and faithfulness.
In The Blood of Abraham, Carter recounts his dismay at the lack of religious interest at a Ayelet Hashahar, a kibbutz in northern Galilee he visited during his 1973 trip.
It was the Sabbath, and we asked if we could attend the worship service. At the appointed time we entered the synagogue and stood quietly just inside the door. There were only two other worshipers. When I asked if this was typical, our guide gave a wry smile and shrugged his shoulders as if it was not important either way. (The Blood of Abraham).
A few pages later, he describes how he raised the issue of Israel’s apparent faithlessness at a meeting with Prime Minister Golda Meir:
She was not pressed with state business that morning so we stayed for an extended talk. When she asked if we had any concerns, I replied that there was one of a religious nature that I hesitated to mention. I knew that she had been born in Russia and that neither she nor the key members of her cabinet were known to be devout Jews. With a smile she encouraged me to go on, and I told her about the sabbath (sic) service at Ayelet Hashahar and a general absence of religious interest among the Israelis. I commented that during biblical times, the Israelites triumphed when they were closed to God and were defeated when unfaithful. She laughed aloud and agreed with me, but added that this was not a matter of concern to her because there were certainly enough “orthodox” Jews around. She was referring to the religious Jews in the Israeli parliament, who were sometimes a real thorn in her side. She added, “If you attend a session of the Knesset, you will see them in action and will know that they have not lost their faith.” With Israel’s system of elections, which necessitates a coalition of parties to form a ruling majority, the minority religious parties had an influence far exceeding their numerical strength. (The Blood of Abraham)
In Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid, Carter describes his statements to Meir regarding Israel’s religious obligations in a much more pointed manner.
With some hesitation, I said that I had long taught lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures and that a common historical pattern was that Israel was punished whenever the leaders turned away from devout worship of God. I asked if she was concerned about the secular nature of her Labor government. She seemed surprised at my temerity and dismissed my comments with a shrug and a laugh. She lit one cigarette from another and then said that “orthodox” Jews still existed and could assume that portion of the nation’s responsibility. She was referring to the religious Jews in the Israeli parliament, who were sometimes a real thorn in her side. She added, “If you attend a session of the Knesset, you will see them in action and will know that they have not lost their faith. With Israel’s system of elections, which necessitates a collation of parties to form a ruling majority, the minority religious organizations had an influence far exceeding their numerical strength.
These passages reveal a troubling mixture of Christian entitlement and inconsistency. Carter, as a Christian, feels, again, perfectly free to assess the legitimacy of the modern state of Israel against a metric of fidelity to the Jewish faith, even as he bemoans the undue influence of Orthodox Jews on Israeli politics. Also, he once more sets himself up as the judge of Jewish fidelity to the Jewish faith. In addition, his criteria for that fidelity are selective. For example, a substantial part of Biblical injunction entails Temple ritual. Would Carter argue that the Jews of Israel are remiss because, having regained control of the Temple Mount in 1967, they have not rebuilt the Temple and reinstituted Temple ritual?
This not only illustrates President Carter’s selectivity in setting himself up as the judge of Jewish religious duties and obligations that, to his thinking, are essential to Jews’ deserving their state, but underscores Carter’s denying Israelis the right to determine for themselves how they will follow the dictates of their conscience – a right of conscience he readily accorded himself when, for example, in 2000, he left the Southern Baptist Convention. For Carter, the Jews are not a people like any other, but a people beholden to a special obligation to be faithful – in a manner of his construing – to the God of the Old Testament.
Carter is not unique in this attitude. Writing in the October, 1984 issue of Theology Today, A. Roy Eckhart, a commentator on Christian-Jewish relations, condemned the Christian impulse to fabricate Jews into “special witness of God whether they like it or not.”
If Jews wish to opt for a religious identity, fine – and the same goes for their dereligionization. One way or the other, the determination is exclusively theirs, not that of Christians.
