Jimmy Carter staunchly defended his controversial Middle East book at an appearance in Pasadena on Monday night, saying "horrible, despicable human rights abuses" are occurring in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.
The former president also asserted that pro-Israel lobbyists have stifled open debate in this country on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. "It's impossible for any candidate for Congress to make a statement like 'I favor balanced support of Israel and Palestine,' " he said.
Carter made his remarks in a brief session with reporters before a book-signing appearance at a jammed Vromans bookstore, which attracted an overwhelmingly supportive crowd estimated at nearly 2,000.
The warm reception was a marked contrast to the heated criticism that the book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," has triggered since its publication last month. It has drawn fire from pro-Israel organizations and some scholars, including the former executive director of the Carter Center in Atlanta.
In an interview Monday, one of the leading critics, Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, took particular issue with Carter's remarks that the Israeli-Palestinian situation cannot get a fair discussion in the U.S. media.
"This is an anti-Semitic canard, that Jews control media, that they control universities, Congress, etc. For a former president to engage in such a canard is shameful, shameless and irresponsible," said Foxman, who also accused Carter of making "outrageous misrepresentations of Israel."
In his Pasadena talk, Carter emphasized that his criticism of Israeli policy pertained not to conditions within the nation's pre-1967 war borders, but in territories occupied after that conflict.
He also took aim at the American Israeli Political Action Committee, an umbrella proIsrael lobbying organization. He said its aim is "not to promote peace in the Middle East, but to explain the policy of the incumbent Israeli government and to get support for it in the U.S. Their demand is almost complete unanimity and rigidity in supporting Israel's policy."
Carter also responded to the severe criticism he has received for using the term "apartheid" in the book's title, calling it "completely appropriate for Palestine" and emphasizing that it did not refer to conditions between Jews and Muslims within Israel's pre-1967 borders. The term traditionally has been used to refer to the former practice of separation of the races in South Africa, but in recent years has been employed by Israel's critics.
Fans of Carter who braved a long line in hopes of getting him to sign their copies of his book expressed support for his views. "It takes courage to be speaking the truth about such an important issue, to be fair, to know the facts, and to speak with truthfulness," said Karen Hayes, a 46-year-old documentary filmmaker from Pasadena. "He sincerely wants to find a way to build peace."
With her was her brother-in-law, Curtis Silvers, a 43-year-old sales manager also from Pasadena, who has begun reading the book and credited Carter with "laying out both sides of the story, letting the public, the readers, take away from it what they want."
"His main goal is peace," Silvers said.
Small clusters of protesters, both for and against Carter, gathered peacefully outside the bookstore. One supporter, Jeff Warner, a member of a group called L.A. Jews for Peace, held a sign thanking Carter for the book. "It's clear Israel has been the block to peace," said Warner, 67, a retired geologist from La Habra Heights.
But Shirley Kahen, 29, a social worker from Westwood, brought a sign that read: "Thanks for empowering terrorists in Iran and the Middle East." Kahen said Carter "is one-sided, and he's using his influence as president and his popularity to get people to listen to his views, which are inaccurate."
Across the country, one of the leading critics of Carter's book is Kenneth W. Stein, a professor of Middle Eastern history and political science at Emory University. The book prompted Stein's resignation last week from his position as a fellow with the Carter Center in Atlanta.
Stein, who was associated with the center for 23 years and once was its executive director, said in a letter that the book was "replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions and simply invented segments."
The criticism also was sharp in Sunday's Washington Post, in one of the first reviews of the book to appear in a major publication. The Post's reviewer called it a "cynical book" that "blames Israel almost entirely for perpetuating the hundred-year war between Arab and Jew."
The review faulted Carter for writing at length about the barrier Israel is building to separate Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank without acknowledging "the actual raison d'etre for the fence: to prevent the murder of Jews."