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Spiritual Progressives Meeting with Jimmy Carter

Spiritual Progressives Meeting with Jimmy Carter

Posted Friday, May 04 2007

On May 2, some leaders of the Network of Spiritual Progressives and NSP invited other Jewish, Christian and Islamic leaders to a private meeting with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter to discuss Israel/Palestine and also our strategy for homeland security: the Strategy of Generosity and the Global Marshall Plan. Here's what happened at the meeting.

The Carter Meeting, May 2, 2007.

Reported by Rabbi Michael Lerner

On Wednesday, I met with former president of the U.S. Jimmy Carter. The two of us chatted about a wide range of issues.

Carter was in Berkeley to speak at the University of California, invited by the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC). He addressed some 2,500 students in Zellerbach Hall (tickets were distributed by a lottery because there were far more students wishing to hear him than there were places available).

His talk to the students was clear, powerful, unambiguous and, in the context of contemporary American politics, courageous (as he has been consistently since he published the book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He has been widely attacked in the Jewish world for that book, with the attacks ranging from personal to political. For those of you who read Tikkun and our interview with Carter in the Jan/Feb issue, you may think “Carter’s views have been presented and are well understood.” But in fact his views have been distorted in the media, particularly the Jewish media (namely, the weekly newspapers in major cities around the U.S. that are published by the UJA/Federation of the Jewish community). The stories range from claims that Carter is critical of Israeli policy because the Carter Center receives money from Arab sources to claims that his book is filled with historical errors.

Carter insisted that Apartheid already exists in the West Bank. He said that Apartheid is a system in which two peoples live in the same geographical area, with one having superior economic and political power and creating a legal system that gives unequal access to resources and legally instituted inequalities in the use of public and private facilities. In the case of the West Bank (which is what he was calling Palestine), settlers have seized land owned by Palestinians, and these seizures have been backed by the Israeli courts and enforced by the Israeli army. Between these hundreds of Jewish settlements, in which Arabs are forbidden to buy property, Israel has constructed an elaborate system of highways and roads over Palestinian land, and the use of these roads and highways are restricted to Israelis. The settlements have occupied almost all of the water supplies for the West Bank, and have diverted the water to provide for the lawns and swimming pools of settlers, while Palestinians find themselves with not enough water for bathing or washing clothes or dishes or drinking. Moreover, in a new land grab, Israel has built a wall in the middle of the 22% of pre-1947 Palestine that now remains in the hands of Arab Palestinians, and that this was indeed a wall (at many places approximately 3 stories high, though in areas where there was no population the wall was merely a high barbed wire fence), and in the course of building the wall has taken over more Palestinian land and will use the wall as the de facto new borders of Israel.

Carter made clear that he did not believe that this was a racist apartheid, but rather one based on the conflict between two nations. But the actual oppression, he said, was real. He has been to Palestine dozens of times in the past decades, and he challenged anyone in the audience who doubted the accuracy of his portrayal to simply go there. He called on the chancellor of the university to set up trips for students to visit Palestine and see the reality on the ground.

Carter repeatedly made it clear that his interest in the area stemmed in part from his caring about the Holy Land as a Christian, his caring about the well being of the Jewish people, and his caring about world peace—all of which led him to speak out on a topic in which, he stated clearly, there had been no public debate in the U.S. The reason that this discussion has been stifled, he said, was at least in part because of AIPAC (the American Israel Political Affairs Committee) and its ability to convince elected officials that they will be labeled “anti-Israel” (and by many in the Jewish community, “anti-Semitic”) if they dare speak out. And yet, as the Muslim and Arab world have made clear, the concern over the way that their Arab brothers and sisters have been and are still now treated in Palestine is central to the anger that they feel toward the West in general and the U.S., which has given Israel virtually a blank check of political and economic support, in particular.

Carter strongly supported the Geneva Accords (read the full version plus commentary and analysis in my book The Geneva Accord and Other Strategies for Middle East Peace, North Atlantic Books, 2004) and called upon students and faculty at U.C. Berkeley to insist that any candidate they support for president, Senate or Congress be willing to challenge existing US policy and seek a new role for the U.S.

Reminding the audience of the success of the treaty he had negotiated between Israel and Egypt, Carter insisted that the only way to bring peace was for the U.S. to be perceived as an honest broker, and that that was what had happened that made the peace accord with Egypt and Israel possible in 1978. But now, in part because of the role of AIPAC and the capitulation to its demands by most elected officials, the U.S. was perceived as extremely partisan and hence unable to negotiate peace—and that this not only hurt the best interests of the United States, but also the best interests of the Jewish people as well as the Palestinians, the majority of both peoples being, in Carter’s understanding, seriously wishing for a peaceful resolution that provided security for Israel and a viable state for the Palestinians.

Carter made clear that he thought that AIPAC’s role as a lobby was totally legitimate, and that the problem was that the rest of us had not yet build an effective counter-lobby. He also disputed claims made by some in the Jewish world that he had said that the media was Jewish dominated. He said he did not believe this to be true and that the reason the media gives so little balance in its coverage of the Middle East is because of its subservience to the positions of the U.S. government on most matters of foreign policy (except when a war that is being waged proves to be an obvious loser).

The Carter Center had arranged for me to meet with Carter, and to invite others as well if I so wished. So after his speech we assembled in an adjacent room. I invited eight rabbis (the four Reform rabbis all declined to come hear Carter because of political differences), two nationally respected leaders of the Muslim world, several ministers and activists in the Christian world, several professors, and leaders in the Network of Spiritual Progressives and in Beyt Tikkun Synagogue, as well as Mitchell Plitnick, the national director of Jewish Voices for peace, and one of the founders of Brit Tzedeck ve’Shalom. In the end, the Secret Service forced me to narrow down the number of participants in this phase.

