News Analysis: Controversy over Arafat Award Shows What a Difference a Decade Can Make

Reports that North America’s central Jewish philanthropic and social service organization had considered honoring Yasser Arafat with a prestigious award have raised eyebrows across the Jewish world.

The United Jewish Communities is denying reports that it had made preparations to present its Isaiah Award to the chairman of the Palestinian Authority during a high-level mission to France and Israel earlier this month.

But officials at the UJC have confirmed that Arafat’s name was floated among a list of possible honorees.

That Arafat was even being considered for the award shows what a difference a decade has made in reforming the reputation of a man once almost universally considered the archenemy of the Jews.

But it also raises questions about the extent to which Jews should embrace Arafat, despite his uncontested status as Israel’s negotiating partner.

Indeed, the president of the UJC, Stephen Solender, says that honoring Arafat at this time would be “premature.”

Assessing the change in American Jewish attitudes toward Arafat, Menachem Rosensaft, a former president of the Labor Zionist Alliance, said, “It’s called an earthquake.”

Rosensaft, who is the founding chairman of the International Network of the Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, was one of the first American Jews to sit with Arafat at a 1988 meeting organized by Sweden.

A five-member delegation of Jewish Americans, acting on their own initiative, went to Stockholm to discuss prospects for peace in the Middle East with a Palestine Liberation Organization contingent.

At the time, Israelis were forbidden from meeting with PLO members, and the United States refused to enter into negotiations with PLO representatives. After the Reagan administration, citing Arafat’s “associations with terrorism,” refused him a visa to address a U.N. session in December 1988, the session was moved from New York to Geneva to enable the PLO leader to speak.

The American Jews’ participation in the Stockholm talks was met with criticism and some outright hostility. Rosensaft said that, with a few notable exceptions, he and his family were “attacked and vilified” because of his participation in the meeting.

It was not until 1993, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin cemented the peace process by shaking Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn, that American Jews began to meet openly — and often — with Palestinians, including Arafat.

“Following the Oslo accords, there was a recognition that the PLO and Yasser Arafat were going to be Israel’s partners on this long and difficult journey of peacemaking,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive vice chair at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization.

“In a lot of ways, the Oslo accords and the handshake between Rabin and Arafat made it possible for mainstream Jewish leaders to meet and interact with senior Palestinian officials,” Raffel said.

In 1994, representatives of JCPA, then called the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, made one of the first trips to visit Arafat’s headquarters in the Gaza Strip.

The following year, when Arafat came to the 50th anniversary celebrations at the United Nations in New York, he addressed NJCRAC’s executive committee as part of his first meetings with American Jews in the United States.

During that same trip, the past chairmen of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, another umbrella organization, held a private meeting with him.

The Orthodox Union boycotted the NJCRAC meeting, and the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee did not attend.

Still, Bernice Balter, the executive director of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, who was present, said at the time that for Arafat “to walk into the halls of a major Jewish plenum” was “a high watermark” in the relationship between Palestinians and American Jews.

Today, many Jewish American groups — including the JCPA, the Presidents Conference, the AJCommittee and Jewish community federations — have made meeting with Palestinian representatives a regular feature of their missions to Israel.

Still, many continue to distrust Arafat.

As recently as 1998, pressure from some American Jewish groups forced the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to rescind an invitation to the Palestinian Authority leader to tour the museum. The museum re-extended the invitation, which Arafat ultimately declined. In the wake of this controversy, the museum’s director, Walter Reich, who had opposed the invitation, resigned his post.

Rosensaft, a member of the museum’s executive committee, supported Arafat’s coming to the museum “in the hope that it would have an impact on him, and he might have learned something” about the significance of the Holocaust on the Jewish and Israeli psyche.

Still, Rosensaft and many American Jews draw a line between exchanging views or negotiating for peace and conferring major communal honors.

Arafat may have shared with Rabin the “geopolitical honor” of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, but “he is still someone who has the responsibility for the deaths of Jewish men, women and children on his conscience,” Rosensaft said.

“And while he may have moved beyond that, and it is important to view him as a political partner, there’s a difference between that and giving him an award.”

The Isaiah Award, named for the visionary biblical prophet, is given at the discretion of lay leaders of the UJC, the new entity formed by the merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal.

Past recipients include Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, President Clinton and South African President Nelson Mandela.

The Jewish Advocate, a Boston-based newspaper, reported that the UJC had purchased the award for Arafat and notified Arafat’s office of its plans to honor him on Oct. 13, during its mission to Israel and France.

Those plans were scrapped, the paper reported, when the UJC learned that Arafat would be in Tokyo during the mission.

The UJC said in a statement, “There was never any intent to issue the award to Chairman Arafat.”

Then a further statement on Oct. 25, signed by Solender, said that Arafat’s name had been proposed by “some within United Jewish Communities.”

“It is regrettable that inappropriate and unauthorized steps were taken to present the award to him,” the statement continued. “As soon as top leadership learned this information, steps were taken to stop the process.”

The controversy surrounding the possible UJC award led many to question whether Arafat has done enough to deserve such an honor.

The executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, Malcolm Hoenlein, said, “Look, it’s a reality that there’s a dialogue” and that Arafat is Israel’s negotiating partner.

It is also important, Hoenlein said, for the Palestinians to understand American Jews’ point of view.

But, he said, “there are still some serious problems with compliance” by the Palestinian Authority in terms of anti-Israel rhetoric and education. “That doesn’t win you an award.”

Across the religious spectrum, many agreed that honoring Arafat would be inappropriate.

Arafat has come “up short in fulfilling the expectations” of both Israel and the United States, said Betty Ehrenberg, director for international affairs and communal relations at the Orthodox Union.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said that despite Arafat’s elevated political status, his terrorist past should disqualify him from receiving high Jewish honors.

Yoffie said he personally would oppose honoring Arafat.

Although he has “done what’s right and necessary for his people” in negotiating with the Israelis “and is prepared to move towards peace,” Yoffie said, “He’s not a hero to us.”

He said of the Isaiah Award: “I think it’s not necessary for us to praise him with an award named after one of our prophets, because that imputes to him more than is necessary, more than he is entitled to.”

At least one veteran of the Jewish-Palestinian dialogue believes honoring Arafat is a good idea.

Rita Hauser, an international lawyer who participated in the controversial 1988 meeting in Stockholm with Arafat, says that giving the Isaiah Award to Arafat would have said “something bold and wonderful about the American Jewish community.”

Hauser said that “anything that anyone can do to encourage” Arafat’s active partnership in the peace process is “a desirable thing on all sides.”

The Advocate has reported that the Palestinians believe that the UJC is still planning to give Arafat the award at some point in the future.

UJC officials would not comment on that possibility, and Solender, who is traveling in Israel, said through a spokeswoman this week, “At this time, it is premature for the North American Jewish community to honor Yasser Arafat, given the fact that no final peace agreement yet exists between the Palestinians and Israel.”

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