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January 10, 2007

Emory Professor's Letter to Carter

As noted in CAMERA's Roundup of Commentary on Jimmy Carter's Book, Emory University's Dr. Melvin Konner has expressed serious concerns with Carter's new book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid. He wrote an Op-Ed published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, as well as a letter to the Carter Center's executive director John Hardman.

The professor also sent another letter, this one addressed to Carter himself, which is certainly worth reading. That letter is reprinted below:

December 24, 2006

The Hon. Jimmy Carter
Former President of the United States
Plains, Georgia

Dear President Carter:

Thank you for your prompt response to my column in Friday’s Atlanta Journal Constitution. I want to begin by reiterating my long-standing admiration for you and your life’s work, a devoted and meaningful Christian mission. Thank you for all the good you have done in this troubled world of ours.

It is because of, not despite, my admiration for you that I have been so dismayed by your recent book and the media appearances surrounding it. I have read with care your email message forwarded to me through Duncan Ross-Kinzie of The Carter Center. Your message consists mainly of quotations from your recent open letter to the American Jewish community, and I believe that the official response to that letter from the Anti-Defamation League answers your points adequately and shows that your open letter is not convincing. Nevertheless I will try to add to their response and personalize it.

First, you introduce the quotations with a paragraph directed to me. Regarding the “advisory committee,” it was mentioned to me in a telephone conversation with John Hardman on December 11. He asked me if I would be willing to join a group of people consulting with you in January at The Carter Center to discuss your book and media appearances and perhaps help mediate in the growing controversy between you and the American Jewish community. I said yes, but after careful thought and further observations of the ongoing controversy, I decided not to participate. My reasons are detailed in the letter, which, like this letter, is attached to my email to Mr. Ross-Kinzie. They are also substantively quoted in the news report by Ernie Suggs in the Metro section of Friday’s paper, which you may also have read.

You say you “have discussed the text with representatives of a number of supportive Jewish organizations,” implying that some Jewish organizations support your views. I would be very grateful if you could direct me to the supportive statements about your book issued by these organizations or their representatives. I am so far finding a very consistent opposition to your book and your stated views among Jewish organizations in the United States.

Now I will turn to the quotations from your open letter.

First, with all due respect, your attempt to justify your use of the word “apartheid” is completely unconvincing. I have lived my life by words, and I know that words have connotations as well as denotations. Words have histories. Your use of this word to describe the wall erected by Israel to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks is inappropriate and inflammatory. As Representative John Conyers (D.-Mich), a twenty-term congressman and a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in October, the use of this word "does not serve the cause of peace, and the use of it against the Jewish people in particular, who have been victims of the worst kind of discrimination, discrimination resulting in death, is offensive and wrong." He also said, “President Carter does not build upon his career as a proponent of peace in the Middle East with this comparison.” I would not be surprised if Rep. Conyers has received campaign support from Jews, but as you know The Carter Center receives a great deal of money from Arab sources, and it is not helpful to judge either his viewpoint or yours on that basis.

You say that you “have never claimed that American Jews control the news media,” but you have strongly hinted at this in many writings and public appearances. Here is what you wrote in the Los Angeles Times on December 8, also published on The Carter Center website:

For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices.

It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defense of justice or human rights for Palestinians. Very few would ever deign to visit the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Gaza City or even Bethlehem and talk to the beleaguered residents. What is even more difficult to comprehend is why the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines in the United States exercise similar self-restraint, quite contrary to private assessments expressed quite forcefully by their correspondents in the Holy Land...

Book reviews in the mainstream media have been written mostly by representatives of Jewish organizations who would be unlikely to visit the occupied territories, and their primary criticism is that the book is anti-Israel.

Each of these sentences I have just quoted is demonstrably false and has been effectively and publicly refuted by the Anti-Defamation League, Alan Dershowitz, and others, but that is not the most important thing about them. The most important thing is that they are the same kinds of statements that have been made about Jews by anti-Semites for over a century, the kinds of statements that have led to genocide. The Anti-Defamation League will soon publish on its website a compilation of the explicitly anti-Semitic web pages and publications that are making extensive and active use of your book and your other writings and statements. You are giving comfort to the worst elements in the voluminous discourse about Israel and the Jews.

You say that in your book you reiterated your “strong condemnation” of acts of terrorism. On the contrary, your book states on page 213, "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." Any intelligent reader will recognize that this sentence condones the murder of Jews until such time as Israel unilaterally complies with your prescription for peace. This sentence was quoted in full in the interview with me by Ernie Suggs that accompanied my editorial, but you did not address it in your letter to me.

You also ignored in your letter my most important criticism of your book and media appearances—an almost complete absence of any reference to the long, tragic history of Jewish suffering that led to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel. I will repeat what I said in my editorial, a point you chose not to answer: the omission from your “Historical Chronology” of any events between 1939 and 1947 reveals an uncaring attitude toward the most important reason for Israel’s existence and of the historic events on a mass scale that have shaped this conflict for many decades. You apparently have chosen not to acknowledge or sympathize with the relentless history of Jewish suffering.

