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Yoffie Reaches out to Saudi Prince, but Other Jewish Leaders Not Happy

April 23, 2002
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In a move criticized by many Jewish leaders, the head of the Reform movement in North America has reached out to Saudi Arabia’s leader, inviting him to a sit-down in Texas.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, says he hopes to promote understanding of the American Jewish community by asking Crown Prince Abdullah — who will be meeting with President Bush at Bush’s ranch this week — to meet with Yoffie and other Reform leaders.

Abdullah had not responded by press time, and Yoffie acknowledged he was not optimistic that the meeting would take place.

Officials with the Saudi embassy in Washington were not available for comment.

“We felt all along the chances of it happening were small, but not out of the question,” Yoffie said. “And if any possible contact could be established with the Jewish community, we wanted to pursue it.”

Yoffie’s invitation comes as some Jewish leaders have tentatively welcomed a Saudi peace proposal. The proposal — promising normal relations with Israel if it withdraws fully to its pre-1967 borders and offers a “right of return” to Palestinian refugees — was never extensively detailed, however, and the Saudis declined Israeli invitations to discuss the proposal further.

Critics said the peace proposal was insincere, intended primarily to improve the Saudis’ tarnished image in America. In fact, apart from the proposal, Saudi Arabia, never known for its friendliness toward Israel or Jews, has appeared particularly hostile in recent months:

Fifteen of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 terror attacks were Saudi citizens, and the country has been a major financier of Islamic fundamentalism around the world.

The Saudis have not only failed to condemn suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, but have raised large sums of money for the bombers’ families.

Official government newspapers are a frequent venue not just for criticism of Israel but for blatant anti- Semitism. A recent article revived ancient “blood libel” accusations against Jews, claiming that Muslim blood is an ingredient in Purim hamentashen.

The Saudi ambassador to England recently published a poem lauding suicide bombers in a local Arabic newspaper.

Yoffie said he is not endorsing the Saudis’ positions or actions, and sees a potential meeting as an opportunity to “express our concerns about Saudi policy.”

However, he said, “the reality is the president of the United States is meeting with the leader of Saudi Arabia and America has strong strategic interests there related to their wealth and oil.”

“We might wish we lived in a different world and the Saudis were not part of the picture, but they are part of the picture,” Yoffie said. “That being the case, we’d be foolish not to take the opportunity to talk to them to express our views and also give them an opportunity to learn something about our community.”

He hoped such a meeting might help “pave the way” for peace talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League — which is one of the few American Jewish organizations whose leaders have visited Saudi Arabia in the past — called Yoffie’s invitation a “mistake” and “inappropriate.”

“If the Saudis want to reach out to the Jewish community, we should seriously consider it,” Foxman said. “But here’s a country that, as of yesterday, its spokesman on TV explained away terrorist bombings, is not willing to condemn violence and is playing the game of the Palestinians to the hilt.”

“Why reach out to them?” Foxman said. “There’s nothing to be gained at this point except to give them credibility that I don’t think they deserve.”

In contrast, Foxman said, the ADL’s visits to Saudi Arabia — which came at Abdullah’s invitation, most recently two years ago — were “at a time when all the signals were that they were willing to support the peace process.”

Even so, Foxman said he left that meeting disappointed that Abdullah “wasn’t willing to step up to the peace plate.” The group issued a critical statement upon its return.

“Let’s wait for them to invite us,” Foxman said. “Let’s not beg them to see us.”

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, was stronger in his criticism.

Yoffie’s gesture is “immoral, wrong and sends a message of fear and appeasement,” Klein said.

“I think they would have more respect for us as a people if they saw that we would have nothing to do with those who spew hatred toward us,” Klein said. “We should not be meeting with those who promote hatred against Jews, whether they come from Louisiana, Ramallah or Riyadh.”

However, Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, called Yoffie’s effort “potentially a very positive gesture.”

Reaching out to the Saudis might bring them “closer into the circle of peace and help ensure that they make positive contributions to stopping violence, rather than allowing them to remain on the outside without any recognition for some of the recent moves they’ve made to improve the situation,” he said, referring to the Saudi peace proposal.

“It’s rather unfortunate that people would be criticizing the Reform movement for trying to strengthen a proposal that President Bush has embraced as being significant and which parts of the Israeli public also recognize as potentially important for providing Israelis with relief from the terrorism and violence that they’ve been subjected to for over a year and a half,” Roth said.

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