Why the A-Word Doesn’t Work

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.jpg

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?

32 thoughts on “Why the A-Word Doesn’t Work

  1. Mitchell, I don’t argue with observations from one as erudite as yourself, but I would just make the observation that those of us who used to live in Israel and work in West Bank/Gaza, plus many Israeli and other activists with whom we had close association, used to liberally use the term “aparthied” to describe what we were witnessing; it may be from those such as us, that Carter appropriated the term. It may not be a politically wise term, but it’s a term in very wide usage among many Israelis aggrieved about the situation, as well as similar international involvees.

  2. I think that it was a good idea, and the right decision, to use the word apartheid in the title. It’s accuracy has been verified by people who experienced apartheid in South Africa, including highly respected individuals such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu; and it’s routinely used by well informed people in Israel and other countries when discussing the situation in Palestine. I have been researching the subject fulltime for the past few weeks, and have come to the conclusion that the term apartheid is an accurate description of the situation in the West Bank. Some people have said that the treatment of the Palestinians is worse than apartheid, and some have said that it’s not exactly apartheid yet, but it’s moving in that direction.
    The result has been good: the book-and the situation- got a lot of attention that it otherwise would not have received; people are reading the book, discussing the issue much more, are better informed and more aware, and I think it’s already favorably affecting government policy in Israel and possibly in the US as well.

  3. Jews, Christians & Muslims can get along fine if they are treated as Equals & in a Just Society. The problem is the Religious Supremacy of group over others, which is the Zionists concept will Not work & it is bound to fail. It is matter of time. The question is, how many more people have to die before the Israeli people realize that? The Nazi tried the RACIAL SUPREMACY & failed, the cost was millions of human lives. Human being thru out history have Grouped themselves in a religious, National, Racial or any other critiria & try to prevail over others, THE END RESULT WAS DEATH & DESTRUCTION. This have been & continue to be the major cause of wars. Peace would prevail in the world when the Human Commonality prevails over all other commonalities.

  4. Israel offers the greatest religious freedom of any state in the Middle East. Carter’s title undermines this, as do your comments.

    There is a relentlessly dishonest anti-Israel industry. Carter is now part of it, as are you.

    If you care about human rights, how about placing Israel in context with it’s neighbors? How about putting the same energy – or a lot MORE – into pointing out the problems with human rights in the remainder of the Middle East?

    No that’s no fun, is it.

  5. The relentless attacks on Former President Carter for expressing his views is actually an assault on the Freedon of Speech in America & on the American People’s right to publicly express their opinion without politically & socially getting Excommunicated. American Politicians are too intimidated to openly criticize Israeli policies, due to fear of ending their Political Careers. American Zionists are teaching young Jewish children to be more loyal to Israel than the America. That’s teaching treachery, & that’s really disturbing. The United State can NOT be an honest broker of Peace in the Middle East as long as Our Politicians’ Careers are dependent on AIPAC (Israel Lobby) support.

  6. Sorry, Art, but there will always be someone, somewhere who is doing something much worse than Israel is doing. I think we all expect Israel to do better. I think we all believe it can.

  7. Like Leah, I expect Israel to do better. It is important to argue that it can, in part because just peace with the Palestinians is otherwise politically impossible. If we simply criticize Israel or its government, this confirms the belief that many Jews have that everyone is out to get Jews and Israel is the only refuge. Here in the US, where I write, it seems a comparison of Israel with the US history of conquest and racism is more telling than a comparison with South Africa, in part because here in the US we retain hope for something better and have some reason for this hope. In order to be persuasive in the US, peace activists have to articulate both hope and criticism.

  8. I hope, perhaps naively, that Carter’s book as well as other things that we all do will focus more on what the U.S. is doing related to Israel and the Palestinians. Exposing Israeli policy in relationship to what we in the U.S. do is important! Thanks!

