On Tuesday night, President Jimmy Carter came to Boston and spoke at Brandeis University. His speech followed weeks of national controversy over his book, which has been described as an indictment of Israel, and disagreement among the Brandeis community about whether Carter's invitation should be conditional upon his agreeing to debate Alan Dershowitz.
Dozens of experts and academics, both Jewish and otherwise, have noted factual errors and distortions in Carter's book. Carter has declined to respond directly to most of these criticisms — ironically, while claiming that his critics ignored his points. He has dismissed them as "ad hominem statements," and yet he said about Dershowitz, "He's so obviously biased...it's not worth my time to waste it on commenting on him." He refused several offers to debate Dershowitz at Brandeis.
Carter has repeatedly insisted that the reason he wrote his book was "to precipitate discussion." One Brandeis student defended Carter's evasiveness by saying that there are different ways to contribute, and that Carter's book can build discussion by presenting an opinion and leaving the debate to others. Indeed, that seems to be Carter's intention.
He has been called a coward, and I'm reluctant to use that word about any United States president. I have some appreciation for what Carter accomplished, rising to that job and performing in its capacity, and I think it merits respect; but the station carries more responsibility than privilege. It's fine for a PhD to write a book and leave the debate to others, but Carter's reticence is unbefitting a president. The objections to his book aren't cosmetic, and they're not coming from a fringe sect: Fourteen members of his own Carter Center resigned in protest.
The theme of Carter's 1976 presidential campaign was, "Why not the best?" He said that his defining moment came as a student at the Naval Academy, when he was forced to admit that he hadn't always performed his best, and he resigned to never repeat that mistake. Carter is right that Israel-Palestine relations is an important and misunderstood subject — but is this the best way to elevate the discussion, by cobbling together a tenuous thesis and then refusing to engage its critics?