Sunday, June 28, 2009

President Carter in Damascus

Like all of you, I suspect, I watched on with some unhealthy mixture of disbelief, outrage, and sadness as ex-President Carter made his outrageous, almost inexplicable, visit to Damascus last week, pausing on his mission to grant presidential legitimacy to Hezbollah only long enough to visit the grave of Yasser Arafat at Ramallah and solemnly to lay a wreath of red roses upon it.

There was a time when I admired Jimmy Carter not merely as a man of principle, but as a man of outstanding moral bearing. I voted for him not once but twice, in 1976 (when he won) and in 1980 (when he lost). Since I had a student pulpit during almost all my years in rabbinical and graduate school in south Georgia, I was on the official list of Georgia clergyman that got mailings (real letters in those days, the kind printed on paper) directly from the president on topics regarding which he wished to express himself directly to the spiritual leadership of his home state. I still have some of those letters somewhere, too...because they only reinforced my sense of the decency and goodness of their author (or, at least, of the man who signed them), and because they were very well done. If anyone was a fan, it was me.

One explanation for the events of last week, the depressing one, is that what we now see is what we had all along: that the whole even-handed posture the ex-president affected at Camp David (and elsewhere) was just the man doing what the hour called for, but that now that his hands are untied by the exigencies of office and he has no reason to dissemble, the man's true sympathies are finally on display for all to see. His book of last year accusing Israel of being an apartheid state that merciless exploits the Palestinian people it controls seemed to me to be so biased as to be almost unbelievable, and written not as a pragmatic analysis of how things are, but as a one-sided screed designed to denigrate any who disagree as racists or worse. (His subsequent comments were even more depressing--especially the ones he made on NBC comparing Israel's treatment of the Palestinians with Rwanda's "treatment" of its Tutsi minority, a treatment in the context of which 800,000 Tutsi tribesmen were murdered and countless more maimed and raped. You can read the transcript of our ex-president's remarks here: .) According to this explanation, then, the man has just moved slightly further along the path he himself has been treading for years: if the Israelis are the new Nazis (and it's hard to take the Rwanda comment to mean anything else), then why not lay a wreath at the grave of the man who best symbolizes the plight of their victims? And granting legitimacy to Hezbollah, and by extension to their allies in Hamas, is only the logical next step: why honor a deceased symbolic leader posthumously when you can visit with the real-life leaders of today's struggle? We don't call the leaders of the Warsaw ghetto uprising extremists, after all, because they undertook an armed struggle against their oppressors before they themselves were murdered!

A second explanation, the distressing one, was presented in a letter from Alan Dershowitz published widely on the internet over the last few days. (You can read the full text here: .) Since the article is so easily accessed, I won't repeat all its detail here. But the basic gist, I will reveal: our ex-president is himself deeply financially involved with the Arab side in the Israel-Arab conflict and has accepted millions of dollars, both for the Carter Center and also personally for himself, from violently and virulently anti-Israel sources, including the Saudi royal family. Read the essay and decide for yourself if Dershowitz is going too far when he comes to his conclusion with these words: "If money determines political and public views--as Carter insists "Jewish money" does--then Carter's views on the Middle East must be deemed to have been influenced by the vast sums of Arab money he has received. If he who pays the piper calls the tune, then Carter's off-key tunes have been called by his Saudi Arabian paymasters...He is no better than so many former American politicians who, after leaving public life, sell themselves to the highest bidder and become lobbyists for despicable causes. That is now Jimmy Carter's sad legacy." It's hard for me to know how to evaluate a statement like that. Surely people can accept gifts from wealthy maecenases without selling their souls in the process! And yet...for the ex-president and his center to accept such enormous amounts of money from Arab sources and then for the president somehow not to notice that he is lending the dignity and luster of the presidency to an organization that openly calls for the eradication of Israel, and that has its hands indelibly stained with the murders of countless innocents in Israel, Lebanon and elsewhere...that seems a bit hard to swallow whole. Or, frankly speaking, to swallow at all.

Are there other plausible explanations for the president's behavior? To dismiss the whole episode as the pathetic effort of a man with fading influence and waning power to do whatever it takes to step back into the limelight seems, at least to me, to be just a bit too facile. To suppose that we're all wrong, that Carter is just speaking the truth, that Israel's treatment of the Palestinians under its control is as bad as the ex-president claims, seems to run contrary to everything I know about Israel, about Israelis in general, and about the degree to which Israel has managed over these last sixty years to chart a course for itself that is rooted in the finest sense of Jewish ethics. (It's a lot easier to discuss the political ethics while seated in a university seminar--or in a presidential library--than when actually trying to run a country...and how much the more so is that true when the country is faced with enemies as implacable as Israel's, and as ruthless!) Supposing that the president is merely talking to the enemy because that is how peace is made (as several letters to the editor I read this week insisted) also strikes me as facile--peace is indeed made by talking to the enemy, but, in peace negotiations as in everything else in life, context is everything: Moses negotiated with Pharaoh over the course of nine long and bitter plagues, but nothing came of all that talking until Pharaoh, chastened to the core by the final plague, was finally ready to negotiate in earnest.

What's wrong with Jimmy Carter's self-appointed mission to bring peace to the Mideast, then, is that, by legitimizing terror and violence, he is more or less guaranteeing that nothing other than more violence and more terror will come from his efforts. In the end, you can only make peace with people who wish to live in peace...and that is surely something our ex-president knows as well as any of us does.

For long years, I admired President Carter as someone of integrity and moral worth, but he isn't the first person I've admired in life that I found out later on had feet of clay or a heart of stone or hands covered with blood. Nor do I write as someone who doesn't admire people who develop new opinions as they live and learn, who learn from experience, who grow wiser as they grow older. Instead, I do write as a man saddened, yet again, by what he's learned of the world...and of the people in it who claim positions of moral authority, but who, in the end, sell their moral compass for money (or for a moment in the spotlight) and then, almost without noticing that the compass is gone, press forward anyway as though its absence were a mere detail best ignored. (April 25, 2008)

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