JCRC knocks Carter after he decries Israeli apartheid again

President Jimmy Carter very nearly committed a faux pas last week equivalent to showing up at a Board of Rabbis meeting outfitted in a coat made of pork. He arrived for a speech at U.C. Berkeley wearing a red tie.

That’s Stanford’s color.

An alert student handed the author of “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” an aggressively blue and gold striped cravat. But even that may not have made much of a difference. Judging by the worshipful response from the full-to-the-rafters Zellerbach Theatre crowd, Carter’s controversial vision of what Israel must do to achieve Mideast peace was reaching fertile ground — red tie or blue tie.

Members of the organized Jewish community and student pro-Israel activists, however, were not so welcoming. But no one interrupted Carter’s unrepentant use of terms such as “apartheid” and “colonization” during his May 2 speech as he described Israel’s activities in the West Bank.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, a U.C. Berkeley alum, did not have a good day. “I found the speech to be propagandistic and far more of an Israel-bashing presentation than I expected,” said the executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

“He made only the most passing of references to Palestinian terror. This is the man who brokered peace between Israel and Egypt, and he [never mentioned] the number of times Israel has tried to trade land for peace and the number of times Palestinian leadership has rejected those offers.”

As for his use of the word apartheid once again, Carter didn’t waver. “I can’t think of any word that more accurately describes [the plight] of the Palestinians,” the 39th president of the United States told Orville Schell, dean of U.C. Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism during a question and answer session following his speech.

“Apartheid is defined in the dictionary as two people living in the same land forcibly segregated from one another with one of the people completely dominating and persecuting the other. And that is an accurate description of what is going on in Palestine. And I can’t deny the other reason I used that title was that it’s provocative. I think if I’d written ‘A New Idea for Mideast Peace’ I doubt I’d be here.”

Prior to Carter’s appearance, a contingent of Hillel students and other Israel supporters waved Israeli flags and handed out literature, while leftist Jews bearing pro-Carter signs walked through Lower Sproul Plaza. It was a small demonstration by Cal standards; almost as many people gathered nearby to watch the Men’s Octet sing doo-wop numbers.

Carter’s position on the Middle East has continually been disavowed by Democratic leaders, and, by speaking on the U.C. Berkley campus, he appears to have clashed with them once again: A flier handed out by members of the janitor’s union calling for speakers to boycott campus appearances carried endorsements of that stance from presidential candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards.

During his speech, Carter emphasized that “apartheid” is not taking place in Israel proper but only in the territories.

Not all Jews disagreed with him. Matthew Taylor, a Berkeley senior and member of Jewish Voice for Peace, claimed “what Carter says is hard to hear but true. It’s hard for me to say this as a Jew, but apartheid [exists] in the occupied territories.”

Carter — invited to the U.C. Berkeley campus to be awarded the Berkeley Prize by student leaders Ali Ansary and Aidan Ali-Sullivan — opened his address by noting that it would not be a political speech.

And yet, not a minute later, he told the crowd, “If the candidates for congress and the presidency won’t take this pledge, don’t support them. Let me read you the pledge: ‘If elected, I will do everything possible to promote balanced negotiations to achieve peace and security in Israel and a secure and contiguous state for the Palestinians.’ If they won’t make you that pledge, don’t support them.” That won him a round of raucous applause.

Carter described conditions in the West Bank and Gaza as unlivable: Israeli roads, like “spider webs” crisscrossed the region, but Palestinians are not allowed to traverse them. Checkpoints and walls have created an outdoor jail. Heavily subsidized settlers “confiscate farmland” and water sources.

He blamed the festering situation for inspiring terror against Israel and hatred of the United States; he believes an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank will result in a vast reduction in terror attacks.

And, in order to achieve peace, “America must not be seen as in the pocket of either side … We cannot be peacemakers if American lawmakers are seen as knee-jerk supporters of whatever Israeli government happens to be in power at the moment. This essential fact must be faced and this country has not faced it.

“Go see if I’m exaggerating,” he said. “I’d like to think I haven’t.”

Maybe, maybe not. But, according to Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle Eastern Affairs at the JCRC, Carter has, unfortunately, taken the word “apartheid” away from the anti-Israel crowd and made it a decent and respectable thing for so-called mainstream people to say.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.