Is politics behind Jimmy Carters apology to Jews

Former President Jimmy Carter has asked the Jewish community for forgiveness — and he insists it’s not simply because his grandson has decided to launch a political career with a run for the Georgia state Senate.

Jason Carter, 34, an Atlanta-area lawyer, is considering a run to fill a seat covering suburban DeKalb County should the incumbent, David Adelman, win confirmation as President Barack Obama’s designated ambassador to Singapore. The district has a significant Jewish population in the area around Emory University.

The senior Carter last week sent a letter to JTA, which was provided to the Associated Press on Dec. 23, apologizing for “any words or deeds” that may have stigmatized Israel. He offered an “Al Chet” — a prayer said on Yom Kippur — that signifies a plea for forgiveness.

Jimmy Carter

“We must recognize Israel’s achievements under difficult circumstances, even as we strive in a positive way to help Israel continue to improve its relations with its Arab populations, but we must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel,” Carter wrote in his statement.

The apology immediately sparked a debate among Jewish groups.

“Is it correct to outright dismiss his apology? No, if he issues it, we have to look at it seriously,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “But the devil is in the details. And if there’s a nuanced change about how he approaches Israel in the future, it’s an important statement.”

Carter outraged Jewish leaders in 2006 with his book “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” The Nobel Peace Prize laureate was criticized for what appeared to be his likening of Israel’s settlement practices to apartheid and seeming to place the brunt of the blame for a lack of peace on Israel.

On the subsequent book tour, Carter further enraged many Jews by intimating that the pro-Israel lobby inhibited an evenhanded U.S. policy. Also, Israeli leaders have shunned him for his journeys to Gaza to meet with officials from Hamas.

Some Jewish groups welcomed Carter’s apology, but other reacted with disdain or said it’s too early to tell if he meant it.

Shalom International, a Miami-based group known for staging protests to fight anti-Semitism, called the apology a “publicity stunt” and invited Carter to attend one of several upcoming rallies.

“ ‘I’m sorry’ doesn’t cut it,” said Bob Kunst, the group’s president.

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America said true repentance requires Carter to reverse any of the harm he caused, and called on the former president to take “concrete actions to redress troubling false statements” the group said he made about the war in Gaza last year.

In an interview, Carter insisted his reaching out to the Jewish community was not politically motivated.

Jason Carter

“Jason has a district [in which] the number of Jewish voters in it is only 2 percent,” he said, chuckling.

Asked what in particular he might have done to stigmatize Israel, Carter pointed to the title of his book. He said it reflected his belief that Palestinians, not Israel, should control the West Bank, and that apartheid, not peace, would prevail were that not to happen. Apartheid was a predictor, he said, not a description.

“I never intended or wanted to stigmatize the nation of Israel, even though I have disagreed with the settlement policy all the way back to the White House,” he said.

In his own statement, the younger Carter said his grandfather’s statement was not connected to his political plans.

“While I was very happy to see my grandfather’s letter, it was completely unrelated to my campaign,” Jason Carter said in the statement. “The letter is a product of discussions with some of his friends in the Jewish community that have been going on for a long time.”

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said he was not disturbed that the former president’s reaching out to the Jewish community might have been triggered in part by his grandson’s political aspirations.

“If it turns out that President Carter’s love for his grandson brought about an epiphany in his relationship with the Jewish people, that’s fine,” said Foxman, who has criticized Carter over his statements on Israel. “I don’t care what stimulated him to re-examine his bias toward the Jewish people. If it’s his grandson and his understanding that his grandson’s relations to the Jewish community will help him succeed — I don’t think we have the right to judge.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.