Pro-Israel activists are gearing up for a showdown with Jimmy Carter next week at Brandeis University, where the former president will field questions on his controversial new book on Israel.
The visit, scheduled for January 23, was recently announced after weeks of contention between Carter and university officials, who previously proposed that he appear in a debate with Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. Following the announcement, Dershowitz and his supporters are scrambling for a venue to present their views to the campus community. Earlier this week, an ad hoc student group invited the Harvard professor to speak following the Carter forum, which Dershowitz said he “absolutely” planned to attend, despite an announced university ban on all outsiders.
“I think the people who brought Carter to the campus are very anxious about having me speak,” Dershowitz told the Forward. He added, “Brandeis will have to make the decision to exclude me [from the Carter forum], because I’m going to come. I’m not going to make it easy for them.”
The stormy prelude to Carter’s trip to Brandeis comes as the controversy over his book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” continues to escalate on several fronts across the country.
On January 11, the day after the Forward revealed that the 1,500-member rabbinical arm of Reform Judaism had canceled a planned visit to the Atlanta-based Carter Center, 14 Jewish members of the center’s board of councilors resigned in protest over the new book and Carter’s recent public statements suggesting that powerful American Jews had stifled an open public debate on Israel.
“Your book has confused opinion with fact, subjectivity with objectivity and force for change with partisan advocacy,” the councilors wrote in public letter to Carter. They added, “We can no longer support your strident and uncompromising position. This is not the Carter Center or the Jimmy Carter we came to respect and support.”
The departures followed the exit of Emory University professor Kenneth Stein, who resigned in December from his position as a Carter Center fellow. Several days after the councilors resigned, Emory professor Melvin Konner withdrew from a group advising the former president on managing his recent controversies.
According to press reports, the departures from the board of councilors were discussed for weeks, and the group unsuccessfully pressed for the resignations from some of the non-Jews on the 200-member board.
At the same time that Carter’s critics are pressing their case against the former president, his defenders are stepping up their own efforts. In recent days, the Forward has learned, pro-Palestinian advocates have been circulating a boycott petition against Amazon.com. The online retailer has included a highly critical review, by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Washington Post, in the “editorial reviews” section under its listing for Carter’s book.
“Because giving so much space in this location to such a negative review is so unusual — if not unprecedented — for Amazon, and because you have refused requests from many customers that you take a more balanced approach, we can only conclude that you are deliberately trying to discourage shoppers from ordering the former president’s book,” the petition says. It calls for a boycott of Amazon.com unless the retailer adds a positive review of similar length and substance to Goldberg’s piece.
Nabil Mohamad, the organizing director for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League, said he received the letter late last week, with several thousand signatures already attached, and forwarded it on to his group’s members. He was unsure where it originated.
According to Mohamad, at some point since last week Amazon.com added a more positive, albeit brief, review from Publishers Weekly to the entry for Carter’s book.
Amazon.com spokeswoman Patty Smith said the company was aware of the petition and routinely draws complaints about controversial books. Smith could not confirm whether the Publishers Weekly review was recently added.
At Brandeis, it is Carter’s detractors who are concerned that the marketplace of ideas may be endangered. At the upcoming forum — which is not being run by the university’s administration but by a committee comprised of four faculty members and one student — Carter will speak for 15 minutes and then spend 45 minutes answering 15 pre-chosen questions, culled from queries submitted by students in advance via the Internet.
“What disturbs me is that President Carter really declined to have a real debate and even with the current setup there will not be questions from the floor,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis. “To my mind it is very unfortunate that there will not be an open forum for discussing some very serious allegations concerning the book and material that has now come out even beyond the book.”
Dershowitz has said that he plans to bring up a new issue during his tentative speech at Brandeis: the funding of the Carter Center, which relies on a number of prominent Arab donors — including the governments of Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates — for a portion of its $36 million operating budget. These financial ties, Dershowitz said, may explain why the Carter Center has never issued a report on Saudi human rights abuses.
Another new line of criticism opened in the past week is the charge that Carter’s book goes so far as to accept terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. In their letter, the councilors who resigned from the Carter Center drew attention to a passage from page 213 of Carter’s book which states that “it is imperative, that the general Arab community and all significant Palestinian groups make it clear that they will end the suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism when international laws and the ultimate goals of the Roadmap for Peace are accepted by Israel.”
In recent days, a conservative newspaper, The New York Post, and a right-wing organization, the Zionist Organization of America, have also argued that the passage reads like an approval of suicide attacks.
In another passage, on page 15, Carter calls terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians “a course of action that is both morally reprehensible and politically counterproductive.”