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Jimmy Carter's request for American Jews' forgiveness for stigmatizing Israel may have come as a surprise. But why did he do it in the first place, and why did he say sorry?

Two years ago Carter was still adamantly defending his choice of the title of his book "Peace or Apartheid." He consistently argued that even Israeli liberal critics had used the term "apartheid" to describe Israel's policies in the West Bank.

Critics had pointed out that Carter's book had not broken any new ground. None of the facts that he described were new, and he had not even given any new take on them. Let's face it: the book's main claim to fame was its title. The fact that a former president of the U.S., a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for brokering the peace between Israel and Egypt, accused Israel of Apartheid policies was all the book had going for it.

I don't want to accuse Carter of cynicism; he doesn't need the money from selling a few more books, and he has enough opportunity to get the world's attention. So why did he use what looks like a cheap trick to bolster a book that had really nothing new to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And even more so, why did he decide to apologize now?

I have no intention of psychoanalyzing Carter. His apology is of interest because it reflects a problem of many of Israel's critics. There are good reasons to criticize Israel, first and foremost for its settlement policy. There is absolutely no justification for the settlements in terms of security. The battlefield of the present, and even more of the future, is defined by rocket technologies, and nobody can conceivably argue that building settlements and appropriating Palestinian land provides any protections against rockets - whether from Iran, Hezbollah or Hamas.

The problem is the tone of the criticism. Israel's defenders often point out that Israel's human right abuses pale in significance compared to those of China, Iran or Sudan. The problem with many of Israel's critics is the sheer hatred they express. When Iran crushed the protests against election fraud this year with vicious cruelty, the world felt sympathy for the protesters. Few in the West felt hatred for Iran; at most they felt disdain for Iran's repressive regime. Britain's academics tried to impose a boycott on Israeli universities and researchers; they never initiated a boycott against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, or towards China after the Tiananmen massacre. This disproportion has been pointed out many times, and warrants an explanation.

Israel and the Christian world have been locked in a very complex relationship that has deep historical and theological roots. The theologically based hatred of Christianity towards Jews was transformed in the 19th century, and received its racial formulation from 1873 onwards, when the Austrian journalist Wilhelm Marr coined the term anti-Semitism. This form of hatred of Jews led to the horrors of the Holocaust, and the Western world has yet to come to terms with its refusal to do anything to stop the genocide.

Jews have been the bad conscience of the West for a long time - and even more so since the Holocaust. French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has pointed out that many in the West have never come to terms with the fact that Jews, the perpetual victims, now have a powerful army, and are no longer in the position of having to beg for protection and recognition. But most of all, for many there was relief: now that Jews had become the victimizers rather than the victims, the guilt of the history of persecution ending in the Holocaust could finally left behind. Many in the West used a ubiquitous defense mechanism: humans tend to hate those who induce guilt in them - and finally guilt against Jews could be transformed into hatred against Israel.

It looks like Jimmy Carter has realized that he had crossed the line between criticizing Israel and hating it; that there is a big difference between being critical and even exasperated with Israel's inability to end an occupation that should have ended in 1968, as David Ben-Gurion knew very well, and the self-righteous rage and hatred that many of Israel's Western critics express in their criticisms. Carter's apology is to be lauded: his stigmatization of Israel did not befit a man who has devoted life after the presidency to peace initiatives, and it tainted his critique of Israel's policy with a tone that was illegitimate.

Yet I am worried by one potentially disastrous misuse of Carter's apology. There is a line between criticism of Israel and anti-Israeli hatred that must not be crossed. But there is also a line between rejecting hatred of Israel and de-legitimizing any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. Yes; I do think that anti-Semitism lurks behind the breast-beating self-righteousness of Israel's critics, primarily from the European and American Left. And yes, I think that there is a new phenomenon of Islamic anti-Semitism that has been imported from the West's darkest times, as shown in Hamas' quoting of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in its charter. This anti-Semitism needs to be attacked and exposed.

But we must not utilize this as an excuse for continuing policies that do not serve Israel's true interests and infringe on the rights of another people. It is time for us to stick to the moral clarity that philosopher Susan Neiman has argued for powerfully, and not to let anti-Semitism in all its forms cloud our own knowledge about what is right and what is wrong.

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