A Nobel Peace Prize Winner, former world leader, renowned advocate for peace and founder of an institution renowned for its election monitoring is receiving an honorary degree from Mansfield this week. And students are up in arms.
Jimmy Carter’s greatest accomplishment was his role in the the Camp David Accords, which secured a strong and lasting peace between Israel and Egypt, and he has continued peace work since leaving office.
Yet for the students protesting this is moot. And why? Because of ‘Palestine: Peace not Apartheid’, which Carter wrote after monitoring the 2006 Palestinian elections in which stringent Israeli regulation meant that only 2% of the registered voters in East Jerusalem managed to vote.
For the title, he is being accused of anti-Semitism. It is true that some criticisms have been levelled on the basis of the contents of the book. But they constitute a minority. After all, the book had not even been published yet when Nancy Pelosi, the US Speaker of the House, announced that Carter did not speak for Democrats.
So is Carter an anti-Semite? His central criticism is that Israel denies central human rights to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and his final conclusion is not that the Israeli state should not exist, nor be censured, nor relinquish its land, but that peace will come “only when the Israeli government is willing to…honor its own previous commitments.”
If criticising the Israeli government is anti-Semitism, then Carter finds himself in strange company. In 2002 it was said that Israel “enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties…[and] developed two judicial systems…in effect, [Israel] established an apartheid regime.” And who levelled this criticism, so similar to Carter’s ‘anti-Semitism’? None other that Michael Ben Yeir, the Israeli attorney general from 1993 to 1996.
In fact, earlier than that, a figure as revered as Nelson Mandela told the Palestinian Assembly in 1999, “The histories of our two peoples correspond in such painful and poignant ways that I intensely feel myself at home amongst my compatriots.” Long before President Carter included it in the title of his book, the language of apartheid was associated with Palestine.
Nor has the book been universally reviled as anti-Semitic. While 15 members of The Carter Center Advisory Board resigned, another two hundred stayed on. At the historically Jewish Brandies University, President Carter received two standing ovations when he spoke in January, and almost half the sixty peaceful protesters outside the hall held signs reading slogans such as, “Closing our eyes to injustice is not a Jewish value.”
Carter defends his title by pointing out that it has produced exactly the desired effect—provoking new debate on a subject which he feels has fallen dormant, especially in the United States. With a debate this balanced, with as many defenders of Carter as attackers, with a history behind the language Carter used, and with Carter’s own history of peacemaking, the question must arise: why on earth is the Mansfield JCR creating a petition to stop Carter’s honorary degree?
While we think he may have been judged too quickly, it hardly matters whether Carter is right or wrong. To say that a college should not give an honorary degree to Carter because it ‘surely sends out signals that they endorse his recent work’ practically cancels the ability of colleges to award honorary degrees to figures more controversial than the Queen.
To call out “anti-Semite” simply cuts off debate. This is not a crazed nut we are speaking of, but an honoured politician. Few on earth have the same level of experience in brokering peace, and to pre-emptively discount his views shuts us off from new ideas—exactly the tendency Carter is fighting against, and exactly the kind of closed-minded rhetoric that has no place at a University.