This Saturday, Jewish communities throughout the world will be reading the Torah portion, Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32). This parashah, or weekly portion, contains one of the more famous events in the Torah, the challenge to Moses' authority by a rebellious group of Israelites led by Korach. On the surface, Korach and his 250 followers believe that Moses is abusing and monopolizing his powers. As a result, they attempt to create a more democratic society. However, a closer reading of the text reveals that these high ranking rebels are trying to remove Moses from power in order to satisfy their own selfish motives.
Rabbis, educators, and communal leaders use this story to discuss the role of authority figures and dissenters in societies, great and small. Many of these commentaries conclude that the ideal form of both rule and dissent involves a desire to help those who need it, rather than a quest for personal profit and position.
Over the past several weeks, President Jimmy Carter has been traveling in the Middle East. When I spend time in places of more traditional Jewish communal life, such as synagogues, day schools, and Jewish Community Centers, the mention of his name often elicits horribly negative reactions of moans, grunts, and curses. At times, I have heard communal leaders discuss his name in relation to Amalek and Korach, who were both severe threats to the survival of the Jewish people. As I approach this week's parashah, I feel the need to evaluate the recent work of President Carter, challenge the conventional wisdom of those communal leaders, and state that it is he who exemplifies the positive leadership traits of Moses, and not the traitorious ones of Korach.
Now, Korah, a Levite, along with two sons of Eliab, decided to rise up against Moses with the support of two hundred and fifty community leaders. They combined against Moses and Aaron, saying "You've gone too far. Why do you raise yourself up above us?"
When Moses heard this, he fell on his face, saying to Korah and his followers, "Come morning, God will make known who God is and who is holy." Then Moses added, "You have gone too far, sons of Levi. Is it not enough that God has set you apart from the community of Israel by having you perform the duties of the Lord's Dwelling Place? Will you seek priesthood too? Truly, you rebel against God."
Moses sent for the two sons of Eliab, but they would not come, saying it was unfair that Moses lord over them and force them to die wandering in the wilderness. Moses then told Korah and his followers to make a priestly fire and give incense offerings to God.
At the entrance to the Tent of Appointed Meeting, Moses and Aaron gathered in front of those rebelling and the rest of the community. Then the Presence of the Lord appeared to the entire assembly. The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Stand back from these rebels that I may destroy them in an instant!" And they fell upon their faces and said, "O God, if one man sins, will you be angry with the whole community?"
God then had Moses say to the community, "Get away from Korah and the sons of Eliab. Move away from these wicked men and touch nothing that belongs to them, lest you be wiped out for all their sins." So the people moved away from them.
Then Moses said, "By the coming actions, you shall know it is the Lord who sent me and not my own doing. If these men die like all men normally do, then it was not the Lord who sent me. But if the Lord creates a phenomenon so that the ground opens its mouth wide and swallows them and their property and they go to the grave alive, then you will know that these people have provoked God."
When Moses finished speaking the ground under Korah, the sons of Eliab and their followers split, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their houses and all of their property. They and their belongings went down into the grave alive and the earth closed over them and they vanished.
Then a fire went out from God and it consumed the two hundred and fifty men of Korah's followers who were offering incense.
President Carter, author of the recent book "We Can Have Peace In The Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work", just completed a two week tour of the Middle East that involved visits to Lebanon, Syria, Israel, The West Bank, and Gaza. Acccording to a release from the Carter Center, the purpose of this trip was to observe the Lebanese elections and to visit leaders involved in the overall peace process in Syria, Israel, and Palestine.
The 84 year old former President and his wife, Rosalynn, joined 60 Carter Center observers from 23 nations to monitor the Lebanese elections. Prior to the elections, he met with major party political leaders, except Hezbollah. (Hezbollah did meet with a Carter Center delegation, but asked the President not to participate.) On Election Day, he visited 28 polling sites. After filing a post-election report, which included recommendations for electoral reform, he spoke with top Lebanese financial and business leaders about the political conditions in the Middle East at Lebanese American University. Before leaving, Mr. Carter met with Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, President Michel Suleiman, Saad Hariri, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Bouros Sfeir.
