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 who 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 such domestic initiatives as his support for Habitat for Humanity. His relations with the Jewish community, however, became more remained strained because of his continued criticism of Israeli policies and the publication of his book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Photo: Public Domain.