Former President Jimmy Carter's new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, has provoked a storm of controversy since its publication last November. The book immediately soared and has remained high on all the nonfiction best-seller lists. Carter has appeared on numerous national television and radio talk shows to discuss the book and answer his often vitriolic critics. This highly visible drama is instructive and, potentially, a constructive contribution to the elusive search for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Carter's credentials as a global advocate and hands-on worker for human rights and free and democratic elections, as well as Middle East peacemaking, are well-known and widely affirmed—including by the Nobel Peace Prize committee in 2002. As the American president who, arguably, has done more internationally to promote peace and reconciliation than any other world leader, the venomous attacks in response to his book are all the more striking. What is going on? What can we learn from Carter's book, the heated debate, and the efforts of other influential evangelical Christians seeking to shape views and actions on the volatile Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The most widespread criticism of Carter's book centers on his use of the term "apartheid." It is obviously provocative. Carter makes clear that he used the word advisedly and with the hope that it would stimulate much-needed discussion. Although he is careful to underscore how his use of the term is not intended to suggest racial discrimination or describe policies and practices within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, many critics either miss or simply ignore his point. He is describing the functional realities of land seizures and mini-Bantustans that he, virtually all Palestinians, and many Israelis recognize after 40 years of Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and, until 2005, Gaza.
Carter challenges those who denounce the Palestinians for rejecting Israeli "offers" to return 90 percent of the West Bank. While Israeli settlements occupy a relatively small percentage of land, the 200-plus settlements control many hilltops, and substantial portions of the most fertile land, and they utilize an extraordinary percentage of scarce water resources. The settlements are connected by and linked to Israeli cities through a series of highways Palestinians cannot use. More than 100 checkpoints also severely limit the movements and economic viability of the indigenous population.
Part of Carter's goal is to facilitate in the United States the kind of debate that occurs daily in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Even as a full-page New York Times ad by the Anti-Defamation League criticized Carter, Shulamit Aloni, former minister of education under Yitzhak Rabin, wrote a major article affirming him in Israel's largest daily newspaper, Yediot Acharonot: "The ... onslaught on former President Jimmy Carter is based on him daring to tell the truth which is known to all: Through its army, the government of Israel practices a brutal form of Apartheid in the territory it occupies. Its army has turned every Palestinian village and town into a fenced-in, or blocked-in, detention camp."
CARTER WEAVES HIS personal history as a Christian and as a political leader into a larger narrative of peacemaking efforts during his administration and those of his successors in the White House: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Candid recollections of his learning curve and various endeavors illuminate his particularly close relationships with Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Ezer Weizman. Weizman, a legendary air force pilot and Menachem Begin's minister of defense, became a leading voice for peace in the decades following the Camp David Accords. Carter's respect for and disagreements with Begin and Yasser Arafat, as well as former and current Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, are evident.
With particular emphasis on what will be required to achieve the two-state solution roughly along the territorial lines prior to the 1967 war, Carter focuses on major problems and obstacles stemming from Israel's military occupation: seizure of land, incarceration of Palestinians without formal charges, various forms of collective punishment, and daily humiliation. Although Amnesty International, Middle East Watch, and the U.S. Department of State (in its annual country-by-country reports on human rights) publish the same grim information, Carter has been labeled a "bigot, liar, anti-Semite, and coward." In a highly publicized January speech at Brandeis University, Carter acknowledged that these personal attacks had "hurt" him.
What some deem unacceptable subjects for discussion in the United States are discussed routinely in the Middle East. David Grossman's compelling 1988 book about the occupation, The Yellow Wind, was a runaway best-seller in Israel. More recently, in June 2005, Haim Yavin, Israel's leading news anchor for 30 years—known widely as "Mr. Television"—produced a five-part series in which he concluded: "Since 1967, we have been brutal conquerors, occupiers, suppressing another people."
Carter's book is neither a full account nor flawless. Some critics employ arguments from silence and excoriate him for what he doesn't say. Such arguments are dubious and often disingenuous. Kenneth Stein, a Carter associate for three decades, raised more serious concerns when he resigned from Atlanta's Carter Center, saying the book contains historical inaccuracies. Fair enough. Specific errors should be identified and corrected or different views explained more clearly at key junctures.
The most glaring problem with the text, Carter now acknowledges, is found on page 213. He calls on Arabs generally and all Palestinian groups to "make clear that they will end the suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism when international laws and the ultimate goals of the Roadmap for Peace are accepted by Israel." The sentence could be taken to imply that terrorism and suicide bombings have validity. Although the book and Carter's life work leave no doubt that he denounces terrorism, he acknowledged at Brandeis that this sentence was a serious mistake, "improper and stupid" in its wording, and promised that all future editions will be corrected.
PALESTINE: Peace Not Apartheid is framed by Carter's orientation as a Baptist with deep emotional and religious roots in the Holy Land. As an unapologetic follower of Jesus, Carter takes seriously the call to be an agent of reconciliation in a broken and hurting world. In the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this includes efforts to engage all the children of Abraham—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—in the work of peacemaking. His endeavors as an evangelical Christian stand in stark contrast to those of John Hagee, the increasingly visible and influential San Antonio preacher.
