NEW YORK, Oct. 23 (JTA) — A fiery black leader is making his first trip to Israel, seeking to mend fences with a Jewish community that long has been critical of him
Rev. Al Sharpton, who is due to leave Saturday on a three-day trip to Israel, may meet with top Israeli leaders and speak before a major Jewish organization there, according to reports.
Several Jewish leaders are welcoming the visit, with some calling it a major step in strengthening black-Jewish relations. Others, however, warned that it would not absolve Sharpton of previous actions and statements that have offended Jews.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he realized it is “time for real leaders to step beyond their bounds and sit down and talk about how we stop killing people that are innocent and civilians,” Sharpton said at a news conference Tuesday in his Harlem headquarters.
There is talk that the controversial activist, who has said he is considering a run for the presidency, will speak at a World Jewish Congress convention and meet with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, but Sharpton’s precise itinerary has not been finalized.
Pressed for details, Sharpton said only that he plans to meet with religious leaders and victims of terrorism. He declined to specify how his trip is being funded.
Sharpton will be traveling with Rabbi Marc Schneier, president and co- founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is known primarily for his books about Judaism’s teachings on romantic relationships, particularly a bestseller called “Kosher Sex.”
Schneier, who has been active in black-Jewish relations, is one of the few Jewish leaders to have met with Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader with a history of anti-Semitic comments.
The two rabbis sat on either side of Sharpton at the news conference and praised him for what they described as a gesture with broad implications.
“Ultimately this is a significant step in the strengthening of black- Jewish relations in New York and throughout the country,” Schneier said. “Al Sharpton has stretched out his hands to the Jewish community and to the people of Israel, and the Jewish community will be there to receive it.”
Boteach said he hopes “all my Jewish brothers and sisters will extend not just an olive branch but a warm hand of fraternal friendship, seeing Rev. Sharpton as a friend of the Jewish community and of the State of Israel.
“If the Jewish community could extend a hand of friendship to enemies in the Middle East with whom” Israel now has “diplomatic relations, surely we can do so with those who the whole term enemy may be a complete misconception and misnomer,” Boteach said. “We have to move forward. We cannot be trapped in the past.”
However, several Jewish leaders expressed skepticism about Sharpton’s plans. Others speculated privately that Sharpton simply is trying to rehabilitate himself in the Jewish community’s eyes, paving the way for future political ventures.
“This trip to Israel appears to be a step in the right direction, but an expression of genuine remorse for his past misdeeds will be a more accurate measure of his relationship to the Jewish community of New York,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he welcomes Sharpton’s interest in Israel, but that a trip should not provide Sharpton with a hechsher, the certificate signifying that food is kosher.
“I find it insulting to the Jewish community that we’re falling all over ourselves to try to clean his skirts,” Foxman said. “All he said was maybe the Israelis are right. He did it, I welcome it. I welcome his epiphany — it’s wonderful.”
But, Foxman noted, “there are so many other important things going on in the world today than Al Sharpton’s trip to Israel.”
Sharpton, who said repeatedly that his trip was inspired by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, emphasized that he will not be taking a position on Mideast politics. Previously, he has spoken out against the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan.
“I’m not dealing with the questions of foreign policy or the question of what’s going on in other areas,” he said. “We can all agree that innocent people should not be killed and not be terrorized.”
Sharpton said he would not be meeting Palestinian officials on this trip.
“I’m not trying to mediate the Middle East situation,” he said.
Jews have been angered by Sharpton’s role in the 1991 Crown Heights riots.
Some people say that a speech Sharpton made at the time incited rioters to burn down Freddie’s, a Jewish-owned clothing store in Harlem.
Many also were outraged by Sharpton’s support for Tawana Brawley, a black girl found to have fraudulently accused four white men of raping her and smearing excrement on her.
The Israeli Consulate in New York, which typically helps arrange such visits, is not involved in Sharpton’s trip, but spokespersons declined to explain why not.
“Israel is always happy when any leader is interested in visiting the country,” a consulate official said, but Schneier’s foundation is handling the planning and itinerary.
However, Sharpton met last week with Alon Pinkas, Israel’s consul general in New York.
World Jewish Congress officials said they are considering having Sharpton speak at their conference in Israel, but have not yet finalized anything.
Sharpton has been in the news recently for his role in New York’s Democratic mayoral primaries. Sharpton endorsed Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who lost to Public Advocate Mark Green, who is Jewish.
Sharpton and other minority leaders have accused the Green campaign — which Schneier supported — of race-baiting for last-minute phone calls to some voters suggesting that Sharpton would have too much political power if Ferrer were elected.
The Green campaign has denied any involvement in the calls.
(JTA Staff Writer Michael J. Jordan contributed to this report.)