In his controversial new book about Israel and the Palestinians, Jimmy Carter recounts his first visit to the Jewish state. It was a few months before the Yom Kippur War, he was the governor of Georgia, and his last stop was a visit with prime minister Golda Meir.
"I said that I had long taught historical lessons from the Hebrew Scriptures," Carter writes, "and that a common historical pattern was that Israel was punished whenever the leaders turned away from devout worship of God." That belief system, he continues, means "being dedicated to the Judeo-Christian principles of peace and justice," living "in harmony with all their neighbors."
It may strike Jewish readers as curious, to put it mildly, that a born-again Southern Baptist — a Sunday-school teacher in his little Georgia town — would take such a proprietary tone in telling someone like Meir how to be a better Jew. Yet the exchange reveals something essential about Carter's book, something that has largely been missed in the firestorm around it: how its view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fits into the Christian debate.
Understandably, American and Israeli Jews have analyzed and rebuked Carter's book from a Jewish perspective. The former president issued a deliberate, calculated provocation when he titled the slender volume Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. His invocation of the word created for South Africa's officially racist doctrine was "a way of undermining the moral basis for Israel's existence," as Steven Bayme, director of the American Jewish Committee wrote.
But as the controversy grew, an entirely different context for it has gone unnoticed. Israel has become one of the defining issues within American Protestantism, one of the markers in the struggle for supremacy between the politically and theologically liberal mainstream denominations and their conservative foes in the faith's evangelical wing.
For Jews unfamiliar with the turmoil among Protestants, a useful, if imperfect analogy, might be to think of mainstream sects (Presbyterian, Episcopalian, United Methodist, among others) as the Reform Jews, and the evangelical ones (Pentecostal and Southern Baptist, among others) as the Orthodox Jews. That is, for decades, the mainstream Protestants in the United States, like the Reform Jews, were the most prosperous and most influential segment of the faith, the one surfing the wave of modernity. The evangelicals, like the Orthodox, were poorer and weaker, bound for the dustbin of history.
Except that such conventional wisdom proved wrong. In an era of religious revival in America, mainstream denominations have lost much of their vigor and, to put it in business terms, market share. Meanwhile, the evangelicals have literally and figuratively capitalized on suburbanization in the Sun Belt, and the Religious Right has become the dominant faction of the Republican Party. Some evangelical congregations are even challenging the mainstream's franchise of social-justice issues.
Like abortion rights, gay rights, the death penalty, school vouchers and stem-cell research, Israel has served as a breaking point between the Protestant left and right. And while Carter is personally a Southern Baptist, his stand on all those topics, including Israel, places him firmly on the liberal flank of his faith.
Evangelicals view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of Zionism; Protestants view it through the lens of human rights. These irreconcilable interpretations mean that there is simultaneously a boom in Christian Zionism among evangelicals and a boom in divestment activism among mainstream Protestants.
As president, and even more so since, Carter has been both moral and moralistic, idealistic and preachy. The scolding, holier-than-thou ex-peanut farmer has plainly decided that Israel bears the preponderance of blame for the violent gridlock in the Middle East.
But in saying so, we Jews ought to realize that he's not only addressing us. He's preaching to the very divided choir that is the American Protestant population.
Seen this way, the volatile stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians is just a bitterly contested frontier in a fight that's all about Christians.
Samuel Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.