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Jimmy Carter Stood up for Palestinians. Why Won’t Today’s Democrats?

At the height of George W. Bush’s War on Terror, Jimmy Carter had the courage to call out Israel for its human rights abuses.

In the English language, there is a word for conditions like the ones the Carters witnessed in Palestine—a status quo in which one group of people keeps another group penned up in a particular area, with armed guards and a network of checkpoints, and refuses to let them move, assemble, or express themselves freely. The word is “apartheid,” and unlike so many commentators in the United States and Europe, Jimmy Carter isn’t afraid to use it to describe Israel. In a chapter devoted to the construction of the separating wall around the West Bank, he makes the issue explicit:

Israeli leaders have embarked on a series of unilateral decisions, bypassing both Washington and the Palestinians. Their presumption is that an encircling barrier will finally resolve the Palestinian problem. Utilizing their military and political dominance, they are imposing a system of partial withdrawal, encapsulation, and apartheid on the Muslim and Christian citizens of the occupied territories. 

And again, in the summary section that concludes the book:

A system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights. This is the policy now being followed….

If anything, Carter shows an excess of caution. He qualifies the first statement, writing that while Israel practices apartheid, the “driving purpose” behind it is “unlike that in South Africa—not racism, but the acquisition of land.” But it’s hard to see how the two can be separated, since we’re talking about the “acquisition” of territory from a particular ethnic group by forceful dispossession. Certainly the rhetoric of Israel’s political leadership has been consistently racist, calling Palestinians “wild beasts” (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 2016) and saying that “like animals, they aren’t human” (Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan, 2013). It’s a strange caveat to include. 

This quibble aside, though, the use of the word “apartheid” is the single most striking thing about Carter’s book. If you’ve read things like Norman Finkelstein’s Gaza: An Inquest into its Martyrdom or Noam Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about the book’s content. In fact, you might describe Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid as Diet Chomsky. But authors like Chomsky and Finkelstein can be rendered marginal in the public eye, their works dismissed as far-left crankery. This is more difficult with Jimmy Carter. In the first place, his actual political record is centrist, maybe even center-right; he’s the president who ushered in the age of deregulation and privatization in the United States. He’s hardly a radical by anyone’s reckoning. He also has the weight of experience on his side, having personally met and negotiated with almost every major figure involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict, from Golda Meir to Yasir Arafat. So when he says that Israel practices apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza, it can’t be dismissed as the shallow understanding of someone unfamiliar with the topic. In more recent years, leading humanitarian organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even the Israeli B’Tselem have begun to use the “apartheid” label, as have Israeli journalists like Benjamin Pogrund, who wrote a memorable editorial for Haaretz in August 2023: “For Decades, I Defended Israel From Claims of Apartheid. I No Longer Can.” In acknowledging the reality on the ground, and calling it out for what it clearly is, Carter was more than a decade ahead of his time.