Carter asked us to tell how he could be helpful to us, while many of the participants asked how we could be helpful to him. Carter described his efforts to counter the extreme right-wing Christian Zionists, and his efforts to help the Baptists understand that the real way to be allies to the Jews is not by giving unconditional support to the current government of the State of Israel. As the discussion proceeded, everyone, including some who had been a bit cynical about Carter’s intentions, came to realize that this was a man sincerely dedicated to the best interests of the Jewish people and of Israel.

There was only one glaring problem or possibly a contradiction in his discussion with us: when some of the invited guest suggested that he use his immense public recognition and popularity to help us create an alternative to AIPAC. Although Carter’s talk to the students had been about why this whole issue was an issue for all Americans and actually for all people on the planet, when it came to organizing an alternative he talked as though this was a job solely for Jews, and that he would help only after we had successfully constructed an alternative to AIPAC. We tried to explain that he had resources and access to the powerful and to the media as a former US president that we would never have, and that were he to use those resources he could do what we could not do, which is to overcome the willingness of he media to totally ignore what the peace oriented Jews in the U.S. were doing and saying. In fact, based on our experience, it is clear that to change foreign policy, we need an interfaith organization (which is what the Network of Spiritual Progressives/Tikkun Community is trying to do) not just a Jewish organization, and that the various attempts to create a Jewish organization, while admirable, have been limited in actual impact.

After this group meeting, Carter and I then sat down for a half hour private meeting (not off-the-record: it was taped and some part of it will appear in the July/August issue of Tikkun). Our main focus, raised also by Peter Gabel in the larger meeting, was the strategy of generosity and the Global Marshall Plan. In the discussion it became clear that Carter shares with us a sense of the importance of a strategy of generosity and its potential usefulness both on a global level and specifically in dealing with the Israel/Palestine issue. One point that had been raised in the public meeting was also mentioned again to me: that if every one of the tens of thousands of people who read the Tikkun mail or the tens of thousands who get Tikkun magazine and/or the thousands who actually have realized the need to support our efforts and hence joined our interfaith organization the Tikkun Community/Network of Spiritual Progressives would write one letter a week to a Congressman or U.S. Senator and another to a journalist or editorialist, one letter a week, fifty a year, that that alone would have a tremendous impact, either for changing the dialogue about Israel/Palestine or for getting legs for our Generosity Strategy and the Global Marshall Plan. He said we should not look for some magic solution—we already knew what to do—the necessary task of building relationships around our vision, getting endorsements, writing letters and making phone calls to media and to elected officials, and coming at least once a year to Washington, D.C. to make our voices heard. So many people are so radical in their thoughts, but so passive when it comes to this simple task of writing a letter each week. Similarly, people in the peace camp assume that all the money collected by AIPAC comes from rich people, whereas in fact much of it comes from the willingness of middle income people to stretch themselves beyond what they can normally see themselves giving to a philanthropic cause. Somehow people in the liberal and progressive world think they’ve mad their contribution by reading an email like this or by telling their friends that they disagree with a certain policy or political leader, and don’t get that those who are trying to organize an alternative like the voice we are creating in Tikkun and in the Network of Spiritual Progressives can only survive with a real financial support, not just good vibes.

I was very honored that among all the possible ways to use his very short amount of time in California, he had allocated an hour and a half to meet with me and whoever I wanted to bring from the Tikkun Community. Carter has made it clear to me in the past that he very much appreciates what we in Tikkun have been doing for peace in Israel/Palestine for the past twenty years, and his allocation of time for a private meeting (and turning down many, many other requests in order to make that possible) was his way of showing that he meant those words, and it made all of us feel very gratified. What was particularly impressive to all of us was his humility, good humor and fundamental human decency—truly unique and rare among politicians and particularly presidents of the United States. It was hard to believe that he is going full strength at age 82, but as my mentor and rebbe Zalman Schachter Shalomi commented to me in a phone call after the interview, Carter is an example of the kind of spiritual sage-ing that is possible once we abandon notions that aging must lead to irrelevance and powerlessness. The spiritual wisdom that Zalman sees as possible was in full evidence both in the words and in the presence of Jimmy Carter.

The next day, I encountered a Reform rabbi on the streets who, when he heard I had met with Carter, told me that this was a man who didn’t like Jews and was anti-Israel. I asked him if he had read the book (he had not) or ever met the man (he had not). Wasn’t this “lashon ha’ra"—evil language? No, he said, he was just trying to defend the Jewish people from its enemies like Carter. And his views continue to prevail among many, many Jews. It is sad, in particular, to realize how the blind allegiance to the policies of the State of Israel are making it impossible for many American Jews to tell the difference between their friends and their enemies. But our task is to continue to put forward a balanced perspective, that is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, believing as we do at NSP and Tikkun that the best interests of each side depends on the well-being of the other side as well.

I still believe that we can make a huge impact if all of us who unequivocally support a two-state solution or a two state PLUS (meaning, two states, but then confederated in economic and political arrangements with the other states of the region to make sure that an “independent” Palestinian state isn’t def acto simply an economic and military Bantustan for Israel). would get together and do an annual mobilization together in Washington DC and then in each Congressional district. At this point, none of them are willing to join us, TIkkun and the NSP, in creating this unity, even though they all agree on two states. So another thing YOU can do is pressuring all those who are unequivocally for two states and who are critical of Israel’s violations of human rights and critical of the role of AIPAC to stop just advancing their own organization and agreeing to work together even though there may be differences in style, tone and urgency. Because apart from saving the planet from ecological destruction, there’s nothing more urgent than bringing peace to the Middle East.


Rabbi Michael Lerner

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