Reform Rabbis Cancel Carter Center Visit

By Jennifer Siegel

Published January 12, 2007, issue of January 12, 2007.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: Shortly after this article was posted, 14 board members of the Carter Center announced their resignation from the institution.

The rabbis of America’s largest synagogue movement have canceled a planned visit to the Atlanta-based Carter Center in response to the publication of former President Jimmy Carter’s controversial new book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Last month, the Forward has learned, leaders of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a 1,500-member group representing Reform rabbis, called off a scheduled tour of the Carter Center after the public reaction to Carter’s book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” reached a fevered pitch, and an interdenominational group of rabbis expressed disappointment over a meeting with the former president. CCAR members were to have had the opportunity to visit the center as part of an optional day of activities preceding the group’s annual conference, which will be held in Atlanta from March 11 to 14.

Carter’s book “used language and images and terms that have the effect of escalating anti-Israel or even anti-Jewish feeling,” said the CCAR’s president, Rabbi Harry Danziger, in an interview with the Forward. “This is both a statement to President Carter that we hope he will enter into dialogue about what we think of as misrepresented facts about the Middle East, and, at the same time, our own statement that we feel that this was an unfair attack on Israel and we did not want to be part of a visit to the center because of it.”

Since the publication of his book in mid-November 2006, Carter has endured a steady barrage of criticism from Jewish figures. Among them are vocal defenders of Israel, such as Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, as well as former colleagues such as Emory University professor Kenneth Stein, who resigned from his post as a fellow at the Carter Center. Carter’s critics have argued that his book is biased and unnecessarily inflammatory, and that it contains errors of both fact and interpretation.

In addition to placing the onus of the continuing conflict on Israeli settlement policies, Carter also asserted in his book that “powerful political, economic and religious forces in the United States” prevent the Palestinian side of the Middle East debate from being heard in Washington and the American media. During his book tour, Carter has been more outspoken in accusing the pro-Israel lobby and Jewish activists of stymieing debate.

With the rebuke from the CCAR, Carter, who brokered the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal and has been a leading proponent of a two-state solution, now finds himself being heavily criticized even by the leaders of the largest and most dovish of America’s major synagogue movements.

“There’s a real sense of sorrow, because many of us have said that he was in many ways our hero, and we’ve lost that sense of him,” said Rabbi Andrew Strauss, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix. Strauss is one of the Jewish clergymen who met privately with Carter in early December, when the former president traveled to Arizona on his book tour.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism — the umbrella organization for the country’s 900-plus Reform congregations, with 1.5 million members — praised the CCAR’s decision to cancel the Carter Center tour. The Reform leader said that over the years, on “numerous” occasions, his organization has invited Carter to speak, only to be rebuffed.

“Despite significant disagreements with him, we have invited him to speak on various occasions,” said Yoffie, a senior dove in the American Jewish community, who, since becoming head of the URJ in 1996, has displayed a willingness to reach out to political opponents.

“He has shown no interest in appearing under our auspices, even before the [debate over the book],” Yoffie said. “So at this particular moment, we have no desire to chase after him for a dialogue.”

Yoffie, despite sharing Carter’s support for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, criticized Carter’s approach to the conflict. “When was the last time we heard a strong voice from President Carter criticizing a terrorist attack against Jews in Israel?” Yoffie said in an interview with the Forward. “There’s something fundamentally skewed in his moral outlook. He’s done some good things in the world, and we’re the first to acknowledge that, but he has serious problems when it comes to dealing with Jews.”

In contast, Rabbi Michael Lerner, who recently informed followers that he is exploring the possibility of working with Carter on building a left-wing alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, described the former president as open to dialogue.

“I just had several conversations [with Carter] in the past few weeks that made me feel that he totally cared about the Jewish people and Israel,” said Lerner, who is the founding editor of the liberal bimonthly journal Tikkun.

Carter has repeatedly insisted that one of his primary motivations is to achieve a peace settlement that would ensure Israel’s security and survival.

The Carter Center did not respond to a request for comment. In several recent media interviews, Carter has strongly rejected any suggestion that he is anti-Jewish.

In a December 8 opinion article in the Los Angeles Times, the former president criticized what he called “severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to “the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American Israel Political Action Committee.”

“My most troubling experience” on the book tour, Carter wrote, “has been the rejection of my offers to speak, for free, about the book on university campuses with high Jewish enrollment and to answer questions from students and professors.”

The Carter Center did not respond to the Forward’s request for additional details. But critics say that in the case of Brandeis University, it was the former president who decided against a visit to the campus. Last month, Carter rejected an invitation to speak at Brandeis after the school insisted that he appear in a debate against Dershowitz.

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