Jimmy Carter’s Lipstadt Problem
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.
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