Notes and thoughts on the question that's being pondered all around the American Jewish world: well, is he?
First, about the question: What I chose to ask at the top of this piece is not merely a provocative headline meant to draw the attention of angry talk-backers. It is a question that is now being discussed around every corner and in the halls of every gathering of the American Jewish community. I keep hearing about people who debate this question, and was a witness to more than one such occasion. Is it a legitimate question? Does it make the Jews look paranoid? Should one even ponder the idea of a former President as an anti-Semite? While I'm not sure what the answers to all those questions are, I am sure that they are already out there.
The Anti Defamation League was the most visible organization to argue publicly that Carter was getting to a point in which one could call him an anti-Semite. Abe Foxman, always first to recognize the issue of the day among his fellow Jews, wrote to Carter that "In both your book and in your many television and print interviews you have been feeding into conspiracy theories about excessive Jewish power and control. Considering the history of anti-Semitism, even in our great country, this is very dangerous stuff."
But Foxman is not the only one that thinks Carter was getting there. Last Friday, at the reception for Natan Sharanski in the Israeli Embassy, I was surprised to hear the same argument from some people - Americans - who attended and debated Carter's motivations. One of them said that he "never thought Carter was anti-Semitic," but that now he feels that Carter is "trying to rally Christians against Jews." Somebody else told me that he thought "the true Carter is coming out now" and explained this by hinting that people "when they get older, tend to reveal what they really think."
In his widely publicized and highly criticized letter to 'Jewish citizens of America' Carter denied allegations that he blamed American Jews for the media bias against the Palestinians. Carter wrote that the overwhelming bias for Israel comes from the Christian community. Do you believe that this is what he really meant? One is indeed justified if one chooses to be somewhat suspicious. Look at the things he wrote in the L.A Times: "It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine...What is even more difficult to comprehend is why the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines in the United States exercise similar self-restraint...Book reviews in the mainstream media have been written mostly by representatives of Jewish organizations...?
When Carter was on C-span to talk about the book, a caller accused him of being an anti-Semite (you can join the many who watched their exchange on U-Tube here) and was quickly stopped by the host (Hey, where's this Jewish guy who controls the media when we really need him?). However, Carter wanted to answer the caller, and what he basically said is this: All I've been doing for last 20 years is to try and bring peace to Israel.
I called Kenneth Stein today to ask about Carter. Stein is the Emory University Professor who resigned from the Carter Center after being a member for many years, following the publication of the book. Is he an anti-Semite, I asked about Carter whom stein knows well. "I've never encountered an anti-Semitic word coming from his mouth in the many hours we spent together," he said. He has no proof with which to justify such claims about Carter.
And what makes a person an anti-Semite anyway? This is the question that no one is able to answer in a coherent way, especially when it comes to the more modern phenomenon of channeling anti-Semitism through criticism of Israel. In The fine line between hatred of Jews and political opposition to Israel, the State Department's first envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism, Gregg Rickman, talked about the problematic nature of such definitions: "Where does the line fall between hatred of Jews and political opposition to, or even hatred of, Israel? Rickman knows that in Israeli eyes, the difference is minimal. Everyone is particularly sensitive when they are the ones being criticized, Rickman said, adding that some people consider anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism to be the same thing. He will need to come up with criteria to determine what is permissible and what is forbidden, what is anti-Semitic and what is just political when it comes to Israel."
Marty Peretz of the New Republic wrote about Carter that "he will go down in history: as a Jew hater." The reason: "He almost never has a sympathetic or empathetic word to say about the Jewish state. O.K., he doesn't say that the Jews killed Jesus. But if anybody else is killed in the area it is the fault of the Israelis." So what makes Carter anti-Semitic: The more subtle allegations of an American Jewish conspiracy that's preventing criticism (the ADL line)? Or his insistence to blame Israel for all that's wrong in the Middle East? (the Peretz line)
It's interesting to compare the case of Carter to the one of Walt and Mersheimer. When Eliot Cohen explained in the Post why he thought those two were anti-Semitic, he argued that "If by anti-Semitism one means obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews; if one accuses them of disloyalty, subversion or treachery, of having occult powers and of participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments; if one systematically selects everything unfair, ugly or wrong about Jews as individuals or a group and equally systematically suppresses any exculpatory information -- why, yes, this paper is anti-Semitic."
Apply the Eliot Cohen test to Carter and the results are mixed:
A. Obsessive and irrationally hostile beliefs about Jews: About Israelis - most of them Jews - yes, but does it count?
B. Accuses them of disloyalty, subversion or treachery: Not in Carter's book or appearances.
C. Having occult powers and participating in secret combinations that manipulate institutions and governments: As Foxman noted, Carter came close, but wasn't as detailed and as blatant as Walt-Mersheimer.
D. Systematically selects everything unfair, ugly or wrong about Jews as individuals or a group: If you count Israel as a "group" of (mostly) Jews - then, yes, Carter might be blamed for that.
E. Suppresses any exculpatory information: Oh, yes he does.
Can we conclude by saying that Carter is not as anti-Semitic as Walt-Mersheimer? (He is a former President, though, so any trace of anti-Semitism in his case is much more important).