A further irony is that for President Carter, Israel’s legitimacy is dependent on adherence to a religion toward which he has exhibited a troubling suspicion. Carter’s suspicion of Judaism is readily apparent in recordings of Carter’s Bible lessons at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia published by Simon and Schuster in 2007. The lessons, recorded in 1998 and released under the title Sunday Mornings in Plains, Bible Studies with Jimmy Carter: Leading a Worthy Life, reveal a troubling tendency to use Judaism as a negative backdrop to highlight the positive attributes of Christianity.
For example, Carter speaks at length about Jewish hostility toward Christians and Samaritans and how Apostle Paul targeted believers in Christ for death or imprisonment. “This was Paul’s reason for existence. His total commitment was to abolish this blight on humanity — gentiles who claimed to have an acceptable relationship with God almighty,” he says.
Carter also speaks about how Christ was almost killed by his “own hometown people” for detailing how “the ancient prophets had blessed non-Jews” and about how Christ was only thanked by the one non-Jewish leper out of a group of 10 he had healed. He also describes Jewish rules of ritual purity in a manner that portrays first century Jews as parochial, suspicious bigots. “If a Jew married a gentile, that person was considered to be dead,” he states. “If a Jew went into the home of a gentile, that Jew was considered to be what? Unclean and had to go through a religious ceremony to become cleansed again so that they could even worship in the Temple.”
Carter states that his intent is not to criticize Jews, “but we’re just trying to point out the historical change, the transforming change that took place when Jesus came.” Nevertheless, the negative references give a jaundiced, mean-spirited distortion of actual Jewish practice and create an image of a parochial and hostile people who bristle at being reminded of the higher principles of their faith.
To be sure, Carter acknowledges that Christians have behaved in a divisive manner toward one another, but even this acknowledgement is followed by an emphasis on just how far outside the pale Jews are from the rest of humanity. When talking about how different the world would be if Protestants and Catholics, conservatives and liberals, Amish and Mennonites could get together and mend their differences, Carter adds “If we could reach out with love, even for Jews.”
Carter is not the only Christian commentator to set Judaism up as a negative backdrop against which he then highlights the superiority of Christ and of Christianity. Amy-Jill Levine has written extensively about this tendency in her book, The Misunderstood Jew (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007). Christian preachers and theologians have long used negative and inaccurate caricatures of Judaism to highlight the superiority of their own faith. In particular, Levine writes that Jews have been portrayed as “narrow, clannish, particularistic, and xenophobic, whereas Jesus and the church are engaged in universal outreach.”
Levine points out a telling contradiction on the part of many progressive Christian commentators.
Ironically, when Jews in the New Testament are seen as wanting to preserve their own traditions, of diet and circumcision, of synagogue practice and forms of worship, Christian readers are sometimes inclined to regard these efforts as retrograde or exclusive. Today, when any other ethnic or religious group seeks to maintain its own integrity despite cultural pressures to assimilation, it is regarded positively as promoting identity, resisting colonialism, and celebrating its heritage.
Clearly, Carter’s assessment of first century Judaism colors his view of the modern state of Israel and its leaders. For example, in The Blood of Abraham, Carter portrays Menachem Begin as a devout, but territorial Jew indifferent to the common bonds of the three Abrahamic faiths.
A dedicated student of the Bible, on occasion he quoted scriptural passages, such as “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning,” in order to emphasize why he would not share authority in Jerusalem. I do not recall any occasion, however, when he initiated a discussion about Christianity or Islam or participated in any comparative analysis of religious beliefs. In fact, Sadat’s comments seem to cause Begin some slight embarrassment.
This is not the only instance in which Carter’s opinion of modern Israel dovetails perfectly with his attitude toward first century Judaism. In Palestine, Peace Not Apartheid, Carter draws a straight line between the misdeeds of first century Jews and the misdeeds of modern Israel. Describing his 1973 trip to Israel Carter writes:
It was especially interesting to visit with some of the few surviving Samaritans, who complained to us that their holy sites and culture were not being respected by Israeli authorities–the same complaint heard by Jesus and his disciples almost two thousand years earlier.
In light of Carter’s well-documented antipathy toward Israel, which was so obviously manifest in his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, the controversy taking place at Cardozo should come as no surprise.