Jimmy Carter and the Jews–Demme’s Documentary

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A friend gave me the documentary, Man From Plains, about Jimmy Carter's 2006 book tour for Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. It came out a year ago. My wife and I watched it the other night. I would urge the good curators at Yivo to buy the film, for it is an important document in the history of American Jews, and the perceptions about us. Especially now, when we are the most powerful minority in America (as Avraham Burg states so directly in his beautiful new book).

The documentary, by Jonathan Demme, a true leftlibber, is at its heart about Jimmy Carter and the Jews. It is a kind of tour of Jewish establishment culture as Jimmy Carter tries to explain that there is apartheid on the West Bank. He is greeted everywhere by denial, outrage, and mockery. There is really little difference in the film between Terry Gross and Alan Dershowitz. In fact, I'd say the saddest moment in the film is when Terry Gross interviews Jimmy Carter and immediately starts regretfully bashing him for his use of the word "apartheid." I've mentioned this exchange before on this blog. Al Franken on "Air America" radio does something of the same thing. He starts out by joking about all the questions that have come up. "Like why do you hate the Jews?"

Demme cuts right there. It's all you need to know about that interview.

There are a lot of other Jews in the film, too. Wolf Blitzer makes nice to Carter and agrees that the fence confiscates Palestinian land, then as soon as Carter is gone gets Dennis Ross on the show to say that Carter is a plagiarist. There is an Israeli reporter who insists that Carter is misrepresenting reality. There are a bunch of Phoenix rabbis who refuse to allow Demme even to use their words. So they are pictured in a meeting with Carter with their heads all blurred out, as he speaks. Sad. There is Alan Dershowitz, walking around his Harvard offices like a wild man, sputtering about the Palestinians being like cockroaches and Nazis. Then legalistically retracting the word cockroach.

There are some good Jews in the movie. David Rosenthal, who also published Richard Ben Cramer's fabulous book, How Israel Lost, is on there; he published Carter's book. So is agent Esther Newberg–I'm guessing she's Jewish. I'm proud that they're there. Demme misses the Jewish Voice for Peace pro-Carter demonstrators at the Jan. 2007 Brandeis speech by Carter, which climaxes the film, but big deal. It is possible to have missed the pro-Carter Jews given the unanimity of the community in condemning him.

Again I say that the Jewish community will have to deal with this some day: how we denied the existence of apartheid when it was unfolding in the West Bank. I make this statement on the same basis that I always do, because I visited Hebron two years ago and saw horrors there and a South African who had lived through apartheid told me that conditions on the West Bank were worse than what he had experienced. Jimmy Carter says the same thing. Lately David Wildman of the anti-occupation tour has explained that a government system that grants vastly different conditions to one group over another on the basis of religious and ethnic identity must be described as apartheid.

One of the fascinations for me of the film are the scenes from Plains, Georgia. I have always said that Carter loves the Arabs because he can relate to them, as an agrarian, and my hunch is shown here to be accurate. The film begins with Carter talking about land that has been in his family for 170 years and what it means to feel connected to land, and just the complete shock of not being able to see your children on it. It is clear that the Nakba and the continuing ethnic cleansing (conveyed searingly, by a great Jew, Seth Freedman, writing here in the Guardian, which is an English newspaper of course) have worked on Carter's soul and brought him to this mission.

The film engages very large cultural forces. Jewish media power vs. traditional land-based culture. As Slezkine says in The Jewish Century, we have gone from an era of princes and peasants to one of merchants and priests, and Jews excel in the second category. Carter belongs to the first category. From an agrarian economy to one of symbols on paper. From entitlement to prestige, from the cultivation of lands to the cultivation of others. Carter is not very good at that. Let me be clear; I love the Jewish century, Jews didn't bring it about, the world did, and I can certainly play ball in it, I have the skill set. But cutting thru all of this is a simple fact: apartheid. Which the American Jewish establishment has refused to recognize. Even Ehud Olmert is way out ahead of us…

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