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Carter Faces Critics on Middle East Book


From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

Former President Jimmy Carter still getting hard questions on his new book, "Palestine: Peace not Apartheid." Some critics say it's got an anti-Israel slant. More than a dozen advisers have quit his Carter Center in Atlanta. Last night, President Carter spoke at heavily Jewish Brandeis University outside Boston.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: President Carter came to Brandeis, fully expecting that the reception might not be the warmest, a point he noted as he took to the podium and promised to keep his speech to time.

Former President JIMMY CARTER: I read over it before I left home. It took 15 minutes without any pauses for applause, so I can predict to you that I'll be ready to answer questions in about 15 minutes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Carter began his talk at Brandeis - where about half the students are Jewish - with the kind of list of Jewish bona fides: from helping to establish the Holocaust Museum, to brokering peace between Israel and Egypt. And he offered an earnest apology for one sentence that seems to justify Palestinian terrorism.

President CARTER: That sentence was worded in a completely improper and stupid way. And I have written my publishers to change that sentence immediately.

SMITH: Carter defended his use of the term "apartheid," saying it fairly described what he called the cruel oppression of Palestinians in the territories. The former president said he meant to provoke debate, but he also acknowledged that such a provocative term may be counterproductive.

President CARTER: I can see and - then and now, that it could precipitate some hard feelings or some obstacles that might prevent the negotiation of a peace agreement. And I'm deeply concerned about the tensions that might have arisen.

SMITH: On balance though, Carter suggested his book was doing more good than bad by prompting discussion of the issue. He said the bigger obstacles to peace were those were making ad hominem attacks on his character.

President CARTER: This is the first time that I've ever been called a liar, and a bigot, and an anti-Semite. This has hurt me.

SMITH: Carter's decidedly kinder and gentler posture at Brandeis seemed to disarm many, even one of his staunchest critics, Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz.

Professor ALAN DERSHOWITZ (Harvard University): Had he written a book, which was similar to what he said from the stage, I do not believe there would have been much controversy.

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: Dershowitz went on to challenge Carter for what he didn't say. Dershowitz wanted to debate the former president, but Carter refused. Instead, Dershowitz spoke to students after Carter left the building, and accused the former president of ignoring Israel's security concerns and Palestinian obstinance.

Prod. DERSHOWITZ: President Carter makes it seems so simple. You just give back the land and the terrorism stops overnight. It's not so simple.

(Soundbite of audience talking)

SMITH: Outside the hall, several dozen demonstrators waved signs, most demanding justice for Palestinians. Brandeis senior Kevin Montgomery(ph) says he hopes Carter's visit will help open debate that he says has been limited by pro-Israel pressure.

Mr. KEVIN MONTGOMERY (Senior, Brandeis University): I think some students do feel bullied, that if you present the other side you'll be called an anti-Semite. But I think this event is kind of showing that we can handle debate in an academic manner.

SMITH: President Carter has criticized the pro-Israel lobby for stifling debate in Washington. But he said yesterday he never meant to single out the Jews. A lot of support for Israel comes from Christians like me, he said, who've been taught since they were 3 years old to honor and protect God's chosen people.

Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: NPR News will have a full interview with President Carter. That airs tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

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And DAY TO DAY returns in just a moment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.