Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter received mixed reviews after visiting GW and defending the validity of his new book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” in a March 8 lecture at Lisner Auditorium.
The 39th president has been the subject of debate because of the subject matter in his book, which critics say contains a pro-Palestinian bias. During his visit, Carter said his goal was to establish peace between Israeli and Palestinian people in the Middle East.
“The bottom line is this – Israel will never find peace until it is willing to withdraw from its neighbor’s land and permit Palestinians to exercise their basic human and political rights,” Carter said.
Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm, a Gulf and Arabian Peninsula affairs professor who helped organize the event, said despite some members of the GW community upset over the University hosting Carter, the event was beneficial.
“There has been a dearth of discussion about the Middle East peace process and it’s healthy for us to have more discussion,” Gnehm said in an interview this week.
When Gnehm asked Carter about the controversial use of the word “apartheid” in his book’s title, Carter defended his decision.
“Apartheid is defined as forced segregation of one people inside territory to keep two peoples apart and as oppression of one people by another. That is exactly what is taking place inside the West Bank,” Carter said, clarifying that his use of “apartheid” only refers to circumstances in Palestinian land.
Gnehm said “I thought (apartheid) was a heavy word to use. It undermines what Carter states as his objective – getting the debate going about the Palestinian territories.”
Carter told the capacity-filled Lisner Auditorium audience that he has spent most of his adult life and a majority of time since the end of his presidency in 1980 traveling and learning about the Middle East’s political and social intricacies.
“Those inside the Gaza strip are completely isolated from the outside world by land, sea and air … They have no freedom at all,” Carter said, referring to the large wall that encircles the Gaza Strip, which is located on the eastern tip of Israel.
Prior to visiting GW to speak about his newest book, Carter also spoke at Emory and Brandeis universities.
“I had some trepidation about speaking at Brandeis because of the altercations taking place on campus before I got there,” Carter said after the event. Some students protested Carter’s visit to Brandeis University, which has a majority Jewish population, before the former president arrived.
During his 25-minute speech at GW, Carter did not shy away from addressing other criticisms of his book, one being that it includes factual inaccuracies.
Carter said he considers the book “absolutely accurate.” He added that, “No one has found any error of any substance in the book.”
Junior Reese Davidson, a member of the Jewish Student Association, thinks otherwise.
“(Carter) claimed that Israel still occupies the Gaza Strip,” Davidson said. “Anyone who reads a newspaper or watches the news would know about Israel’s complete withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005.”
Davidson added that he was happy the student questions were critical towards the former president and that some students attempted to remind President Carter of the “growing threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, which most Middle East experts sans Carter believe to be the greatest threat in the region.”
Carter was clear about one of the main problems he attempted to tackle in the book – the lack of recent discussion he sees about peace between Israel and Palestinians. Carter said the last serious round of peace discussions took place six years ago.
“I saw a program with King Abdullah II from Jordan and he was appealing to the U.S. Congress to promote peace talks and to bring peace to Israel and justice for Palestinians,” Carter said. “I hope he wasn’t speaking to deaf ears, but I’m not sure.”
Senior Trent Taylor, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said “the President’s book is a courageous attempt to appropriately denounce the injustices suffered by the Arab population in Palestine.” Taylor has no link to Palestinian ethnicity and said he advocates on behalf of Palestinians as an American.
Taylor added that he has more respect for President Carter because of his book.
“There are few notable figures that are willing to take the just, albeit controversial stand against the Israeli occupation and its resultant atrocities and harms committed against the Palestinian people,” Taylor said. “Carter has demonstrated that he is a man of not only courage, but of admirable ethics.”
Before Carter’s lecture began, about a dozen people stood outside Lisner auditorium holding signs that both supported and opposed Carter’s views. They were allowed by Metropolitan Police to stand on the sidewalk several feet away from Lisner Auditorium without a permit to protest.
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of the National Synagogue in Northwest, brought a group of about six “local activists” together to protest the event. He said that the book unfairly portrays Israel.
“I think they were malicious lies in that book,” Herzfeld said. “He has brought great shame to the office of the presidency. He is a person who – with his malicious and evil rhetoric – encourages terrorism.”
Those on H Sreet who supported Carter’s views said he is a humanitarian and a promoter of world peace.
“He’s not against a race of people; he’s against an ideology,” said Farrah Farley, a recent Georgetown graduate, referring to Carter’s opposition to apartheid. Farley, who is affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine, related Carter to “a modern day Gandhi.”
After the event, more than 100 students and protesters waited on H Street for Carter to exit from the back of Lisner auditorium. After 45 minutes, Carter left from the front door instead.
-Eric Roper contributed to this report.