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December 13, 2006

Jimmy Carter says Christians, pro-Israel lobby, stifle Middle East debate here

Posted by David Postman at 3:28 PM

Former President Jimmy Carter said today that support for Israel from conservative Christians in America is one of two main reasons why he says there can't be open debate here about Israel and the occupied territories. He says Christian support comes, in part, from what he said was an extreme and ridiculous reading of Scripture that says the Holy Land must be prepared for the Second Coming — when all non-believers, including certainly the Jews in Israel, would convert or perish.

In an interview this morning, Carter also told me it would be "political suicide" for any member of Congress to endorse the views in his new book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid." He said that's because of the power of the American Israel Political Action Committee. (CLARIFICATION: That's what he called AIPAC, which is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. I should have used the correct name here.)

"I'm not criticizing any member of Congress because I see the pressures on them. But if anyone wants to be elected or re-elected to Congress it would be inconceivable that they would say, 'If I'm elected I'm going to take a balanced position between Israel and the Palestinians,' or that they would say 'I'm going to hope that Israel would withdraw from occupied territories and comply with international law,' or to say 'I'm going to make sure that the Palestinian human rights are protected.' "

You can read the full interview here.

I had just shy of 20 minutes to talk to Carter on the phone about the book and the reaction it has stirred. Just yesterday Alan Dershowitz called the book a screed and an "unrelenting attack against Israel" and the Anti-Defamation League launched a counter-PR campaign against it, including advertisements in major U.S. newspapers today that say:

MR. CARTER DOESN'T ADVANCE PUBLIC DEBATE, HE DIMINISHES IT.

Last night Carter met and prayed with rabbis in Phoenix who were, and apparently remain, unhappy with him and the book.

Carter said that none of the reaction has surprised him. He said he wrote the book believing that it is nearly impossible to have free discussion here about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

"When I go to Jerusalem or to Tel Aviv or Nazareth or anywhere in Israel, the discussions and debates are intense and constant about Israeli policies in the West Bank and whether they are advisable or not. The same thing exists obviously in the Arab world and in Europe. But in this country, zero.

"Rarely is any sort of comment made in the public news media that can be interpreted as critical of Israel, and so I deliberately wanted to stimulate a discussion."

Of course, he's done that.

In a book review in the Washington Post Tuesday, Jeffrey Goldberg said Carter is trying to weaken support for Israel among evangelical Christians. He points to this passage in the book about Carter's discussions with Prime Minister Golda Meir during his first visit to Israel:

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.

Wrote Goldberg:

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. Hence the Golda Meir story, seemingly meant to show that Israel is not the God-fearing nation that religious Christians believe it to be. And then there are the accusations, unsupported by actual evidence, that Israel persecutes its Christian citizens.

Carter clearly believes support among American Christians helps stifle debate about Israel. In talking about AIPAC, he was quick to say that he did not want discussion about the oft-criticized lobbying group to diminish concerns he has about the role fundamentalist Christians play.

"I happen to be a Christian. Since I was three years old I've learned about the Hebrews, I've learned about the Israelites, I've learned about God's chosen people, from whom Jesus Christ came, whom I worship. I teach about this every Sunday in my local church and I've been doing it since I was 18 years old, as a mater of fact.

"So we naturally are trying to want Israel to be secure and to survive — commitment I maintain. But that is a permeating concept in this nation.

...

"I noticed that when Ariel Sharon was stricken — he's still unconscious — Pat Robertson announced that this is a punishment of God because Sharon had advocated withdrawing from Gaza, which only comprises 1 percent of the Holy Land. But that at least demonstrates their attitude toward the Israeli situation.

"Q: But a lot of their position is premised on 'we want to save Israel,' but not necessarily save the Jews in the Second Coming. Isn't that right?

"Carter: That's right. Their purpose is to wipe out 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. That's the ultimate. It's an extreme, and I think, ridiculous interpretation of the scriptures."

Carter was in the Los Angeles area Monday where he was met with protesters and supporters. The L.A. Times reports that Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, objected to Carter's claim that the media here does not engage in an open debate about Israel.

"This is an anti-Semitic canard, that Jews control media, that they control universities, Congress, etc. For a former president to engage in such a canard is shameful, shameless and irresponsible," said Foxman, who also accused Carter of making "outrageous misrepresentations of Israel."

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