  9. It is totally crystal-clear and obvious that there are one more forum where Nazis are assembling. Like the pseudo-Jews by the name of ‘”Jill Friedman” and others. The offer the blogger is advising (judging the “author” and his “book” on its merit is paradoxically just shooting oneself on the foot…
    Why? Because the whole book is made of a pack of lies and unverifiable judgements masking personal emotions and ideological zeal.
    Carter and his blogger are hiding behind unsubstantiated – the worst Pres. the US ever had – intentionally misrepresents “int. law” (the yardstick of the moral relativists)and UNSC resolutions and just because of this and other such blatent blunders he totally deiscredits his own integrity – supposed integrity I shold say. And these intentional lies and deceptions about the “situation” is his and his supporters’ like the “erudite” blogger smoking gun.
    Typical double standards in these modern-day stalinists’ moral character and judgement: not a single word on genocide in Darfur perpetrated by Arab muslims and the countless other human-rights violations by Islamofascist Jihadi Muslims (inc. Arabs) on our planet.
    Why:
    Bacause of three fundamantal reasons:
    1. Because their extreme far-left worldview would be stand exposed as naked and a hypocritical sham and it would destroy their upside-down world in a second blowing away their lies, manipulations and deceits
    2. Because of their moral relativism, nihilism and narcissism (fake misguided moral “outrage”)
    3. Anti-semitism

    Bye-bye Fascists

    Gábor Fränkl

  10. The ULTIMATE VIRUS (HUMAN IGNORENCE OF WHAT’S BEST FOR THEM) always is present when I read comments. We as human species always wished for Peace to Prevail & spread all over the World, however we almost always act and perticipate in activities that promote the opposite!!! The vast majority of us like to take sides, whenever there is a conflict specially if it involves a side we feel bonded or attached to, and that’s the CAUSE OF OUR SPECIES’ FAILURE TO ACHIEVE WORLD PEACE. WE MUST SEEK TO BE BONDED WITH EACH OTHER BECAUSE WE ARE ALL MEMBERS OF THE SAME SPECIES AND WE MUST ABANDONE OUR BLIND LOYALTIES TO OUR RELIGIOUS, ETHNIC, NATIONAL OR ANY OTHER COMMONALITIES AND REPLACE IT WITH A BLIND LOYALTY TO HUMANITY, OTHERWISE WE WOULD BE CONDEMNING OUR CHILDREN TO REPEAT OUR MISTAKES AND SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES OF OUR IGNORENCE. The Establishment of United States of America was actually a Pro-type of a United Humanity!!! The 1st Amemdment of the Constitution States WE ALL ARE CREATED AS EQUAL IN THE EYE OF GOD AND WE ALL HAVE EQUAL HUMAN RIGHTS, REGARDLESS OF RELIGION OR NATIONAL ORIGIN OR ANY OTHER COMMONALITIES. UNFORTUNATELY OUR POLITICAL LEADERS DON’T FOLLOW THIS PRINCIPAL WHEN DEALING WITH OTHER COUNTRIES.

  11. Please try to understand why the term “apartheid” is used so freely by those in Israel (such as Uri Averny), Palestine and others, regardless of the acrimony it arouses and the meritorious arguments about its inappropriateness.

    Its because those of us currently or formerly in the middle of the situation on the ground there, could find no other term to adequately describe the policies of seperation, draconianpass laws, military occupation and “law”, willful discrimination towards Palestinians both in Israel and Palestine, land confiscation, imprisonment without habeus corpus, absence of rule of law, settler depredations, targeted assasinations, unwillingness to allow family reunion and an utterly racist, untermenshin attitude towards Palestinians; what other term comes close to describing what Israel is doing to the Palestinians? If those who object to the term “apartheid” can provide a more descriptive term for what is occurring, please provide us with such!

  12. Uri Avnery, not Averny you moron.
    By the way, not a single reference is appropriate without understanding the wider picture, terrorism, constant rocket-lauunching, deliberate shelling and killing INNOCENT civilians while the IDF tries everything in its power to minimize civilian casualties, well known facts for everybody.
    Totally disregarding historical facts, like the “Palestininans” and the arab side’s total refusal to let Israel live (’48, ’67, ’73, ’82) speak for itself.