From his meetings and visits, the President concluded that the election results were valid, that electoral reforms are necessary and will be adopted, there are no major impediments to forming a new government, Saad Hariri will be the next Prime Minister, and Nabih Berri will maintain his position as Speaker. Mr. Carter believes that the question of permitting Hezbollah to retain their weapons as long as Israel occupies part of the Lebanon will not be addressed in the new government. Also, he repeated ideas from his December 2008 visit that Lebanon-Israel peace talks cannot resume until Israel withdraws from Syria's Golan Heights, and from Lebanon's Shebaa Farms and Ghajjar Village.
President Carter met with Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Mouallem and President Bashar al Assad. After these conversations, Mr. Carter stated that they discussed the recent Lebanese elections, as well as some ideas expressed by Presidents Assad and Obama on building diplomatic relations and cooperation between the U.S. and Syria in order to restart theMiddle East peace process.
Following these discussion, the former President met with the leadership of Hamas, including Khaled Meshaal. At this meeting, he asked them to accept the Quartet Conditions (recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence, and accept previous agreements), help form a Palestinian Unity Government, and exchange the release of Israeli solider Gilad Shalit for a reasonable amount of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Prior to this meeting, Mr. Carter stated that the U.S. government must find a way to include Hamas in Middle East peacemaking, but they must commit to peace with Israel.
President Carter met with Gilad Shalit's father, Naom, who presented Mr. Carter with a letter for the captured soldier. He followed this meeting with an interview with Haaretz. Then, he had discussions with U.S. Councel General Jacob Walles, Ambassador James Cunningham, and U.S. Security Coordinator General Keith Dayton. According to Mr. Carter, the most important news from the talks with the U.S. officials centered around the facts that primary responsibilities for the peace process will rest with Envoy Mitchell and General Dayton will be in a subordinate role working for the former Senator.
Following his trip to the West Bank, President Carter returned to Israel on Sunday June 14th. He went to East Jerusalem and met with a family being forced to destroy the second floor of their small house due to the allegation that they built without a proper permit. He, then, met seperately with Shimon Peres and former Minister and Knesset Member Yossi Beilin. Mr. Carter and Mr. Beilin discussed the Geneva Accord land annexes and traveled to the Gush Etzion Settlement located south of Jerusalem. While there, the President had a constructive discussion on various settlement issues with Gush Etzion Mayor Shaul Goldstein and other settlement members.
That evening, Mr. Carter watched Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to his notes, he was appalled by the introduction of numerous obstacles to peace, some of them insurmountable. After his 30 years of involvement with these issues, he believes that none of Mr. Netanyahu's proposals are acceptable, except through the give-and-take of negotiations.
On Monday the 15th, President Carter visited the Knesset. Although all government ministers refused to meet with him, he did have a discussion with Speaker Reuven Rivlin and was aggressively questioned by members of the Foreign Ministry and Defense Committees. Following this, he met with numerous leaders of Israeli civil rights, human rights, and peace organizations.
The former President visited political activist and former Presidential candidate Dr. Mustafa Barghouti. Then, he took part in a forum for all Palestinian political parties and election officials prepairing for the January 2010 vote. All the attendees at this gathering were unanimous in insiting that Hamas be included in the elections. Following this, he met with Palestinian Authority Minister of Interior Sayed Abu Ali and his police commander. According to Mr. Carter, the Minister was willing to arrest any individual citizen or organizational member that was not supportive of Fatah. Afterwards, he met with PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, where Mr. Carter discussed the abusive actions of the PA police and the need for the Prime Minister to investigate these allegations.
Next, President Carter met with three Hamas members of the Palestinian Legislative Council to continue the dialogue that he started with Mr. Meshaal in Syria. Each of the attendees had recently been released from Isralei prisons, where they completed 33 month sentences. They were arrested by Israeli secuirty forces in August 2006 in a crackdown on Hamas in which more than 60 elected officials were detained, including a third of the then government and more than two dozen MPs.
Later that day, Mr. Carter received the Palestinian International Award For Excellence and Innovation from Prime Minister Fayaad. During his acceptance speech, he supported a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, while urging the Palestinians to end their internal divisions and stop persecuting thier rivals. Finally, he met with Christian leaders at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem's Old City to discuss their concerns that policies associated with the long standing conflict is causing significant Christian emigration from its historic homeland.
