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Jimmy Carter

(1924 - )

Jimmy Carter was the 39th president of the United States (1977–81).

Carter was born in Plains, Georgia. A graduate of the Naval Academy, he served in the Navy from 1946 to 1953. In 1962, he was elected to the Georgia State Senate. After losing a gubernatorial primary in 1966, he went on to win the primary and general election in 1970 and served as governor from 1971 to 1975. In the 1970 gubernatorial primary much of the Jewish community of Atlanta supported the better-known former governor, Carl E. Sanders, over the unknown aspirant from Plains. However, Carter established strong relationships with Atlanta Jewish leaders such as Stuart Eizenstat (who worked on his gubernatorial campaign staff), Robert Lipschutz, and Marvin Goldstein.

In the 1976 presidential primaries, Carter upset a number of Democrats who were better known in the Jewish community. In the general election, Carter captured 64% of the Jewish vote, while President Gerald Ford received 34%. During one of the presidential debates, candidate Carter came out in support of legislation that would prohibit U.S. corporations from complying with the Arab boycott of Israel.

The Carter administration reflected the growing influence of Jews in American politics; in his one term in office, he appointed four Jewish Americans to his cabinet – Harold Brown at Defense, Michael Blumenthal at Treasury, Neil Goldschmidt at Transportation, and Phillip Klutznick at Commerce. Moreover, Eizenstat, Lipschutz, and Al Moses served in senior roles in the administration.

However, President Carter’s support in the Jewish community often suffered because of the administration’s policies in the Middle East. Early in the administration, Carter called for a “Palestinian Homeland” – the farthest any president had ever gone in supporting Palestinian nationalism. By the fall of 1977, the president and his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, were pressing Israel to attend a proposed Geneva Conference where a comprehensive peace accord would be discussed. Partially in reaction to this Geneva convention plan, which he saw as leading nowhere, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic trip to Jerusalem in November 1977. The administration’s first reaction was to oppose Sadat’s initiative but to the administration’s credit, it reversed course, and in the fall of 1978, Carter was instrumental in helping Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin hammer out the Camp David Accords. This historic first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state was signed on the White House lawn in the spring of 1979.

Two other events eroded Carter’s Jewish support. In the spring of 1978, he proposed a controversial sale of America’s top fighter aircraft, the F-15, to Saudi Arabia. Both Israel and the American Jewish community vigorously opposed this sale, and Carter only narrowly prevailed in a close U.S. Senate vote. In the process, however, Mark Siegel – a senior White House official and the President’s Jewish liaison – resigned in protest. Furthermore, in the fall of 1979, Carter’s UN ambassador, Andrew Young, was forced to resign when it was revealed that he had arranged secret meetings with representatives of the PLO.

On the domestic front, Carter had greater success with the Jewish community. In the spring of 1978, Eizenstat, Carter’s domestic policy advisor, took to the president a Siegel-Ellen Goldstein proposal to establish a Holocaust Memorial in Washington, D.C. Subsequently, Carter established a President’s Commission on the Holocaust, chaired by Elie Wiesel, which eventually led to the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1993. Carter also supported and signed legislation to ban U.S. corporate compliance with the Arab boycott of Israel. Moreover, in the wake of the Iranian revolution, the administration arranged for easier immigration for Iranian Jewish and Baha’i refugees. Carter’s focus on human rights was extended to Soviet Jewry, and in the Carter years, Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union dramatically expanded.

In the fall of 1979, the administration reached out to the Jewish community by appointing Klutznik as secretary of commerce. Klutznik was a fixture in American Jewish communal life and was probably the most prominent Jewish communal leader to be appointed to the U.S. cabinet since Oscar Strauss in 1906.

In 1980, many Jewish voters abandoned Carter – first for Senator Edward Kennedy in the primaries and then for Governor Ronald Reagan and Congressman John Anderson in the fall. In November, Carter bested Reagan in the Jewish community by only a narrow margin – 45%–39%. This was the worst showing among Jewish voters for a Democratic presidential candidate since James Cox in 1920.

In retirement, President Carter revived his reputation among many Americans with his support for democracy and human rights overseas and his involvement in domestic initiatives such as Habitat for Humanity. His relations with the Jewish community, however, became more strained because of his repeated criticism of Israeli policies and the publication of his book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.

In the book, Carter offers inaccuracies and misrepresentations of historical facts vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Carter says Palestinians were forcibly evicted from their homes in 1967, when in fact, they largely fled on their own, having been promised a swift end to the Arabs’ war on Israel. Carter seeks to paint Israel as hostile to Christians, claiming “an exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.” In fact, Israel is the only Middle East nation with a Christian population that has grown in the last half-century, from tens of thousands to more than 150,000, in large measure because of the freedom to practice their religion.

Throughout the book, Carter asserts Israel does not want peace, steals Palestinian land, and refuses to trade land for peace. He claims Israel puts “confiscation of Palestinian land ahead of peace,” despite Israel having withdrawn from 94% of the territory it captured in 1967. He says Israel has stolen “Palestinian land” but presents no evidence the land belonged to the Palestinians and ignores all Israeli claims. Israeli “settlements,” he says, are obstacles to peace, even though Arabs were not willing to make peace prior to the establishment of “settlements” in the West Bank and Gaza, and Palestinian terrorism continued after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza.

Carter places no demands on Palestinians to do anything to advance peace. Carter ignores Palestinian leaders’ failure to build housing for Palestinian refugees or to complete development projects on land relinquished by Israel. Carter expresses concern about a “large number of women” held in Israeli prisons, giving the impression that Israel unjustly jails them. He fails to mention, however, that women have planned suicide attacks, prepared bombs and assisted suicide bombers, attacked Israeli soldiers, and joined terrorist groups. He falsely states that “confessions extracted through torture are admissible in Israeli courts” when, in fact, the Israeli Supreme Court has been very clear about the illegality of torture.

Carter’s book is devoted almost entirely to his accusations against Israel. Even in referencing terrorism, he says it is only a reaction to Israeli policies rather than a tactic independent of any Israeli action. The book prompted the resignation of 14 members of the Carter Center community board, who said Carter put too much blame on Israel for its conflict with Palestinians. Defending the use of “apartheid” in the book’s title in a 2007 interview with National Public Radio, Carter said the word is a “very accurate description of “the total domination and oppression of Palestinians by the dominant Israeli military.” In that interview, Carter referred to the “apparently permanent acquisition, confiscation, and colonization of choice sites throughout the West Bank… taken away from the Palestinians. That is the root of the problem that prevents peace.”

Given a chance to correct assertions in his book, Carter instead chose to double-down and ignore Israel having relinquished substantial amounts of territory as stipulated by the Oslo Accords for a chance at peace that has never materialized due to Palestinian refusal to negotiate a permanent solution.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
14 Carter Center Board Members Resign, CBS News, (January 12, 2007).
Jimmy Carter Defends ‘Peace Not Apartheid,’ NPR, (January 25, 2007).

Photo: Public Domain.