Last Tuesday, Jimmy Carter, while promoting his new book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid,* went further in his anti-Israel rhetoric than even most hard-left extremists would go. Asked whether he believed that Israel's "persecution" of Palestinians was "[e]ven worse ... than a place like Rwanda," Carter answered, "Yes. I think - yes." (You can find the transcript here.)
The comparison is breathtaking and wrong. Here are the facts:
In April through July of 1994, Hutu militias slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis (and raped thousands) in an attempt to eradicate those people from the country. In just around 100 days, the Hutus killed at a rate faster than any previous or subsequent genocide in world history. During any comparable period, the number of Palestinian casualties has never exceeded the hundreds, and for the most part, they have been either combatants, human shields, or civilians inadvertently killed in efforts to kill combatants. These deaths have come in the course of Israel defending itself against three wars of annihilation in which the Palestinians openly and actively sided with the Arab invaders (1948, 1967, and 1973), two intifadas (both prompted by Israeli peace gestures), and a general war of terrorist attrition against Israeli citizens in the meantime. The worst that one could accuse Israel of is occasionally employing too much aggression in its defensive tactics - a far cry from the willful genocide of nearly a million people. Further, the Tutsis never had a chance to prevent their slaughter, whereas the Palestinians initiated the violence against Israel and repeatedly refused - and continue to refuse - to recognize Israel's legitimacy, let alone to agree to any sort of peace agreement, be it the Peel Commission, the UN Partition Plan, or the 2000 Camp David proposals.
The idea of uttering Israel and Rwanda in the same sentence - and citing Israel as the greater offender of human rights - is obscene. It is also deeply insulting to the memory of those Rwandans who were murdered, raped, and mutilated in what could only be characterized as genocide. This is precisely the sort of exaggeration that caused Congressman John Conyers, D-Mich. and founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, to take Carter to task for using the word "apartheid" in the title of his book, thereby belittling the horror of real racial discrimination and apartheid. As Conyers said, accusing Israel of apartheid "does not serve the cause of peace, and the use of it against the Jewish people in particular, who have been victims of the worst kind of discrimination, discrimination resulting in death, is offensive and wrong."
Conyers's logic should be extended beyond the realm of the rhetorical. There are real world consequences to Carter's - and the far left's - obsessive focus on Israel. What happens is that, when those entrusted with identifying and combating human rights violations around the world choose to focus largely or exclusively in on Israel, the real human rights violators, war criminals, and despots get away with murder. Indeed, the Rwandan genocide is a perfect example of what happens when the United Nations refuses to condemn any country but Israel, and the so-called international human rights organizations put so much of their energy and resources into a country with one tenth of one percent of the world's population (6 million Israelis out of the world's current population of 6 billion people) while ignoring the real and devastating atrocities happening elsewhere.
Carter's comparison can be explained in only two ways: extraordinary ignorance or a bigotry so deep-seated that it blinds one to reality. The burden is on him to explain.
To be sure, Carter seems to have backed away from his comparison, just as he always does. He said he doesn't want to go "back into ancient history about Rwanda." But this is disingenuous. Rwanda, when invoked in the context of a human rights discussion, stands for genocide, just like apartheid stands for the oppressive discriminatory and segregationist practices in pre-1990 South Africa. Everyone understands these symbols, and Carter recklessly traffics in them, until someone calls him out and he's forced to back-track. He also claims, despite his book's title, that there is no apartheid in Israel, only in the Palestinian territories, but that is not the impression the reader gets, nor the one apparently intended by the author's invocation of this powerful symbol of oppression.
At any rate, the important point is that Carter's immediate answer - his true instinct - is to accuse Israel of crimes worse than those committed in Rwanda. Carter has become so unhinged in his campaign against the Jewish State that he is now parroting the campus activists who delight in calling Israel a genocidal terrorist state and comparing it to Nazi Germany.
Are these Jimmy Carter's true colors? Or is he so anxious to sell books that he is prepared to say anything?
*To read my original review of Carter's book, please see here.
Alan Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard. His most recent book is Preemption: A Knife that Cuts Both Ways (Norton, 2006).