According to President Carter, his day in Gaza was a heartbreaking, infuriating, and embarassing experience. After passing through a huge checkpoint, he viewed many areas destroyed during the recent War in Gaza, including a walled-in community near the checkpoint, The American School, the Assembly Hall of the Palestinian Parliament, and other official buildings. He, then, spoke to students graduating from an UNRWA Human Rights Program about the need for Palestinian independence, the responsibilities that Hamas, Fatah, and Israel owes its peoples, and the humanitarian crisis.
After that ceremony, Mr. Cartermet with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and other party government officials. During this exchange, the Hamas members stated that they intend to continue preventing any missile fire into Israel, and that they desire an end to the conflict with a Palestinian nation within the 1967 borders with sovereignty and a capital in East Jerusalem. They, also, pleaded for building materials and other supplies to be permitted to tenter Gaza via Egypt or Israel. They proposed that no money be sent and that any rebuilding be completely controlled by the United Nations or other agencies not under their control. The President then brough up the conditions he earlier discussed with Hamas leaders in Syria and the West Bank, and delivered the letter from Naom Shalit. With respect to the lack of humanitarian and reconstruction aid, Mr. Carter stated, both at the UNRWA graduation and the Hamas meeting, that it is a criminal abuse of 1.5 million helplesss people, condoned or ignored by Israel, Egypt, the United States, and the internaional community.
Immediately following this exhausting two week trip, President Carter met with U.S. Special Middle East Envoy George Mitchell, and briefed him on the findings. According to Helena Cobban, who broke the story for Inter Press Service (IPS), this meeting underlies the change in Carter's relevance and status in the Obama Era. Political figures on both sides of the conflict have similar feelings.
As reported by Erin Cunningham in the Christian Science Monitor, Former Israeli Foreign Ministry General Director Alon Liel states, "They (Carter's efforts) have greater value now. He has access and connections with the leaders of (the) new America." Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to Mr. Haniyeh, said "He is close to President Obama and nobody in this type of position understands the conflict with all its problems like he does. I think he will give Obama the information and analysis he needs to address this conflict in a proper way and to restore the image of America in the region after two decades of failed diplomacy. Carter is the messenger that we trust- and that the world community trusts."
For all those people who vilify Jimmy Carter and portray him as an enemy to Israel and Jews, I hope they will consider the recent statements from Shaul Goldstein, Mayor of the Gush Etzion Regional Council, "Nobody in his position ever agreed to meet settlers. People won't meet settlers. Carter is not the enemy. Maybe he's talking to the enemy. But Carter is not a terrorist, and he's not part of Hamas. The main goal is a dialogue, not a monologue. It is very important in the future to meet that kind of person."
Jimmy Carter is a man of great faith, who continues to live those values by selflessly putting his life and reputation on the line to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His diplomatic actions these last two weeks are typical of the work he has done in the Middle East for the last thirty years. As someone who is willing to meet and challenge friends, enemies, and those in-between in a respectful, dignified manner in order to create a just world, President Carter is worthy of our admiration and not our derision. Those who seek to diminish or attack him, do not know the truth about his work, or put their own egos and personal agendas ahead of the will of larger communities, both here and in the Middle East. One can only hope that those people are willing to open their hearts and minds to Mr. Carter's important ideas and find a way to help resolve this conflict before it is too late.
Please help President Carter in his vision for a more just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
- Read Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid and We Can Have Peace In The Holy Land: A Plan That Will Work and watch Jonathan Demme's documentary Jimmy Carter, Man From Plains to learn more about President Carter's thoughts on the Middle East.
- Donate to the Carter Center so they can continue their important political and humanitarian work.
- Contact your House and Senate representatives to ask them to support President Carter's recommendations:
--Increased humanitarian and reconstruction aid allowed into Gaza by Israel
--Formation of a Palestinian Unity Government
--Inclusion of Hamas in the peace process as long as they commit to peace with Israel
--January 2010 Palestinian elections
--Release of Gilad Shalit through a reasonable exchange of Palestinian prisoners
--Respectful dealings with settlers while working towards a freeze in settlements
--Cessation of violence from all sides through a definite cease-fire agreement.
- Read about and join Brit Tzedek v'Shalom's "We've Got Your Back, Mr. President" campaign to build support for President Obama's pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace.