WALTHAM, Mass. - In his first major public speech about his book
Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid
, former President Jimmy Carter told an audience at Brandeis University that he stood by the work and its title, that he apologized for what he called an "improper and stupid" sentence in the book, and that he had been disturbed by accusations that he was anti-Semitic.
Although controversy had preceded his visit, Carter was greeted with a standing ovation and treated with obvious respect by the audience, even as students asked questions that were critical of his assertions.
"This is the first time that I've ever been called a liar, and a bigot, and an anti-Semite, and a coward, and a plagiarist," Carter told the crowd of about 1,700 at Brandeis, a university that was founded by the American Jewish community, and where about half the students are Jewish. "This is hurting me."
Carter said he had chosen to use the word apartheid to refer to conditions Israel was imposing in the occupied Palestinian territories "knowing that it would be provocative." His intent, he said, was to point out "that this cruel oppression is contrary to the tenets of the Jewish religious faith and contrary to the basic principles of the state of Israel."
But he said a sentence in which he seemed to suggest Palestinians would not have to end their suicide bombings and acts of terrorism until Israel withdrew from the territories "was worded in a completely improper and stupid way," adding: "I have written my publisher to change that sentence immediately. I apologize to you personally, to everyone here."
Carter's book has prompted criticism from many American Jews and some Middle East experts, who say it contains factual errors and misrepresents the role of both the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Beyond the word apartheid, with its implication that Israel's actions resemble the racist policies of South Africa, these critics object to Carter's assertion that Israel has committed human-rights abuses against the Palestinians, that pro-Israel lobbyists have stifled debate in the United States, and that U.S. newspaper editorials are overwhelmingly pro-Israel.
Carter, 82, initially rejected an invitation to speak at Brandeis because it suggested that he debate Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law professor who has sharply criticized the book. Wanting the university to welcome contrary views, more than 100 students and faculty members signed a petition contending that Carter, the first former president to visit Brandeis in 50 years, should be invited without conditions.
After Carter left, Dershowitz spoke in the same gymnasium, saying that the former president had oversimplified the situation and that Carter's conciliatory and sensible-sounding speech at Brandeis belied his words in some other interviews.
"There are two different Jimmy Carters," Dershowitz said. "You heard the Brandeis Jimmy Carter today, and he was terrific. I support almost everything he said. But if you listen to the Al-Jazeera Jimmy Carter, you'll hear a very different perspective."
Hear Carter's speech