Jimmy Carter’s latest op-ed in the Washington Post starts off with this: “I am concerned that public discussion of my book “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid” has been diverted from the book’s basic proposals: that peace talks be resumed after six years of delay and that the tragic persecution of Palestinians be ended. Although most critics have not seriously disputed or even mentioned the facts and suggestions about these two issues, an apparently concerted campaign has been focused on the book’s title…”
Carter has repeatedly said that he titled the book as he did in order to stir discussion. Clearly, while that has happened, the result was not what Carter intended. The debate has been dominated by the title, rather than the substance of his book.
One can debate whether so provocative a title was even necessary. When a former president writes a book about a controversial topic, that usually gathers attention. But even if provocation was needed, this was the wrong way to do it. An outcome where the title became the story, rather than Carter’s points, was entirely predictable, and it’s not because of any “lobby”. The flash point, the easily understood, if misleading headline, always wins out in American discourse.
There was much of merit in Carter’s book. Yes, there were factual inaccuracies and mistakes, although contrary to most of Carter’s critics, many of those inaccuracies were actually favorable to an Israeli point of view. But Carter wasn’t writing a history book or a textbook of any kind. He was relating his personal views, experiences and observations for the most part. In any case, much of this has been lost in the public discourse. Fortunately, the book remains a best-seller, so at least many in the general public are getting a chance to get past the title and the silliness of the public “debate” and judge the book on its own merits.
Carter’s choice for controversy may well yield some very positive results, though. Many of those working for a just peace between Israel and the Palestinians have been debating the use of “the A-word” for some time. I hold out hope that Carter’s experience will demonstrate that the argument that calling the situation in the Mideast apartheid is a self-defeating strategy. It is no longer theory. Carter’s experience has proven the point some of us have made for a long time: Because of the sad state of general discourse in the US, and the even sadder state of understanding the Middle East, using words that are intentionally provocative closes down the hearts and minds of the very people we are trying to reach.
It doesn’t matter that Alan Dershowitz or Abe Foxman get apoplectic over the word “apartheid.” What matters is that it triggers people who we can have a rational discussion with. It allows the apologists for Israeli policies to divert the debate. Yes, they will try to do that anyway, but do we really need to help them?
The issue is not whether the term is being correctly applied. That is a debate, but an academic one (which Uri Avnery explores in a very interesting piece). Personally, I contend that, while the racism within Israel has been growing steadily and dramatically worse since the start of the second intifada, it does not merit the term “apartheid.” In the Occupied Territories, the human rights situation has deteriorated so badly that apartheid doesn’t come close to describing the situation. In any case, apartheid, a system that strives for separation under the law, is a different matter than a military occupation that defies international law, for in the latter, the people under occupation have no rights at all.
But the accuracy or not of applying the term “apartheid” to the Israeli occupation is not, in the end, the point. As Jimmy Carter has now amply demonstrated, the point is that using this word is a strategic mistake. Even if you believe that calling it “apartheid” is “telling the truth”, is it not better to tell the same truth using words that others can actually hear?