Jimmy Carter’s Lipstadt Problem

Mark Perry

Writing in the Washington Post on January 20, Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt joins the growing chorus of critics of former President Jimmy Carter, whose book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has created a minor public firestorm. It is not as if we need to hear more. Carter’s book -- "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" -- has been eviscerated by a community of critics (including Alan Dershowitz, David Horowitz and Abraham Foxman), all of whom take issue with Carter’s use of the “A” word to criticize Israel. Even the Boston Globe weighed in, calling Carter’s use of the word “irresponsibly provocative.”

What’s important about the Lipstadt commentary is that it presents a line of anti-Carter criticism we have not heard before. Lipstadt accuses Carter of ignoring the “a legacy of mistreatment, expulsion and murder committed against Jews” and says that “by almost ignoring the Holocaust, Carter gives inadvertent comfort to those who deny its importance or even its historical reality.” Lipstadt comes itchy close to accusing Carter of being a Holocaust denier. But then, she would know: Lipstadt was the defendant in a lawsuit brought by author David Irving (a charter member of the “it-never-happened” school), after she described him as a Holocaust denier in her book, “Denying the Holocaust.” She won. But Lipstadt’s Carter criticism is a sign of desperation: having failed the test of facts (the signal honor of being the first to accuse Israel of apartheid belongs not to Carter, but to Israeli human rights groups), Carter critics are now escalating the war of words. How bad can it get?

The signal controversy behind the criticism of Carter was inaugurated by Norman Finkelstein, the DePaul University professor and author of "The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering." When Alan Dershowitz published "The Case for Israel" in 2003, Finkelstein published a study (“Beyond Chutzpah: On the misuse of anti-Semitism and the abuse of history”), that accused Dershowitz of cribbing his arguments from Joan Peters’  "From Time Immemorial," a discredited book that argues that Arab demographic claims to Palestine were false. As with Peters, Finkelstein accused Dershowitz of “gross scholarly misconduct.” Dershowitz responded by attempting to bar the publication of Finkelstein’s study, calling Finkelstein “a notorious Jewish anti-Semite” and even (Finkelstein claims) posted a notice on the Harvard Law School website claiming that Finkelstein’s late mother was a “kapo” who was “cooperating with the Nazis during the Holocaust.” Finkelstein responded by noting that his mother was “a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Maindanek concentration camp and two slave labor camps, lost every member of her family during the war and after the war served as a key witness at a Nazi deportation hearing in the U.S. and at the trial of Maidanek concentration camp guards in Germany.”

Now, with Lipstadt’s Washington Post commentary, Jimmy Carter has found himself plopped right in the middle of this unseemly controversy -- the kind of ugly exchange more reminiscent of a bloody hormone-driven high school fistfight than an intellectual debate. Still, it is nearly impossible to ignore Lipstadt’s criticism: her status as a credible and respected voice in Jewish-American affairs is nearly bullet proof. When coupled with what critics (including Dennis Ross, who aired his views very publicly -- on CNN), call slipshod research, the Carter controversy is not only unlikely to go away, it is now picking up steam. We’ll see more of this, and it will get even uglier.

The heart of Lipstadt’s criticism is that, while recognizing the suffering of the Palestinians, Carter gives short-shrift to the suffering of Jews. It is not, mind you, that Carter fails to mention the Holocaust, his sin is that he doesn’t mention it enough. “One cannot ignore the Holocaust’s impact on Jewish identity and,” Lipstadt writes, “the history of the Middle East conflict.” The first part of the statement is true -- even trivially so. The Holocaust, while not the center of Jewish identity, it is nearly so -- a core community memory that not only cannot, but must not be erased. It should be so for the rest of us. But the last part of Lipstadt’s statement, that the Holocaust has had an impact on “the history of the Middle East conflict” is less than certain and, in some circles (and particularly in Israel), rejected.

Back in 1992, during a trip to Israel (I was then researching a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), I spoke with a number of Israelis about their views of the Holocaust. I was astonished at some of the responses, particularly from well-known political figures, including Benny Begin -- then a Likud member of the Knesset, and the son of the former Prime Minister who negotiated the Camp David Accords with the Egyptians during the Carter administration. Begin was nearly enraged that I would equate the founding of Israel with the murder of the Jews, a position he angrily rejects.

“This is a typically American crybaby position,” he said. “You Americans think that if it weren’t for you we wouldn’t be here. But we are. And you know why? Because we took this country and made it ours with our guns.” Surprised by this outburst, I plunged on -- wondering what that had to do with the Holocaust. “We’re not you’re victims,” he said, “and we’re not history’s victims. We’re not here because America and Europe decided that Israel could serve as compensation for the Holocaust. There can be no compensation.” Benny Begin’s position, then, mirrored that expressed by his father, during the Knesset debates of the early 1950s, when David Ben-Gurion was negotiating with Germany over compensation of Jews for their murder in Europe. Each day of the controversy, Menachim Begin would present himself at the Knesset at intone to his fellow members -- “There can be no compensation.”