    The good news is, that seemingly there are only so few anti-semitic fascists on this panel that there is hardly anyone here who has not commented before. And there are 11 (eleven) comments altogether, 2 of which are mine…

    Deliberately obscuring historical facts, exempting the so-called Palestinians (never in the history such a fake-people existed, another well-known fact) of all responsibility shows that they are absolutely nothing more than the pawns of self-serving moral relativists deliberately ignoring their own nations’s history…For the Israelis to be in the “occupied territories” have a million tims stronger claims than those vermins called the American far-left extremists.

    Gábor Fränkl

    Budapest, Hungary

  13. To discrib Israeli policies as Apartheid may be offensive to supporters of Israel, nevertheless I believe it an accurate discription of what’s happening in the occupied territories. When I look at the stars and wonder how much we accomlpished as a human Species, we sent probes to Planet Mars and they are still roving & sending us pictures of that planet, we can detect Galexies more than 10 billion light years away. However, we’ve never learned how to resolve conflicts without killing each others. PERHAPS WE OUGHT TO RE-EXAMINE THE VALUES OUR PARENTS & CLERICS TAUGHT US, OBVIOUSLY THEY DID NOT DO A GOOD JOB, MAY BE THE FORGOT TO TEACH US THE IMPORTANCE OF RESPECTING EACH OTHERS’ RIGHTS. Until Some give me the right answer, I am going to keep on looking at the stars in the night skies, believe me guys, it is prettier than looking at human history!!!

  14. Mitchell, interesting piece. But I believe that the use of the word apartheid has helped more than it hurt. I think that without the title, you would see no more discussion of the book’s true content than you do now. The character of the ‘debate’ in the mainstream media would be the same, but the volume much lower. Many more people are reading the book and making an effort to listen to Carter speak because of the provocative title. And hopefully it may at least raise awareness of the issue, so that if/when more substantive discussion does take place, it will be heard by a larger audience.
    Before the book, Carter was still being dismissed & criticized by AIPAC & the like, but no one else was hearing his views. Now the attacks are louder, but so is his voice.
    Harriet Feinberg has a interesting, related piece here:
    http://www.thejusticeonline.com/home/index.cfm?event=displayArticle&uStory_id=b0d094e9-44ef-4bfb-8bfa-7788b7db39e3

  15. Jews are the first Victims of Zionism. The first Zionists were Money & Power Hungry Clerics who sought power over their trusting flocks. They distorted the great Jewish Faith, twisted it & distorted into Ethnic & Nationality.

    Innocent young Jews were & still getting mis-idoctrinated to believe that Judiasm & Zionism are intertwined. In fact they are totally opposite of each other!!! Real Jews are obligated to follow the 10 Commadments, while Zionists substituted them with the End Justifies the Means Doctrine. Real Jews Objectives are to do Good Deeds, and spread the Messages of God, while Zionists goal is world domination at any cost.

  16. The A-Word is abhorrent to most Jews, since before it will be accepted the state of denial surrounding the subject, has got to be dealt with. America’s complicity in this tragedy and our willingness to help keep the truth from surfacing, does not help in dealing with the subject openly and honestly. Until the roots of the A-Word are thoroughly,completely and honestly examined in this application, there will never be any peace with justice in the Holy Land.

  17. Amazing how Holy Land are full of unholy people. Those people are full of HATRED & INTOLERENCE to their other fellow Human Beings. Jewish, Muslim Clerics in the Holy Land ought to get together and Demand that ALL PEOPLE MUST BE TREATED AS EQUALS, Since they are Spokesmen for GOD and their followers believe they have a Total MONOPOLY on the TRUTH. Perhaps they should be led by a Christian Clergymen, Since the Christians seems to be dormant at this Junction of History.

