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Jimmy Carter Says Religious, Political Pressures Stifle Debate on Israel/Palestine Issues

Support for Israel from conservative Christians and a powerful pro-Israel lobby prevent America from having the kind of honest debate about Israel and the occupied territories that exists in other countries, former President Jimmy Carter said in a newspaper interview discussing his controversial new book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.”

“There are constant and vehement political and media debates in Israel concerning its policies in the West Bank,” Carter wrote in the book, “but because of powerful political, economic and religious forces in the United States, Israeli government decisions are rarely questioned or condemned, voices from Jerusalem dominate our media, and most Americans are unaware of circumstances in the occupied territories.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
In an interview with the Seattle Times, Carter said it would be “political suicide” for a member of Congress to say anything critical about <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Israel. One reason, he said, is widespread support among American Christians for a reading of Scripture that says the Holy Land must be preserved for the Second Coming, when non-believers will be forced to accept Jesus or die.
 
Carter, a longtime Sunday-school teacher at MaranathaBaptistChurch in his hometown of Plains, Ga., rejected such an interpretation as “extreme” and “ridiculous.”
 
“Their purpose is to wipe all non-Jews out of the Holy Land so Christ can return, and then, in the ultimate commitment, is that all Jews would either be burned in fire or converted to Christianity,” Carter said. “That’s the ultimate. It’s an extreme and, I think, ridiculous interpretation of the scriptures.”
 
Carter’s last book, Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis, drew the ire of Christian fundamentalists, whom Carters blamed for polarizing the nation over abortion and homosexuality while overlooking other moral issues like divorce and the death penalty.
 
His new book is getting a similar response from America’s Jewish community.
 
Attorney Alan Derschowitz called it an unrelenting attack against Israel.”
 
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League called the book “biased,” “simplistic” and “distorted.”
 
A Front Page Magazine headline labeled Carter a “Jew-hater,” “genocide enabler” and “liar.”
 
A long-time Carter aide, Kenneth Stein, resigned from the CarterCenter, calling his former boss’ book one-sided and filled with errors.
 
Carter prayed 30 minutes with rabbis angered by his book at a signing in Arizona, who were considering a boycott, and invited them to help him teach Sunday school.
 
Washington Post reviewer Jeffrey Goldberg said Carter “seems to mean for this book to convince American evangelicals to reconsider their support for Israel. Evangelical Christians have become bedrock supporters of Israel lately, and Carter marshals many arguments, most of them specious, to scare them out of their position.”
 
Carter said he purposely chose the word apartheid to be provocative, but he doesn’t believe provocative is necessarily negative.
 
In the book Carter, winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, said the driving purpose behind the forced separation of Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied West Bank is not racism, as it was in South Africa, but rather the acquisition of land.
 
Near the end of the book, Carter rejected as an option “a system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights.”
 
“This is the policy now being followed, although many citizens of Israel deride the racist connotation of prescribing permanent second-class status for the Palestinians,” he wrote.
 
Carter advocated instead for Israel to withdraw to its 1967 border, as specified in a U.N. resolution and promised in the Camp David Accords negotiated by Carter in 1978.
 
“The bottom line is this,” Carter wrote. “Peace will come to Israel and the Middle East only when the Israeli government is willing to comply with international law, with the Roadmap for Peace, with official American policy, with the wishes of a majority of its own citizens–and honor its own previous commitments–by accepting its legal borders. All Arab neighbors must pledge to honor Israel’s right to live in peace under these conditions. The United States is squandering international prestige and goodwill and intensifying global anti-American terrorism by unofficially condoning or abetting the Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories.
 
“It will be a tragedy–for the Israelis, the Palestinians and the world–if peace is rejected and a system of oppression, apartheid and sustained violence is permitted to prevail.”
 
The new book also isn’t winning friends among the Christian Religious Right. WorldNetDaily.com commented that some of Carter’s statements seemed to align with feelings expressed at a conference of Holocaust deniers in Iran.
 
Jim Sibley, director of the Pasche Institute at CriswellCollege in Dallas and former director of Jewish ministries with the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, stopped short of calling Carter an anti-Semite in Baptist Press, but he noted the book “certainly seems to be energizing anti-Semites.”
 
“The Bible means what it says, and it says there is no other way to be saved than through faith in Christ,” Sibley said in a statement. “It also says God will bless those who bless the people of Israel and curse those who curse them. For Southern Baptists who accept the truthfulness and authority of the Bible, both are statements of God’s truth.”
 
At least one Southern Baptist leader, however, appeared to side with Carter, at least in part.
 
Wiley Drake, second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, joined Carter in criticizing Israel’s unilateral decision to build a security fence, ostensibly to safeguard against attacks by suicide bombers. The wall reaches deep into the West Bank to encompass Israeli settlements and in the process separates Palestinians from Palestinians. Critics say it creates economic hardship and blocks Palestinian Christians’ access to holy sites.
 
In a press release announcing his Christmas Day radio program, an interview with the executive director of Open Bethlehem, Drake said the Christian heritage of Bethlehem is in danger if the wall remains.
 
“In a free America as we celebrate our Lord Jesus Christ’s birth, let us take a few minutes to join Bethlehem to pray and let them know we as Christian Americans are saying this wall must come down,” said Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif.
 
Drake urged financial support Christians in Bethlehem, citing two Bible verses, Micah 6:8 and Matthew 23:23, which he said both demand the faithful to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.”
 
“I know of no greater injustice than this wall in my Lord’s birth city,” Drake said, “and we must shed the mercy of God by helping with gifts of support, as we walk with Him.”
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
 
Order Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid from Amazon.com.