Jimmy Carter is in hospice, nearing the end of his life, and it is time for the American Jewish community to do some teshuvah.
Not in the sense of repentance but by taking a moment to reappraise a man who garnered such widespread suspicion and dislike among Jews during his presidency. Excerpts of just a few of the responses to a February 1978 Moment readers’ poll speak volumes:
“Carter is a ‘catastrophe’ as far as a secure Middle East peace is concerned. He is a captive of Sadat’s ‘shtick’ and Saudi Arabian oil control…”
“Between the Arabs and Mr. Carter, I feel like they’re stabbing me to death like I was the State of Israel…”
“It’s so difficult for me to understand how President Carter could surround himself with ‘young punks’ who could never possibly know anything about foreign policy…”
“President Carter has betrayed the trust that we placed in him by voting for him on the basis of his campaign pledges regarding the Middle East…”
Considering these and other responses from the poll, conducted 15 months into what would be his only term as president of the United States, it’s clear that Carter was hastily judged and disliked. He simply wasn’t trusted by the Jewish community and beyond, one of the factors that would cost him reelection. Others include what Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor Stuart Eizenstat, interviewed by Moment Editor Sarah Breger in 2018, has called the four “I’s”: Inflation, Iran, Inexperience—and Inter-party warfare with the liberal wing of the Democratic party. (Of course, in retrospect, it’s unlikely that any American president, even a more experienced one, could have controlled the powerful and radical forces erupting in Iran at the time.) But in the Jewish world, the refrain boiled down to one thing: Carter wasn’t good for the Jews or for Israel. This led Jewish voters—such as my mother, a lifelong Democrat—to abandon him in droves for Ronald Reagan.
Yet clearly, there was more to Jimmy Carter than met the eye 15 months into his presidency or even when he was running for a second term. As Eizenstat and some of Carter’s biographers have pointed out, he may not have been a great president, but he was a good one, and his term proved pivotal to the future of Israel and of Jews in the United States.
Indeed, it bears recalling that Carter was the force behind the September 1978 Camp David Accords, forged just six months after the Moment poll, and they were a game changer. That cold peace with Egypt gave Israel breathing room to flourish and become the economic and high-tech miracle it is, and the 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty and the recent Abraham Accords were built upon its foundation. Nor should we forget that the founding of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was also a Carter administration initiative—one that helped transform the lives of survivors and their descendants and has made the history of the Holocaust accessible to all. Also under Carter, the federal government first helped push forward Holocaust education, expounding the values of understanding and tolerance in America’s K-12 schools and college campuses. Every American who cares about standing up against prejudice and hate and building a democracy safe for minorities should be thankful for these initiatives.
While admiration for Carter and the way that he has lived his life has grown since the end of his presidency, his occasionally outspoken efforts to amplify the Palestinian side of the Middle East conflict has remained an irritation to many in the Jewish community and has been viewed as proof he still can’t be trusted. This lack of trust and occasionally overzealous criticism of Carter has long troubled me, and I was delighted to discover that Moment cofounder and founding editor Leonard “Leibel” Fein was already thinking about these habitual reactions to the ex-president in 1984. That’s when Leibel drove to Plains, Georgia, to interview the former president. It’s an excellent interview. Leibel asks incisive questions and Jimmy Carter’s answers are honest and thoughtful. But I was even more struck by Leibel’s prescient postscript to the interview. “It has never been quite clear to me why Carter arouses such an antipathetic response among American Jews, unless the explanation is that his promise was so much brighter than his performance. Still, he was the engineer of Camp David, and every one of the participants in that historic negotiation acknowledges that it was Carter’s own force that finally pushed through the agreement.”
Leibel had arrived in Plains expecting a testy conversation with an angry, rigid ex-president, and he found instead that Carter was an “entirely engaging and intelligent and gracious man, as comfortable with himself as any person I’ve met in a long while.” He wonders about Carter’s well-known nervousness with public speaking and if “that nervousness had caused him to appear, in precise contradiction of his insistent claim to honesty—untrustworthy.” Leibel concludes that he found the post-presidential Carter dramatically more attractive and impressive than the presidential Carter.
Today, most of us would agree. Still, early impressions are hard to set aside, and I expect a lot of letters and comments reminding me of what our 39th president said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do, during his long years in the public eye. But as his life winds down, it is time to acknowledge the good that came from his presidency and to finally say out loud that Jimmy Carter is an honest man of exemplary character whose accomplishments deserve our gratitude.