Photo: Emory Photo-Video
March 5, 2007 - Carol Clark
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter talked about his long efforts toward bringing peace to the Middle East, and the reasons he wrote his controversial book “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid” in a Feb. 22 Town Hall meeting at Glenn Memorial Auditorium.
Carter, a University Distinguished Professor at Emory since 1982, spoke for about 15 minutes and then spent an hour answering questions that had been submitted by students and faculty. About 600 members of the Emory community, along with representatives of major media, turned out to hear the former president speak.
The Middle East was one of his top priorities as president, said Carter, who organized the landmark 1978 Camp David accords, which led to the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. “I did all I could, and I left office thinking that Israel would soon realize its dream of peace with its neighbors,” he said.
Now 82, Carter said that, next to his family, one of his life’s “few high priorities” remains working “to bring peace to Israel and justice to Palestinians.” He added that his hope in writing the book was to spark “increased interest in this subject.”
A best seller, “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid” has itself become the center of heated discussion, with some reviewers and scholars saying that the book contains mistakes and misstatements that give a distorted view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Fourteen members of an advisory board to The Carter Center resigned in protest following the publication of the book.
The format of Carter’s appearance at Emory also generated controversy. Eleven Emory professors wrote an editorial that appeared in The Emory Wheel prior to his talk under the headline: “What’s Jimmy Carter Afraid Of?” The editorial complained that Carter should share the podium “with someone who could engage in a productive interchange and discussion on the topic.” The professors nominated Dennis Ross — who negotiated on the Middle East conflict in both the first Bush administration and the Clinton administration — as the best person for that interchange.
About two dozen students wearing T-shirts printed with “What’s Jimmy Afraid Of?” also protested in front of Glenn Auditorium before Carter’s talk.
President Jim Wagner, in his introduction of Carter, announced that Ross has agreed to speak at Emory on May 1.
During his talk, Carter reiterated many of the statements he made in his book.
“Israel will never find peace until it is willing to withdrawal from its neighbor’s land and permit the Palestinians to participate in their basic human and political rights,” he said.
Policies such as building a “huge wall and a fence” around Gaza, and the division of Palestinian territory into 200 settlements with hundreds of checkpoints “make the lives of Palestinians almost intolerable,” Carter said.
He added that he believes that “a minority of Israelis” is “the driving force” behind these policies, and suggested that a group of Emory students and professors “visit Palestine and determine whether I have exaggerated or incorrectly described the situation there.”
During the Q&A session, Carter fielded a complaint from the audience that he had laid the blame for the conflict entirely at the foot of Israel when the root of the problem lies in the fact that two different groups lay claim to the same real estate.
“I recognize plainly that many Arabs are also at fault,” Carter said. “Any sort of act of terrorism or violence against an innocent person is abominable to me. And, obviously, there are faults both ways.”
Wagner thanked Carter for “the courage of his own convictions” and for his willingness to appear at the Emory event.
“Universities such as Emory are obliged by their history and by their mission to ensure that there is space to engage non-violently. It is hard work and you in this audience are doing it,” Wagner said.
Recognizing that no single event could cover the complexities of the Middle East conflict, Wagner said that several follow-up activities are planned at Emory. In addition to Ross’ May 1 appearance and an ongoing series of lectures on religion and peace-building, faculty involved in scholarship on Islam, Judaism and Christianity are collaborating on the development of a course on peace-building in the fall, which will bring together experts “representing a wide variety of views,” Wagner said.
“We will focus particularly on peace-building practices,” Wagner said, “and look at on-the-ground efforts of ordinary people with extraordinary ideas. We hope that students and members of the broader Emory community will participate.”
Co-president of Emory Hillel and Emory College senior Joe Greene, who had organized a student petition against Carter’s solo appearance, said he was glad that Ross is scheduled to speak at Emory, but disappointed that he did not share the stage with Carter.
“It’s good that [Ross] is coming, but presenting different viewpoints side by side, rather than two or three months later, would be better,” Greene said.
Provost Earl Lewis said after the event that he would like to acknowledge the counsel and assistance of a group of faculty and administrators who have been working with him since late in the fall semester to design a series of programs, including lectures and the conflict and peace-building class, which will provide an intellectual context for consideration of the issues raised in Carter’s book.