Public Comment

Commentary: Carter Does Not Exaggerate

By Matthew Owens
Friday January 26, 2007

That any book should be so universally vilified, especially in these final days of George Bush’s America, suggests good reason to read it and take it seriously. 

After six sojourns in Israel/Palestine, performing, teaching, meeting with activists, educators, artists, intellectuals, and people on the streets in towns and villages on both sides of the wall, I can say there is nothing exaggerated about Carter’s account of the destruction of farmland, the poisoning of well water, the dumping of garbage, the cantonizing of Palestine by the ubiquitous wall and multitude of check points, the arrogance and brutality of soldiers, the disruption of daily life inflicted at check points and by curfews, the imprisonment of children without due process, the imprisonment of duly elected officials, the appropriation of land and resources for the ever-expanding settlements. 

Carter’s use of the term apartheid is as clear-sighted as it is courageous, and though probably 50 percent of the good people currently throwing stones at his effigy have not read the book, the incendiary term will be as vindicated by anyone traveling to the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or Gaza, as it was for those who made their way to South Africa before the release of Mandela. 

Those who accuse former president Carter of anti-Semitism, if they did read the book, have not noticed that he begins his thesis stating that Israel has a legal right to statehood, and should enjoy peace and security within its borders, urging the acknowledgement of that right by all Arab countries, including Palestine. 

But at the heart of this book, and of at least one interview I have seen, is the statement by Dr. Mahmoud Ramahi, secretary and West Bank spokesman for the current government, now sitting in an Israeli prison. He indicated the willingness of his government to put a brake on all violence indefinitely, based on Israel’s willingness to refrain, and continued, “Where is the Israel you would have us recognize? Does it include the West Bank and East Jerusalem?” 

Must an occupied people acknowledge the rights of their occupier? Certainly it took much less provocation for our revered forefathers to take arms against King George. 

At an Arab/Israeli peace forum in Israel, I met a young Palestinian teacher who managed to get through the check points for the first time to deliver a short eloquent speech: 

“I work every day to teach peace, non-violence and brotherhood. How can I succeed when an Israeli soldier drives his Hummer up to my classroom and points his machine gun at me in front of my students? How can they listen to me when an Israeli soldier has made their friend walk on all fours through the check point, barking like a dog?” 

I visited his school. Every boy there had experienced worse. By the age of 12 they had watched as their homes were bulldozed, family members shot, burned or beaten. The artwork on the walls shows Israelis with tanks and machine guns. The blood is Palestinian. 

When I first set foot in the West Bank, it was with the hope of promoting interest in a collaborative exhibit between Palestinian and Israeli artists—an idea for which I had much support among Israeli friends. Now, so many visits later, my aims have become more humble. I travel there with my cello and my poetry, but what I have to say to these people is this: “As an American I am sorry. I am sorry that my government supports the Israeli government in its illegal and aggressive occupation of your land, and the displacement, and imprisonment, of so many of your people.” 

This is neither anti-Semitism, nor the advocacy of terror. I think Mr. Carter would agree. 


Matthew Owens is an El Cerrito resident.