Professor Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian historian who occupies the Edward Said Chair at Columbia University, appeared on C-SPAN on October 17. He is no friend to Israel. He talked about his new book, The Iron Cage, which details a century of Palestinian failures to build a state or even to take serious steps in that direction. He also said something truly remarkable: The Palestinians have suffered greatly but they have had the misfortune to have their own experience overshadowed by a much greater suffering, that of the Jews of Europe. He went on to say that one cannot understand the conflict without acknowledging this fact.

In other words, a leading Palestinian historian who, like you, blames Israel for much of the suffering of his people, has a much subtler and more balanced view of what has happened in this tragically torn region than you have shown in your book and media appearances.

Of course Israel must share the blame for this tragic conflict. In fact, that is the definition of tragedy—a conflict of goods in which there are rights and blame on both sides. Your book and your media appearances have attempted to turn this tragedy into a melodrama, a battle of good against evil, in which little Israel—surrounded by hundreds of millions of angry Muslims in twenty-one Arab countries, not to mention Iran, now sworn to destroy it—becomes the great and powerful villain. I predict that the world will not accept your caricature of this tragedy.

With all due respect, your letter forwarded to me by Duncan Ross-Kinzie, consisting mainly of quotations from another letter, was not a serious response to my editorial or to the news report accompanying it. Nevertheless I have tried to be specific and forthright in my response.

I have not made as many visits to Palestine (yes, I use the word Palestine) as you have, but mine were close to the ground and not affected by a diplomatic entourage. I spent several nights in East Jerusalem in 2000 and made several visits to a family in Ramallah that had become dear to my daughter. I also spent a night in Jericho after a Palestinian friend and I evaded an Israeli army blockade to get to his home there. I have twice, in 2000 and 2004, spent several days with Palestinian friends in Amman who live there because it became intolerable for them to live in Palestine. And in 2004 I spent half a day with MachsomWatch, an organization of Jewish women in Israel concerned about Palestinian rights, at an Israeli army checkpoint deep in the West bank, helping to monitor the behavior of the young soldiers and try to prevent abuses. I understand that life has been very difficult for Palestinians and that it has gotten harder in recent years; I just don’t do what you do, which is to falsely put all the weight of blame on one side. I fully support a two-state solution and the creation of a Palestinian homeland; we might have that today if Yasir Arafat had accepted Ehud Barak’s offer—an offer that you, contradicting the testimony of President Clinton and others who were there—inexplicably continue to insist never occurred.

Very fortunately and appropriately, this Christmas Eve brings news of a step toward reconciliation between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, with Israel transferring $100 million dollars to the Palestinian authority and lifting some travel restrictions. There is now hope for a prisoner exchange and a resumption of the peace process. This happy turn of events is of course not the result of your unfair and inaccurate book and public statements, but rather of Tony Blair’s recent efforts in the region. He met privately and appeared publicly with both leaders, answered reporters’ questions with knowledge, flexibility, and subtlety, and above all avoided placing blame on either party in this tragic conflict.

This is the kind of approach with which you achieved your most enduring legacy as president, the peace between Egypt and Israel. I don’t know why you have abandoned this immensely successful approach, but Tony Blair has taken it up, and as a result he will be a major factor in Middle East peacemaking in the future while you, I fear, will not. As the furor surrounding your book has shown—and indeed as all past experience with conflict resolution everywhere also shows--the blame game goes nowhere when the real goal is peace.

It seems to me that you are playing the blame game and are generating far more heat than light. Your book and some of your statements display a callous disregard for the relevant facts of history and the tragic suffering of two peoples locked in a deadly, intractable conflict. Jewish leaders consider many things you have said insulting not just to Israel but to the Jewish people and supportive of the worst elements among our sworn and relentless enemies. In my view, you are not advancing the debate, you are setting it back.

I sincerely hope that the Christmas spirit and the example of Jesus Christ will lead you to take a forgiving and fair path to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, instead of the vindictive and counterproductive path you are now taking against Israel and against the Jewish people.

Yours truly,

Melvin Konner, M.D., Ph.D.
Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor
Department of Anthropology and Program in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology
Emory University

Posted by GI at January 10, 2007 10:06 AM

Comments

Dr. Konner,
President Carter is entitled to his opinions.
But anytime someone even intimates that Israel might not be doing what it should do, there is a brou-ha-ha about it, along with a firestorm of criticism from the Jewish community.
The fact that support of a person's right to criticize Israeli actions does not make anyone anti-semitic.
Lest you forget,Israelis were terrorists under the British. Some of your former leaders were terrorists. And the Israelis did confiscate Palestinian lands.
Keep it down to roar! And be honest with yourself.
Dr. Garvey

Posted by: Wm. p. Garvey MD at January 13, 2007 02:18 PM

dear mr garvey, yes we are all entitled to our opinions.however if they are lies then that is another matter.and you sir, why dont you be honest with yourself.a kurtz

Posted by: a kurtz at January 16, 2007 01:06 AM

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