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Former President Carter Discusses Peace in the Middle East at James Madison U.

posted on: Sep 25, 2009

“As a former president, I can say just about anything I want to now!”

While former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s humorous response was directed toward last week’s comments about Rep. Joe Wilson, it also indicated how frank he is in his message of peace.

In a highly anticipated event Monday night at the James Madison University Convocation Center, Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn accepted the second Mahatma Gandhi Global Nonviolence Award from JMU’s Gandhi Center for Global Nonviolence.

As Jimmy Carter rose to a thunderous applause from students, administrators and admirers, he focused his speech, “The Path to Peace in the Middle East,” not only on the wrongdoings of Palestinian extremists, but on the aggression of the Israeli state.

“I am familiar with the harsh rhetoric and acts of violence in the Middle East, perpetrated by both sides against innocent civilians,” Carter said. “I have reiterated my strong condemnation of such acts against innocent people, at any time or for any goal.”

Charlie Hamm, a junior geography major, believes Carter had an inspiring message.

“I was surprised that it was so upbeat, which is very good,” Hamm said. “He made me believe we could work through conflicts and persevere.”

The Gandhi Award is given every two years to “individuals with global recognition” that better the world with their dedication through nonviolence, according to the Center’s Web site. The first award was given to Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2007.

With almost 7,000 people in the audience, several noteworthy leaders, including the Syrian ambassador Imad Moustapha, attended the ceremony. Other leaders from surrounding universities like Eastern Mennonite University, Mary Washington, Bridgewater, Washington and Lee and Mary Baldwin also attended.

While President Barack Obama was the last big political name to visit JMU during his 2008 campaign, the Carters’ visit was a more formal ceremony than Obama’s grandiose rally during the 2008 presidential campaign.

With hymns by the Shenandoah Valley Children’s Choir and traditional Hindu devotional songs performed by Samia Mahbub Ahmad and Samrat Kakkeri, the event also included a lighting of a ceremonial lamp.

Sushil Mittal, the Gandhi Center’s director, said the award was given to the Carters because of their outstanding humanitarian efforts.

“They have given new ideality to a universal and deeply-rooted humanitarian conscience that Mahatma Gandhi understood, welcomed in others, honored, and embodied,” Mittal said.

The Carters were presented a bronze statue of Gandhi and clothes similar to that of Indian peasantry, Gandhi’s pastoral choice of clothing.

Carter paused several times for applause and cheers as he outlined possible Middle East peace that was approved by himself, Obama and a vast majority of Middle Eastern citizens. As Carter explained, a poll done last year by Hebrew University in Jerusalem found 81 percent of citizens in Israeli-occupied territories and 63 percent of Israelis favor a two-state system. This would solidify Palestine and Israel for the first time since 1967.

“They have left open the opportunity for the pre-1967 borders to be modified through Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, that could leave as many as one-half the settlers in Palestine with an equivalent swap of land,” Carter said. “The bottom line is that Israel will never find peace until it is willing to withdraw from its neighbors’ land and permit the Palestinians to exercise their basic human and political rights.” International students from nearby Washington and Lee also drove to Harrisonburg on Monday. Freshman Ali Hamed, from Palestine, said he was personally interested in Carter’s comments on the Middle East.

“It’s my case, it’s my problem, it’s my conflict,” Hamed said. Since Carter didn’t favor either side during the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, “he was one of the best presidents to work on peace.”

Though his speech was informative, Carter also showed the dire importance in understanding the religious split in the Middle East.

“What I described in these few minutes is a clear but difficult pathway — the only one — to what all of us want: a secure Israel living within its own borders, in harmony with its neighbors,” Carter said.

As Carter finished his speech, however, he reiterated the night’s main point: “Let me say again: we can have peace in the Holy Land.”

Other students, like sophomore international business major Casey Henderson, thought about how the speech could pertain to their specific majors.

“I liked hearing about the correlation between Egypt and Israel, and I started thinking about how it affects America,” Henderson said. “But his speech showed me that there was a possibility that there can be peace in Israel.”

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