WALTHAM, Mass. – Jimmy Carter’s visit to Brandeis University this week was preceded by days of fresh controversy and recriminations, but when the former president came striding onto stage Tuesday, he played every part the Southern gentleman, charming the crowd of mostly Jewish students and winning a standing ovation in the end.
Carter’s visit came in the middle of a promotional tour for his new book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” which has been attacked as anti-Israel by many Jewish organizations and led to the resignation of many Jewish board members of the Carter Center at Emory University. When Carter stepped onto a makeshift stage in the sweat-stained gymnasium at Brandeis, he acknowledged the significance of his appearance at America’s only nondenominational Jewish university in the midst of the battle over his book.
“Except for an invitation from the U.S. Congress to deliver my inaugural address — almost 30 years ago — this is the most exciting invitation I’ve ever received,” Carter said. “And it’s gotten almost as much publicity.”
Perhaps the most surprising and telling moment came not with a confrontation but with a concession Carter made when a student asked about a segment of his book in which he appeared to suggest that Palestinian terrorism is justified under current conditions. Carter retracted the sentence and apologized to students. “That sentence was worded in a completely improper and stupid way, for which I have to apologize,” Carter said. “I have written the publishers to change that sentence immediately.”
An hour after Carter ran off to catch his commercial flight back to Georgia, the same lectern was occupied by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a fervent defender of Israel who had offered to debate Carter at Brandeis. Dershowitz laid into the factual record in Carter’s book, but he opened with a conciliatory gesture toward the former peanut farmer.
“Had he written a book which was similar to what he said from this stage, I do not believe there would have been much controversy,” Dershowitz said.
This is not how the day was expected to unfold.
Carter initially declined to speak at Brandeis when the offer was made contingent on his debating Dershowitz. In interviews with the press, Carter said Brandeis had limited his freedom of speech.
In the end, Carter was invited by an ad hoc committee of students and faculty sympathetic to his views while Dershowitz was invited by a separate committee composed mostly of pro-Israel students. Among students and faculty there was great deal of grumbling about the rules set up around both appearances. The university banned posters and anything else that might have been used to protest inside the venue. In addition, the questions for Carter were limited to 12 pre-screened queries from students, which many felt was an improper limit on debate.
“This is a wonderful thing for the public relations of President Carter and his book,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis. “But it’s somewhat of a blow to our standards of academic integrity. It’s not the way a university named for Louis Brandeis ought to be conducting itself.”
Some students felt that the limit on questions was yet another way in which open discussion of the Middle East was limited on the Brandeis campus.
“It’s so often either swept under the carpet and when it comes out, it turns into a flurry of accusations,” said Michelle Lindstrom, a senior at Brandeis.
Carter himself commented on the easily uncivil turn that debate over the Middle East can take.
“I’ve been through political campaigns and I’ve been stigmatized and condemned by my political opponents, but this book is the first time that I’ve ever been called a liar and a bigot and an antisemite and a coward,” Carter said. “This is hurting me.”
Despite all this, on the day of the event there were almost no visible signs of dissent on campus. In the gymnasium the students were a model of quiet decorum. A number of students wore blue and white in response to a call from pro-Israel groups, but everyone stood for the ovations at the beginning and end.
The protest section across the street never drew more than 100 people, and most of them were pro-Carter. The only people protesting Carter’s visit were small contingents from The David Project, an Israeli advocacy group, and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a pro-Israel media monitoring organization known by its acronym, Camera.
Leading up to Carter’s appearance, all the talk was about who would and would not be in attendance. Dershowitz was not allowed in the gymnasium during Carter’s speech due to a carefully crafted rule limiting the crowd to people with Brandeis identification.
Also not there was the president of Brandeis, Yehudah Reinharz, who was in Florida on a fundraising trip. A spokesman for the university, Dennis Nealon, said Reinharz had asked Carter to come on a day when Reinharz did not already have plans to be out of town but the former president was unable to comply. Carter had no official meal or reception on campus, despite the fact that he was only the second president to visit Brandeis, the first being Harry Truman.
The other notable absence was Jonathan Demme, the film director who is currently shooting a documentary about Carter and his new book. University spokespeople denied Demme’s request for press credentials in the gymnasium, saying that a documentary crew would be too disruptive. Later on, Dershowitz invited Demme’s film crew to join him as he watched Carter’s speech elsewhere on campus but the university administration also did not allow this.
Carter spent most of his talk summarizing the contents of his book, in which he argued that the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East. In his book he also asserted that the Palestinian position is unfairly ignored by the American public and in American political debate.
The committee that invited Carter — and screened the questions posed to him — was made up of generally sympathetic faculty and students, but the questions they chose were almost all critical of the president. The moderator of the event told Carter, “there are not too many soft matzo balls coming your way today.”
One student asked about donations the Carter Center has received from Arab rulers, including the Saudi royal family. Carter said that he had his staff go through every donation and they found that only 2% of the donations came from Arab sources. Nearly all of that money, Carter said, had gone to development projects in Africa, and all of the donations have been made public.
Another student, a former member of the Israeli army, asked how Carter could ask Israel to give up its checkpoints in West Bank given the role they play in securing the Israeli borders. Afterward, the student, Ido Givon, a 26-year-old senior, said he felt that Carter had “dodged my question.”
Nonetheless, like most pro-Israel students in the crowd, Givon said he was happy that in the end Carter ended up making an appearance at Brandeis. “I may disagree with the guy,” Givon said, “but I respect that fact that we invited him and he came.”
The session with Dershowitz was more free form. Only about half the students stayed, but they were a more ardent crowd, whooping as Dershowitz took the stage. Where Carter played the politician — making vague, feel-good points — Dershowitz was every bit the lawyer, jabbing his finger into the air and talking about the dynamics of specific peace accords.
“These are complicated issues that require complicated and difficult solutions,” Dershowitz said. “We did not hear about complexities here tonight. We heard about simplicities.” Afterward a few clusters of pro-Israel students stood in the cold night, fiercely debating with a much smaller group of pro-Palestinian students. One of those pro-Palestinian students was, in fact, a Palestinian, who was at Brandeis as part of a special scholarship program that brings an Israeli and a Palestinian to the university every two years. The Palestinian student, Walaa Sbait, said that he is sympathetic to Carter and was surprised by the warm reception he received. “I expected booing mostly,” Sbait said.
Sbait said it was a good thing that Brandeis had invited the former president, but he noted that the good will was sustained largely by the type of careful rules and moderation that do not exist outside the lecture hall.
“The reason people here don’t know anything about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is because there is fear on both sides about hearing the other side, “ Sbait said.