Jimmy Carter’s Limited Gaze

by on January 19th, 2007

Jimmy Carter will finally speak at Brandeis University on Tuesday about his critique of Israel’s occupation policy. If his incensed critics don’t keep interrupting, the former president will easily justify his title: Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. He’ll have more trouble countering criticism from a less obvious source: those who appreciate his stance on the occupation but object to his laudatory description of Israel’s own internal democracy.

Carter’s claim that Israel is democratic at home but oppressive across the Green Line makes sense only to those who have internalized the widespread cliché that Israel is the Middle East’s sole democracy. Yet refusing to distinguish between legal technicality and institutionalized discrimination makes it harder for those new to the issue to figure out what’s going on. How could a real democracy, after all, impose so much suffering on innocents just a few miles away? Israel’s hard-nosed approach toward Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank becomes more understandable once one understands democracy’s weak institutionalization inside its own borders.

I followed the initial furor over Carter’s book during a ten-week visit to Israel and the West Bank. The students in my seminar on Psychology, Law, and Justice at Be’er Sheva’s Ben Gurion University were well aware of their country’s fundamental legal and existential dilemma: whether Israel should be a Jewish state or a democratic state. They easily recounted examples of just how far and how often rhetoric departs from reality. Indeed, some Israelis I met were as critical of Israel’s democratic pretensions at home as were the Palestinians I worked with at Birzeit and Al Quds Universities on the West Bank.

Some Israelis, of course, hope discrimination will someday lessen, helped along by well-meaning activists, public interest lawyers, and others working to defend individual rights. Even the Israeli Supreme Court sometimes enforces individual rights, though it too has trouble wishing away the disjunction between Jewish statehood and democratic fundamentals.

Nothing clarifies this dilemma better than Israel’s “demographic problem,” the fear that someday Jews will be a minority in a state no longer defined as Jewish. Proposals to prevent this disaster include reducing the Arab birthrate, encouraging Jewish immigration, and “transferring” hundreds of thousands of Arab citizens out of their own country whether they want to leave or not. Making their lives miserable is one way to encourage Arabs to depart. Many Israelis take it for granted that this is their state’s undisclosed but necessary policy, not just in occupied territory but inside Israel as well.

Our own democracy is far from perfect, but after centuries of legal slavery, official segregation, and genocidal wars against indigenous nations, the majority of Americans finally accept, or at least say, that government should treat all citizens equally. The state can no longer officially declare some citizens more valuable than others. Among Israelis, though, the suggestion that Israel should become a “state for all its citizens” rather than the state of the global Jewish people is widely considered not just anti-Zionist but anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. In a very real sense, Israel’s dominant culture does not envision equality for all.

That’s why Israel imposes on a fifth of its population a national anthem extolling the Jewish return to Zion and a national flag emblazoned with the Jewish Star of David.

That’s why more significant impositions are so routine they’re better explained as consistent with public policy than as departures from it: demolishing Arab-owned homes in East Jerusalem and refusing to recognize Bedouin villages but allowing construction of West Bank Jewish settlements illegal even under Israeli law; failing to enforce housing and labor anti-discrimination laws; failing even to provide bus service to Be’er Sheva for the 40,000 residents of nearby Rahat, a legal Bedouin city in the Negev. For many Israelis, it turns out, democracy means the majority can do whatever it wants.

I was glad to meet many Israelis appalled by this situation. Too many, though, look away because a direct gaze would demand reforms that could someday end Israel’s Jewish dominance. Maybe that’s why Jimmy Carter, too, looks away. If he looks again, he could more easily demonstrate how Israel’s refusal to give its own citizens meaningful equality helps explain its refusal to allow a functional and equal Palestinian state just across the border.


Dennis Fox, emeritus associate professor of legal studies at the University of Illinois at Springfield, lives near Boston. He was recently a Fulbright Senior Specialist at Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva; a consultant at Birzeit University’s Institute of Law in Ramallah; and a lecturer at Al Quds University in Abu Dis.

Dennis Fox