Hagee's high-profile television ministry is based at his 18,000-member Cornerstone Church. His best-selling book, Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World, features a nuclear mushroom cloud on the cover. Hagee is a premillennial dispensationalist who argues fervently that we are in the shadow of the end times. He updates Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth and other periodic best-sellers pushing this worldview by connecting 9/11, Islamic extremism, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel pronouncements with dire biblical warnings. As the title suggests, the "countdown" to Armageddon has begun.
Uncritical support for Israel is woven into Hagee's selective interpretation of biblical prophets and the letters of Paul. In his view, God is orchestrating events and Christians must stand by Israel. Words of praise for former Israeli leaders (Ben-Gurion, Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu, and Sharon) animate the text. After the book appeared in 2006, Hagee was publicly critical of Israel's Ehud Olmert when he refused to go all out in Lebanon after the war with Hezbollah reached a stalemate. In an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" program, Hagee reported that he had written Olmert to instruct him on what the Bible taught and how he should prosecute the war against "Islamics" (as Hagee called them) in Lebanon.
Hagee's supremely confident interpretation of the Bible and current events is eerily reminiscent of many TV preachers and self-proclaimed experts on the "end times" who offered detailed and ominous predictions prior to the Gulf war of 1991. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the importance of Hagee's influence today. He has emerged as a major voice, particularly as the credibility of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell continues to wane.
A measure of Hagee's appeal was manifest in February 2006 when he started a new organization, Christians United for Israel. Five months later he spearheaded a gathering of more than 3,500 (mostly clergy) in Washington, D.C. These numbers reflect the widespread influence of dispensational theology, a worldview propagated most recently in Tim LaHaye's Left Behind books and movies. During Hagee's time in the nation's capital, he was invited to the White House for a personal meeting with President Bush.
In sharp contrast to the "land for peace" formula that has been foundational since the 1967 war, Hagee strongly opposes Israel relinquishing any land—including Ariel Sharon's unilateral move to pull out of Gaza in 2005. Although he doesn't publicly join Robertson in declaring the massive stroke that felled Sharon to be God's response to the Gaza policy, Hagee shares the worldview: He repeatedly pronounced Hurricane Katrina a sign of God's judgment on the wicked city of New Orleans. One hears distinct echoes of Falwell's initial analysis of God's hand at work on 9/11. For Hagee, the only template that matters is the one constructed by his particular biblical interpretation.
STEPHEN SIZER'S Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? provides a detailed and thoughtful critique of the framework Hagee and many others enthusiastically embrace. Sizer is vicar of Christ Church in Surrey, England, and chair of the International Bible Society in the United Kingdom. His book explores the historical development, theological underpinnings, and political implications of Christian Zionism, a movement that began in Britain in the 19th century.
Sizer divides his study into three parts. He first traces the 200-year history of dispensational theology, culminating in the sensational books and movies in the Left Behind series. Part two focuses on the theological emphases of Christian Zionism with particular attention to the literal futurist mode of interpretation readily evident in Hagee, Robertson, Falwell, Lindsey, and LaHaye. In the process, Sizer reveals how this mode of biblical interpretation is often inconsistent, contradictory, and arbitrary. He concludes that this interpretive framework essentially ignores the interpretation of scripture reflected in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
Finally, Sizer turns to the political implications of Christian Zionism. Zealous advocates such as Hagee, Jack Van Impe, and various other regulars with TV ministries consistently reject peacemaking initiatives since they anticipate and delight in an impending cataclysmic battle between the forces of good and evil. Politically, this easily translates into advocacy for policies—in the United States and Israel—that may help make Armageddon a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Sizer presents a covenantal alternative to Christian Zionism. He articulates an approach to the Middle East centered in the teachings and sacrifice of Jesus. "[Christians who follow a] biblical approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will work and pray for the peace and security of Jewish and Palestinian people because they are created in the image and likeness of God with intrinsic meaning, value, and dignity," he writes. "It will support international peace efforts based on biblical principles of justice and peace, on mutual recognition and reconciliation."
Americans have been inundated with images and information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades. Numerous and often conflicting images and impressions leave many with a kind of "detailed ignorance." Far too few have a coherent framework for understanding and interpreting events in ways that can lead to constructive advocacy, either as concerned citizens or people of faith. The books by Carter and Sizer offer helpful guidance for those who seek to understand the multiple and often convoluted political and religious dynamics that often thwart hopes for a more peaceful future in the Middle East.
While there are no easy answers or simple solutions, it is clear that the United States has played and will continue to play a critical role in Israel-Palestine. As American Christians ask themselves what is required as people of faith and as citizens of the world's most powerful nation, they would do well to include a careful reading of Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid—and the reflections of those who find value and problems with the text—in their effort to move beyond detailed ignorance and the dangerous, simplistic theology that glorifies violence and destruction.
Charles Kimball, a Baptist minister, is professor of comparative religion at Wake Forest University and author of When Religion Becomes Evil.