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Thursday, December 24, 2009 - 6:05pm
ATLANTA - Former President Jimmy Carter's apology to the Jewish community has sparked a debate among Jewish groups, as some reacted with skepticism while others sought to wait before gauging the Georgia Democrat's attempt to heal an often strained relationship.
"Is it correct to outright dismiss his apology? No, if he issues it, we have to look at it seriously," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "But the devil is in the details. And if there's a nuanced change about how he approaches Israel in the future, it's an important statement."
Carter issued an open letter this week apologizing for "any words or deeds" that may have stigmatized Israel. He offered an "Al Het" - a prayer said on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement - that signifies a plea for forgiveness.
Some organizations were reluctant to accept his offer. Shalom International, a Miami-based group known for staging protests to fight anti-Semitism, called the apology a "publicity stunt" and invited Carter to attend one of several rallies planned for the next few months.
"'I'm sorry' doesn't cut it," said Bob Kunst, the group's president.
Carter has galvanized the Jewish community like few other politicians. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate brokered a 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt during his presidency and he has long said bringing peace to the Middle East remains one of his unfulfilled goals.
But many Jews were outraged by his 2006 book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," in which critics said he unfairly compared Israeli treatment of Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza to the legalized racial oppression that once existed in South Africa.
And Israeli leaders have shunned him for his journeys to Gaza to meet with officials from Hamas, which is considered a terror group by the U.S., the European Union and Israel.
Some Jewish groups welcomed Carter's statement, but said it's too early to tell if he meant it.
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America said true repentance requires Carter to reverse any of the harm he caused, and called on the president to take "concrete actions to redress troubling false statements" the group said he made about the war Israel waged in Gaza a year ago tosubdue Hamas.
"We hope your conciliatory words are indicative of a true change of heart in which Israel is no longer subjected to unwarranted and false criticism," said Andrea Levin, the group's executive director, in a letter to Carter.
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League said Carter's apology was a "good start" to repairing relations with the Jewish community. Others said they were cautiously optimistic.
"We are happy to criticize him when he's being unfair, so when he says something like this, he should be congratulated and encouraged," said Ira Forman, chief executive of the Washington-based National Jewish Democratic Council.
"You have to take people at their word," he said before invoking the Yiddish word for an honorable person. "And I think it's mensch-like to say that we appreciate that."
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