That is to say -- some crimes are so heinous and so inhuman that their provenance cannot be left in human hands. Israelis know this all too well. A good friend, an American Jew, who spends much of his time in Israel, laughs at Israeli attitudes -- which he describes as “virtually unknown in America.” He says: “You know the Israelis, they roll their eyes at this stuff and say ‘if you want to learn about the Holocaust, you can walk down the street to the museum. It’s only a couple of blocks away. But if you want to learn about Israel, then learn about Israel.” Which is only to say that, while the Holocaust might be an ever-present reality for the Jewish narrative, the Israeli focus is more immediate, more existential. “Ours is a robust Judaism,” Benny Begin said. “It is a Judaism that will no longer be embarrassed with itself. It is an armed Judaism. So forget the Holocaust and just remember, we’ll never go into your ovens again.”

I thought then that Begin had finished, but he shook his head and raised his finger, silencing me. He wanted to give one final, more moderating comment. “Jews all over the world must defend Israel. They must. But for the right reasons. We have a right to be here. This is our home. That’s why it needs to be defended. Not because we’re owed.” Perhaps Deborah Lipstadt would agree with Begin, perhaps she is simply attempting to roll back the public commentary that has greeted Carter’s book. Or perhaps broaching this subject is intended to silence Israel’s critics -- by equating such criticism with Holocaust denial. I’ll give Lipstadt the benefit of the doubt. I have to believe that she is critiquing Carter for sound reasons, and in good faith. And so I agree: Carter might well have been better served by noting more prominently the Jewish narrative.

But if, instead, Lipstadt is using the Holocaust as a weapon, is using the deaths of millions as a political bludgeon, then she is doing violence to their memory. There can be no compensation, and people and nations are capable of doing great wrong -- even if their sins do not rise to the level of extermination.



6 Comments

  1. Michael Walker wrote:

    Of course Lipstadt is using the holocaust as a weapon. That is how Zionists operate. Anyone who critisizes Israel is an anti-semite, maybe even a holocaust denier. The Zionist state of Israel is in fact racist. They have a seperate set of laws for Jewish Israelis and Arab israelis. Economist magazine showed a map of all the non-contiguous bantustans which will corral all the Palestians. They’ll never have their own state, just a bunch of ghettos. Carter’s book did the people of the USA a favor. It called attention to the United States’ biggest problem.The influence of the Zionist lobby.Our cabal of extremist neocons are marching in lockstep with the Likudnicks of Israel. They’re vision of creating US-Israeli hegemony in the middle east through carnage and violence should be abated by the civilized world. The future of mankind depends on it.

  2. Wil Robinson wrote:

    While Lipstadt may accurately note that Carter does not give sufficient voice to the Jewish narrative, she also makes a similar error – she effectively transfers the guilt and onus of the Holocaust onto the Palestinian people, ignoring the role Europe and the US played.

    Not only did Europe and the US stand by while 6 million people were killed, and only in the end decide to actually try to stop it (this goes for the 30s as well), but after the war it was precisely Europe’s and America’s refusal to take in the Jewish war refugees that led to the creation of Israel.

    And while many have criticized Carter’s use of the word “Apartheid,” I have seen no factual rebuttal for why this word should not be used to describe the situation in Gaza and the West Bank. The critics seem to think its enough just to say it’s “unwarranted” or “irresponsible” and that providing proof of WHY is not needed.

    Serious and logical debate is what is really needed on these issues, something that critics effectively quash when they pull the “anti-Semite card” or the “holocaust denier card.”

  3. This is all well and good, but the argument over Carter’s book risks losing the main point. It is that, while past history and competing claims of ‘rights’ must duly be noted, the calculus of achieiving a settlement needs to start from today and today’s situation, and from the basis that everyone living there now has a right to a decent life, security and a fair deal. Items of past history are sub-clauses, qualifiers or footnotes to this.

    Arguing over the past goes on forever and can be used as a way to avoid facing the current realistic issues and dilemmas for people living in Israel and Palestine today, and in coming generations. Meanwhile, it is the current people of the area – not just Jews and Palestinians but Christians, Druze, Bedouin and assorted others – who are what matter.

    If we go back into history, virtually everyone is a mongrel and a foreigner, everywhere. Meanwhile, there is real life, today, and the principle that no one can rightfully be excluded from the place where they now live, whatever happened in the past. This applies equally to all parties in the conflict. It also applies to the question of setting up arrangements for the future that do not repeat the errors of the past.

  4. pmse57 wrote:

    The claim that “Carter did not mention the holocaust enough” is a ligitimate argument is equivalent to saying that Carter is not using the horrors of the holocaust to excuse more of the Israli apartied. I do not care what a peoples history is, apartied is wrong. Can you imagine Native Americans trying to justify killing federal officers because of their past? Wrong is wrong.

  5. Ron Rudman wrote:

    Everybody needs to be listened to, and I hear and know that Holocaust was unimaginably terrible. I think the best way to remember it is to try and prevent similar events from happening again. Jimmy Carter may be a bit naive, but I think deep down inside he’s a really good guy who wants to make the world a better place. I have heard the Jewish version of the Holocaust so much that now I don’t remember who all the other people killed in that terrible event were. If you want to have credibility, you need to remember ALL those who were so heinously killed. Jimmy Carter is sticking up for people who need help now, which is what every decent person should do. I believe it is what the victims of the Holocaust would want also.

    Decent people stick up for others who are being treated unjustly. By doing this you help create the world that you live in. You can either make your surroundings good or make them bad.

  6. […] My article simply explained the controversy surrounding Carter’s book, the hysterical response by the Zionist lobby in the US (the latest example is here) and that whenever Israel faces its greatest criticism the usual suspects in the media try and shut down debate. […]