NEW YORK (JTA) — For a trip that was not supposed to involve foreign policy, the Rev. Al Sharpton’s visit to Israel has turned out to be pretty political — and controversial.
On his three-day visit to Israel this week, Sharpton visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and an Ethiopian immigrant absorption center, and met with Israeli politicians, one of Israel’s chief rabbis and relatives of terror victims.
Yet his most noteworthy meeting may turn out to be the one without any Israelis.
Sharpton, who is trying to improve his public image after years of controversy, also reportedly passed on some diplomatic messages from Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
When Sharpton announced his trip to Israel last week, he indicated that he would not be meeting with any Palestinian officials.
But after telling Peres that he wanted to meet with Arafat, Peres agreed, urging him to press Arafat to end violence against Israeli civilians.
“The Rev. Sharpton met with Yasser Arafat and conveyed a very clear message to him: Put an end to violence,” said Ido Aharoni, the spokesman at the Israeli Consulate in New York. “We welcome any leader who wants to send such a message.”
Despite the official approval, some U.S. Jewish leaders are upset about the meeting.
“If I were looking to reconcile with the Jewish community, my first overture would not be sitting down with Yasser Arafat,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president and co-founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
Schneier was supposed to be one of Sharpton’s chaperones, but says he pulled out after he sensed Sharpton was wavering from his original intent to visit Israel in order to build ties to the Jewish community.
Sharpton was accompanied on his trip by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who is known primarily for his books about Judaism’s teachings on romantic relationships, particularly the best seller “Kosher Sex.”
Boteach said that to focus on one meeting was unfair, saying that Sharpton was visibly moved after spending time at the Ethiopian center.
“For an African American leader to see that Israel will extend phenomenal resources and military sophistication to help those who are part of our ancient nation, irrespective of skin color, gives the lie to conferences like Durban that says Israel is a racist country,” said Boteach, referring to the recent U.N. World Conference Against Racism.
But for some, the meeting with Arafat undermined the stated goal of Sharpton’s visit — to understand how Israelis live under the constant threat of terror.
Sharpton announced his desire to travel to Israel in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, called it “offensive” for Sharpton to “play diplomacy, to grandstand, rather than making the visit one of education and reconciliation.”
Foxman added that Israel had little choice about the Arafat meeting once Sharpton raised the issue with Peres.
Jews have been angered by Sharpton’s role in the 1991 Crown Heights riots, when some say he whipped up black antagonism against Jews.
In addition, some people say that a 1995 speech Sharpton made 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.
Making matters worse, critics say, is the fact that Sharpton’s meeting with Arafat came at the expense of a visit with Israeli survivors of the June 1 terror bombing at the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium.
“What message does that send out to the young victims of terror?” Schneier asked.
Boteach did not participate in the meeting with Arafat, and distanced himself from it.
But he noted that Sharpton did meet with several terror victims, including relatives of Nachshon Waxman, an Israeli soldier killed by Hamas kidnappers in 1994, and several others who are recuperating in Israeli hospitals.
Boteach also defended Sharpton’s overall visit.
“We in the Jewish community have to be gracious when a man comes all the way at a very dangerous time, when Israel needs friends and international understanding, and meets with civilians and victims of terror,” Boteach said.
(JTA Staff Writer Julie Wiener contributed to this report.)