Jimmy Carter tells a strange and revealing story near the beginning of his latest book, the sensationally titled Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. It is a story that suggests that the former president's hostility to Israel is, to borrow a term, faith-based.
On his first visit to the Jewish state in the early 1970s, Carter, who was then still the governor of Georgia, met with Prime Minister Golda Meir, who asked Carter to share his observations about his visit. Such a mistake she never made. "With some hesitation," Carter writes, "I said that I had long taught lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures and that a common historical pattern was that Israel was punished whenever the leaders turned away from devout worship of God. I asked if she was concerned about the secular nature of her Labor government."
Jews, in my experience, tend to become peevish when Christians, their traditional persecutors, lecture them on morality, and Carter reports that Meir was taken aback by his "temerity." He is, of course, paying himself a compliment. Temerity is mandatory when you are doing God's work, and Carter makes it clear in this polemical book that, in excoriating Israel for its sins - and he blames Israel almost entirely for perpetuating the hundred-year war between Arab and Jew - he is on a mission from God.
I think it is very telling that Carter a) had this conversation with Golda Meir, and b) tells the story in his book. If he is trying to convince American Jews or Jewish Israelis that he is an "honest broker," then he has failed by continuing a long-time Christian trope. In the Hebrew Bible, the prophets excoriate the people of Israel and their leaders for their sins, in the most blood-curdling terms. But the prophets never place themselves outside of the people of Israel. They are part of Israel and are criticizing it out of love. When Christianity began to become a separate religion, one of the rhetorical moves that Christians made was to take the prophetic rebukes of Israel and refer them to the Jews of their time, without acknowledging that the prophets were criticizing their own people, whom they were part of and whom they loved. They were engaging in a "Christianization" of the prophets.
Carter also dissolves the distinction between the Jews of the first century and Israelis of the 20th century:
Why is Carter so hard on Israeli settlements and so easy on Arab aggression and Palestinian terror? Because a specific agenda appears to be at work here. Carter seems to mean for this book to convince American evangelicals to reconsider their support for Israel. Evangelical Christians have become bedrock supporters of Israel lately, and Carter marshals many arguments, most of them specious, to scare them out of their position. Hence the Golda Meir story, seemingly meant to show that Israel is not the God-fearing nation that religious Christians believe it to be. And then there are the accusations, unsupported by actual evidence, that Israel persecutes its Christian citizens. On his fateful first visit to Israel, Carter takes a tour of the Galilee and writes, "It was especially interesting to visit with some of the few surviving Samaritans, who complained to us that their holy sites and culture were not being respected by Israeli authorities - the same complaint heard by Jesus and his disciples almost two thousand years earlier."
So now the Israeli authorities=the Jewish religious leaders of the first century, whom the New Testament holds guilty of the death of Jesus? As Goldberg says, "a man who sees Israel as a lineal descendant of the Pharisees could write such a sentence." And only a man who considers the Pharisees the hypocritical villains would connect the contemporary state of Israel with the ancient Pharisees. One wonders if Carter realizes that he's not just insulting the leaders of Israel, but also all Jews everywhere, since contemporary Judaism, in all of its forms, is based on rabbinic Judaism, which grew out of the Pharisaic movement of the Second Temple period.