Gizzi on Politics, Jan. 18, 2010

Does Carter’s Al Het Have a Grandfather Clause?

Weeks after it hit on December 23, an open letter from Jimmy Carter is still sparking discussion and controversy in Atlanta’s Jewish community. Just as heatedly debated as Carter’s apology for his past comments and actions regarding Israel and its dealings with the Palestinians is the timing of his letter — just a few weeks after the former President’s oldest grandson indicated he would run for a state senate seat from Northeast Atlanta, which has a vocal, influential Jewish population.  

In a letter sent to JTA, the wire service for Jewish newspapers, the 84-year-old Carter referred to past controversies he has had with the Jewish community and invoked Al Het, a Jewish prayer for forgiveness said on the holy day of Yom Kippur.  

“We must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel,” wrote Carter. “As I would have noted at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but which is appropriate at any time of the year, I offer an Al Het for any words or deeds of mine that may have done so.”

In his highly controversial 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, Carter likened the Israeli treatment of Arabs in Gaza and on the West Bank to that of the former white minority government toward the black majority in South Africa. Last year, he outraged much of the American Jewish community and politicians in both major parties when he met in Gaza with leaders of Hamas, which the U.S., Israel, and the European Union regard as a terrorist group.  

Alone, the Al Het might have generated warmth and a fresh dialogue between the 39th President and Jews in Atlanta and nationwide. Instead, coupled with his other comments, the result has been fresh controversy.  

Only weeks before Carter wrote his letter, President Obama appointed Democratic Georgia State Sen. David Adelman as U.S. ambassador to Singapore. A special election will be held in March if Adelman is confirmed. Speculation about his successor centers on 34-year-old Jason James Carter, the oldest of Jimmy Carter’s eleven grandchildren.

Like fellow presidential grandsons Christopher Nixon Cox of New York and George P. Bush of Florida, Atlanta lawyer and onetime Peace Corps volunteer Jason Carter has long been the subject of press speculation about his legacy in the “family business” of politics. Last month, he made his candidacy for the Georgia senate official and launched a campaign website. Jason insisted that the timing of his grandfather’s apology had nothing to do with his own political ambitions and hailed the Carter letter as “a great step toward reconciliation.”
But there are differing opinions.

Former Mayor Massell Speaks Out  

Recently, I discussed the Carter controversy with Sam Massell, the only Jewish mayor of Atlanta (1969-73) and now president of the Buckhead Coalition, a much-respected non-profit civic group in Northern Atlanta.  

The 81-year-old Massell, who braved the snows that ravaged Atlanta to get into the office at 8:30 a.m. on the day we spoke, told me: “My personal philosophy is to accept people at face value when they say ‘I’m sorry.’ But I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t say that [Carter’s] words would have carried more weight in the Jewish community here had it not been for their timing. Rightly or wrongly, they are being related to the political condition of his relative who is seeking office.”  

Massell, who has known Carter since the 1960s, recalled how, when the man from Plains ran for President in 1976, he was strongly backed by prominent Jews in his home state: media maestro Gerald Rafshoon, Atlanta superlawyer Bobby Lipshutz, Atlanta real estate developer (and Massell’s cousin) Steve Selig, and Massell himself. Several Jewish backers, the former mayor added, “were extremely upset that he brought about the friction resulting from his comments and actions regarding Israel.

As to the charges that Carter’s apology is political, Massell said: “If it is, it is ineffective, because it is causing more controversy now.”  

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