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Carter's apology must match words, deeds

By Abraham H. Foxman, Special to CNN
  • Abraham Foxman: In apology to Israel, Jimmy Carter supports state, regrets hurtful words
  • It remains to be seen whether words and deeds follow, he says
  • Foxman: Carter damaged Israel's image with 2006 book, statements
  • Carter has right to be criticial but should not stigmatize Israel, Foxman says

Editor's note: Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of "The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control."

New York (CNN) -- Jimmy Carter's recent Hanukkah letter to the American Jewish community is a beautiful expression of support for the state of Israel and personal apology for the harm he has caused in the past.

The former president struck many of the right chords. He specifically referred to Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. He called for Israel's right to live with secure and recognized borders. Most relevant, he said that criticism of Israel intended for "improvement" must not be used "to stigmatize Israel."

Finally, using the Yom Kippur term regarding sins one may have committed, he offered an "Al Het for any words or deeds of mine" that may have stigmatized Israel.

What to make of this? There already are some who see it in cynical terms. Carter's grandson is running for a newly vacated seat in the Georgia state Senate, in a district with a significant Jewish population.

I don't think it is becoming to react to the former president's letter in such cynical terms. His words should be taken seriously and given respect.

On the other hand, I can only hope, but am not ready to say, that this is an epiphany for Carter, that he has realized that many years of conflict between him and the state of Israel and American Jews was wrong and destructive.

A lot of water and a lot of stigmatizing have passed under the bridge. Carter has caused damage to Israel's image in his speaking, writings and travels, seemingly looking for opportunities to use his unique bully pulpit as a former president and Nobel Prize winner to bash Israel.

The most recent manifestation of this was his 2006 book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid." In it, he not only added significant weight to efforts to de-legitimize the state of Israel by applying the term "apartheid" to its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians. He lent his name to what is, in my view, the anti-Semitic notion, propagated by professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, that the Israel lobby controls U.S. policy in the Middle East and stifles debate on the issue.

When that Carter book appeared, some asked what happened to Carter. I reminded them that actually, there was a long history going back to his presidency.

Before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic trip to Israel in November 1977, President Carter was pushing for a comprehensive solution to the Middle East conflict that involved bringing in the Soviet Union as a partner to pressure Israel for concessions. Israel was increasingly being depicted as the problem. It was only Sadat's going on his own for peace that prevented major tension and conflict between the U.S. and Israel.

In light of this difficult and long experience, "welcome," "caution" and "testing" are watchwords in reaction to the letter. I am pleased by the words and tone. I hope they will be matched by future words and deeds.

When I say "testing," I do not mean that we are going to evaluate every word he says on Israel. He has a right, like everyone else, to be critical at times. My objection is when criticism becomes stigmatizing, in Carter's own words.

Here is what I will watch for in Carter's words and deeds.

First, when explosive terms such as "apartheid" or "Jewish control and power" are inappropriately used.

Second, when quantity becomes quality; that is, when the overwhelming majority of an individual's critical comments on the Middle East conflict are directed at Israel.

Third, when the complexity of Israeli actions and decision-making are ignored. Standing out in this last item are the often-omitted facts that Israel has made generous offers to the Palestinians over the past decade, only to be met with rejection and terrorism, and that Hamas targeted Israeli civilians for years while endangering its own civilians by placing terrorist infrastructures in civilian areas.

I deeply wish that the Carter Hanukkah letter will be the beginning of a new and positive chapter in the Carter-Jewish relationship. And I encourage Carter to find other occasions to express his support. Let us hope that we have witnessed another Hanukkah miracle.

The opinions expressed are solely those of Abraham H. Foxman