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  19. Jimmy Carter’s use of the word “apartheid,” was a marketing choice agreed to by both his publisher and him. Late in the book he defines what he means by the word as different than the racist based system that was present in South Africa. I believe the great shame of the book is larger than its numerous factual errors and lack of balance: Former President Carter could have written a book with Israeli and Palestinian leaders that layed down a call for an international dialogue as well as a process to accomplish this. After 25 years of peace and human rights building through the Carter Center the Nobel laureate could have estabished a framework for moving beyond Geneva. Instead, we’re stuck debating the books title.

  20. I wish if Alan Dershowitz would respond to my inquiry. Is he an American or Israeli??? He would defend American protesters’ right to burn the American Flag, Yet he is trying to Lynch former President Carter, a Great Human Right Activist for criticizing a foreign country’s Policy. Alan or any of his defenders, I tell this, If we as Peace Loving People in this Desparate time are interested in our children & Children’s children future,we must fight against ALL FORMS VIRUSES THAT INFECT OUR SPECIES MINDS SOULS SUCH AS NAZISM, FACISM, ISLAMIC FANATICISM AND ZIONISM !!! Yes brothers, Zionism is the same as the other Viruses, THEY ALL CLAIM SUPREMACY OVER OTHER FELLOW HUMAN BEINGS, WHETHER IT IS RACIAL OR RELIGIOUS. THE TEACH INTOLERENCE, THEY ARE DIVISIVE AND BREED HATRED AND ANGER WHICH ARE THE ROOT CAUSES OF MOST WARS !!! PEACE BROTHERS & SISTERS PEACE, BELIEVE IN, AND SPREAD IT BY PEACEFUL MEANS, FOR OUR CHILDREN’S SAKE.

  21. In South Africa, blacks and white were separated in all walks of life, for the purpose of racial segregation.

    In Israel within the 1948 armistice lines, such segregation does not exist beyond the type that most diverse western societies have, that is, different enthicities tend to live with their own group to some extent.

    Carter agrees with this and is quite clear that he does not apply the term apartheid to Israel within the 1948 armistice lines.

    In the West Bank, Israelies need separation for protection. There have been no end of attacks on Israelis living in the West Bank. The result has many of the physical similarities of South African apartheid, such as separate roads, but the cause is different.

    And so I would argue that Carter incorrectly uses this term for the West Bank.

  22. As I sit in my backyard & observe, I can not help but Wonder how my dogs, my cats & myself get along! I wonder how we, a 3 different species could get along & be bonded so closely to a point we are willing to put our lives in danger to protect each other!

    I wonder why human beings can’t do the same with each other, after all, they belong to the same species!

    I wonder if it initially started by our Religious Clerics indoctrinated us to believe that THEIR TEACHINGS & INTERPRETATIONS are our only LINK to God & those who DON”T follow them are condemned by God & are Evil or at Least NOT WORTHY and are all destined to Hell. Perhaps it started by deviding people into GOOD GUYS & BAD GUYS, these Divisive Environments were what the Power Seekers & War Profiteers NEEDED to manupulate mankind into conflicts which maimtained, expanded their Power & make them Richer?

    Perhaps what Humanity Needs is a Ghandi, Not an indian Ghandi but an International Ghandi! Perhaps a Ghandi type Man can be sent from God, or from among us, motivated by our own desire for Peace could show us that our interests lies in spending our money & energies on our own Welfares instead or Warfares. An international Ghandi who is Not Afraid to point the finger at the Powerful Munipulators & War Profiteers. An International Ghandi who is Not afraid to criticize Islamic Extremism as well as Zionism and ALL other Supremists, whether it is religious or Genetic. An International Ghandi who able to make people realize that we are all Part of the HUMAN FAMILY & the Trillions of Dollars are better spent on improving the condition of Mankind instead of distroying parts of the Species. An International Ghandi who is willing to take a the risk of becoming a Martyr for Peace on earth. This is only a Wish I have, BUT if enough people wish the same it could materialized!!! Let’s NOT dimiss the thought.

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