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The people behind Jimmy Carter’s letter on Israel

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Last month, while much of the world was distracted by the holidays, former President Jimmy Carter issued what he called “an open letter to the Jewish community.”

In four paragraphs, Carter expressed his hopes for the state of Israel. He ended the letter with a fifth paragraph that the world quickly came to call an apology.

“We must not permit criticisms for improvement to stigmatize Israel,” the former president said. “I offer an Al Het for any words or deeds of mine that may have done so.”

The statement might be better termed a confession. Al Het refers to the Yom Kippur prayer recited by a supplicant who begs God to forgive a sin.

In the weeks since, the abrupt nature of the Carter statement has led many to speculate about its purpose and the former president’s motives.

What very few know is that this first step toward reconciliation was the private initiative of several influential members of Atlanta’s Jewish community, whose ties to Carter date three decades and more. Conversations behind the confession/apology lasted a full year.

The former president’s grandson Jason Carter, a Decatur attorney, served as go-between.

This was a case of Jewish outreach to the former president, not vice versa. Which puts Jimmy Carter’s statement in a different light, and no doubt makes it more significant, not less.

The episode is also an example of the connections that make Atlanta work.

You’re probably familiar with much of the background. In November 2006, Carter published his 21st book, “Palestine Peace Not Apartheid.” (The former president insists there is no punctuation in the title.)

Many Jews — along with others — viewed the book as one-sided and thinly researched, but were perhaps most outraged by use of the word “apartheid” and all its implications. Fourteen members of a 200-member Carter Center advisory board, most of them Jewish, resigned in protest.

The former president, who said he was trying to provoke a discussion of Arab-Israeli relations, declared himself shocked by the reaction and hurt by accusations that his work bordered on anti-Semitic.

The rift between the Jewish community and the man who engineered the Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt bothered Emmet Bondurant, a well-known Atlanta attorney who sits on the regional board of the Anti-Defamation League. He is not Jewish.

Bondurant’s career stretches back four decades — in the 1960s, he was the lead litigator in the U.S. Supreme Court case that brought the concept of “one man, one vote” to Georgia. More recently, he has led the legal opposition to the state’s requirement that voters supply photo ID before casting a ballot.

Serving with Bondurant on the ADL board was Miles Alexander, co-chairman of the Kilpatrick Stockton law firm — and perhaps the most influential behind-the-scenes figure in Atlanta politics that you’ve never heard of. The low-profile Alexander, who is Jewish, has backed the winner in every mayoral race since Sam Massell. His wife, Elaine Alexander, was co-chairman of the campaigns for both Kasim Reed and Shirley Franklin.

Bondurant persuaded Alexander to join him on the Carter Center advisory board in June 2008. It did not go over well with many of Alexander’s friends. In December of that year, as a member of the advisory board, Bondurant said he and Alexander began talking about the need to reconcile the former president with the Jewish community.

“Some way needed to be found to heal this wound and bring back people who were once together, and should be together again,” Bondurant said.

Attending the same meeting was another member of Bondurant’s law firm, who had been helping Bondurant in the voter ID case: 33-year-old Jason Carter.

“Miles and Emmet came to me to see if my grandfather would be open to a discussion of this type of outreach to the Jewish community,” the grandson confirmed. The grandfather agreed, and so began a careful exchange of letters and e-mail.

(The timing here is critical. Some have speculated that President Carter, in issuing his statement, was trying to clear an obstacle for his grandson, who is now engaged in a state Senate campaign. But Jason Carter began his role as go-between months before the seat became available.)

At this point, Bondurant drops out of the picture. Alvin Sugarman, the retired senior rabbi of The Temple in Atlanta, was recruited into the effort. Others involved included former Congressman Elliott Levitas. President Carter would later single out Sugarman, Alexander and his former White House aide, Stuart Eizenstat, who began his career here.

One confidence-builder may have occurred last February. The ADL gave Jason Carter its young-attorney-of-the-year award for his pro bono work on voter ID litigation. Bill Nigut, the ADL’s Southeast regional director, said the award came at the recommendation of a panel of independent attorneys.

But there’s the possibility that the award also served as proof to former President Carter that the Jewish community would not hold the grandson to account for the actions of the grandfather. “I have no proof,” Nigut added.

A September deadline of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, was missed. But a single face-to-face meeting occurred in early December. In attendance were Alexander, Sugarman, Jason Carter and the former president. A few tears were shed.

The Al Het followed days later.

AJC
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