After Carter


By Daniel Terris

January 29, 2007

When Jimmy Carter and Alan Dershowitz spoke back-to-back at Brandeis, what was most striking were the similarities between them.

For one thing, their visions of the endgame of peace in the Middle East, as Dershowitz himself pointed out, are very much alike. Both men pointed towards a solution in the Middle East that roughly follows the line of such "track two" peace efforts as the Geneva Accords or the Nusseibeh-Ayalon initiative: a two-state solution with land swaps along the 1967 border and security for both Israelis and Palestinians guaranteed by the participation of the international community.

Both men, however, share something less positive: a perpetuation of the rhetoric of blame that has soured the Middle East peace process for years. This tone is more evident in their writings than in the milder presentations that they made on campus last week.

The former president distanced himself from some aspects of his book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, in his Brandeis presentation, but his chosen title and his written text are designed to cast Israel's oppression of the Palestinians as the principal reason for violence and conflict in the region. Carter's book calls our attention in valuable ways to the consequences of some Israeli policies, such as the construction of the barrier that Israelis call the "fence" and Palestinians the "wall." But he makes the case for the analogy between Israel and South Africa with irresponsible casualness – through only three brief references, by my count, in his book. By making the analogy so prominent through the book's title, he raises the stakes and provides ammunition for those who have called for boycotts against Israel and for making that nation a pariah in the international community.

Dershowitz's book, The Case for Peace, was written in the period of comparative optimism in 2004 and 2005 when the violence of the Al-Aqsa intifada was on the wane and the prospect of the Israeli pullout from Gaza stirred hope among some that "disengagement" would lead towards the end of the conflict. Despite this optimism, The Case for Peace presents a mirror image of Carter's book: in the Harvard professor's view, it is Palestinian terrorism and the failures of the Palestinian political leadership that are the principal obstacles to peace.

It was a triumph for Brandeis that we were able to host these two controversial figures with dignity and civility. But while I believe that we have learned from Carter and Dershowitz, I hope that we will not follow them. The rhetoric of blame – even when carried out in a spirit of open debate and discussion – ultimately leads nowhere.

I have two alternative suggestions for new books that I believe would enrich our campus conversation more than the writings of either man who spoke last week.

Jeffrey Goldberg's Prisoners, published in fall 2006, is an autobiographical account of an idealistic young American Jew who moves to Israel in the mid-1980s and finds himself doing his military service as a guard at a facility holding Palestinian prisoners during the first intifada. The book vividly describes the ways that the conflict dehumanizes both Israelis and Palestinians, but it also highlights Goldberg's efforts to build personal connections with the prisoners – and one Palestinian from the Gaza Strip in particular – both during his stint as a guard and a decade later when he returns to the region as a journalist.

In recommending Prisoners, I do not mean to suggest that I "endorse" everything that Jeffrey Goldberg has to say. Goldberg recently wrote a particularly harsh review of Carter's book, and there are aspects of Prisoners that many people will find controversial. But his book is both accessible and complex, the story of a man whose background and influences resemble those of many members of our community, and so I think its narrative has much to offer us.

I also suggest that we keep an eye out for the imminent release of the Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life by Sari Nusseibeh. This autobiography by the president of Al-Quds University promises to be an important contribution to our understanding of Palestinian society and to the challenges of seeking moderation in a climate of extremism.

These kinds of narratives, I believe, will offer much better starting points for discussion on our campus than hortatory works focused on the missteps of political leadership. They immerse us in the daily lives of people in the region, and ask us to look at the complexities of the struggle for peace.

In this sense, they resemble many of the ample resources that we have on campus from which we can learn. Brandeis University – contrary to public perception both on and off our campus – has for years provided a home for an extraordinary variety of perspectives on the Middle East. Our Slifka Scholars – Arab and Jewish undergraduates from the Middle East with a commitment to coexistence – offer hope for the future, but they are also unflinching in their candor about the differences and the hurdles. Our departments and centers have for years been offering in-depth analyses of the Middle East, with active participation of Israelis, Palestinians, Iraqis, Egyptians, and other faculty and speakers from the region. And through our partnership with Al-Quds University, many Brandeis faculty, students, and staff have already taken part in a multi-year, multi-dimensional exchange with a Palestinian institution of higher education.

It is a heartening sign for Brandeis that so many people turned out for a controversial event on the Middle East. But the test of our strength as a campus community will lie in continued and widespread commitment to the more painstaking work of study, dialogue, and mutual respect.

Daniel Terris is director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life