BOSTON, Oct. 14 — By early October, the plan by United Jewish Communities (UJC) officials to award Yasir Arafat its Isaiah peace prize was set. The award had already been purchased, Arafat’s office had been notified, and the presentation ceremony was scheduled for Oct. 13 at the Palestinian Authority’s office in Ramallah.
The ceremony would take place before 120 members of the UJC’s Prime Minister’s Mission, 78 of whom had contributed at least $100,000 to be on the trip. A draft of the presentation statement was prepared for Joel Tauber, a Detroit businessman and chairman of the UJC’s executive committee.
On Oct. 5, just two days before the mission would leave for an eight day trip to France and Israel, senior UJC staffers were making final arrangements for the tour, which would include participants meeting with Arafat after the award ceremony. The award to Arafat would signal a new policy direction for the six-month-old UJC, and would have marked the first major award to Arafat by a mainstream American Jewish organization.
Arafat would have joined such past Isaiah recipients as President Bill Clinton, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former President Nelson Mandela.
But in the early afternoon of Oct. 5, the dreams of UJC executives to present Arafat with the award slowly began to unravel. The plans changed slightly when the UJC was informed that Arafat would be in Tokyo and could not accept the award in person. However, senior Palestinian Authority (PA) officials would be on hand to accept the award for Arafat.
As detailed in last week’s Advocate, a high ranking Jewish Agency official in Israel provided written documentation to the Advocate — an internal memo from the UJC to the Jewish Agency in Israel in early October — that the award had already been purchased and that Arafat knew about the award.
On Oct. 5, newly appointed UJC President Stephen Solender was asked to comment on the report. He replied, “Let me check on it, and I’ll call you back. I may be out of the loop.”
Shortly afterwards, a UJC communications assistant contacted the Advocate and confirmed that Arafat, indeed, would receive the award during the Prime Minister’s Mission. “It’s in recognition of his participation in the peace process,” said the UJC worker. “We are concerned about peace and the welfare of the Jews in the world and Mr. Arafat is a partner with Israel in the peace process.
Later in the day, however, the same communications assistant called the Advocate and said that the UJC had decided not to give Arafat the award “because he will be in Tokyo” and would not be able to receive it.
Solender and UJC spokeswoman Gail Hyman then went one step further and denied that Arafat was ever to be the recipient.
Despite the denial by the UJC, the Advocate received further confirmation on Wednesday that Arafat was slated to receive the award this week. In an interview, Dr. Anis Al-Qaq, the head of the PA’s department of international cooperation stated that he had been informed by a United Israel Office (UIO) staff member in Jerusalem, Ronit Dotan, that press reports of the cancellation of the award to Arafat were wrong and that the UJC still planned to give Arafat the award at a later date.
According to Al-Qaq, Dotan said the only reason UJC did not give the award to Arafat was because he was in Tokyo, and they wanted to present it to him in person.
When reached for comment in Jerusalem, Dotan referred all questions to Menachem Ravivi, the head of Israel’s UIO office (which serves as UJC’s internal department). Ravivi then referred all comments to UJC’s New York office.
Norman Eisenberg, a spokesman for UJC in New York confirmed that Ronit Dotan is, in fact, a staff worker in the UIO Jerusalem office. “I don’t have the letter in front of me so I can’t respond to it,” Eisenberg said on Wednesday. “I can only tell you that what the facts are as we are stating it. That is, the award is not going to be presented this year, period. Yasir Arafat’s name was floated; it was decided not to give the award this year to any individual. And that’s where the situation stands as of now.”
Despite the continued denial, the Advocate has received additional documentation this week about the award from a high-level Jewish Agency official — a draft of the planned presentation statement to be presented by Joel Tauber. The document reads: “My name is Joel Tauber. Ladies and gentlemen, in the few short years since the Oslo agreements of 1993, Yasser Arafat has become a partner for peace. He is president of the Palestinian National Authority, centered here in Ramallah. He is accompanied at this luncheon by senior Palestinian officials. President Arafat, this is an historic moment in terms of the relations between the American Jewish community and the Palestinian National Authority. Please join me at the podium. (Pause) Today, the Prime Minister’s Mission will present Yasser Arafat with the Isaiah Award, ‘For Efforts To Hasten The Prophet Isaiah’s Vision For All People.’ Prior winners of the Isaiah Award include President Bill Clinton and former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa.”
When reached in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Tauber denied that he wrote the document. He also said he was unaware of plans to give the award to Arafat. On Wednesday, Tauber and the Prime Minister’s Mission traveled to Ramallah and met with PA officials.
Also on Tuesday, a cabinet minister closely aligned with Prime Minister Barak told the Advocate that he was aware of the planned award but applauded the decision by the UJC not to go through with it. “It is too soon to give the award now — perhaps in two years when reality is different,” he said.
In America and in Israel, news of the planned UJC award has been met with nearly unanimous condemnation.
In Boston, Consul General of Israel to New England Itzhak Levanon said Arafat is not yet eligible for awards. “Prizes and awards go to those who speak the language of peace and follow through in their acts and deeds. Peace is about education and respect. The sponsorship of anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations and the use of dual language, at home and abroad, is incompatible with current peace process efforts,” he stated.
Larry Lowenthal, the director of the American Jewish Committee in New England was also critical of Arafat, specifically questioning his true desire to make peace. Said Lowenthal, “I would find it surprising that the UJC would consider a peace award to Arafat at this particular time. Quite Simply, the truly arduous ‘final status’ negotiations have not even begun. Jews should be aware that Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have taken incredibly inflexible positions on the most sensitive issues: final borders, return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, Jerusalem, settlements, and water, to name the most obvious.”
Combined Jewish Philanthropies President Barry Shrage was traveling in Israel, and could not be reached for comment.
In New York, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said of Arafat “he hasn’t earned it yet. We haven’t made peace yet. The Arabs and the Palestinian Authority threaten boycotts. Where is the spirit of Isaiah?” Added Foxman, “Certainly, his last speech at the U.N. is testament that he has a way to earn the title of an Isaiah prophet.”
On Saturday, Likud leader Ariel Sharon denounced the planned award during an interview in New York with Kol Yisrael Radio. “[Sharon] gave that as an example of the confusion and the lack of coherence in the stand taken by the Jewish community,” added Sharon’s spokesman Dr. Rannan Gissin from Jerusalem. Gissin said that the award may have been conceived because of the perceived policy toward the Palestinians by the present Israeli government. “When the leaders offered this prize to Arafat they probably thought that they would be in line with certain positions by some members of the Israeli government. I think the minute it was publicized and they realized there might be an outcry, they withdrew.”
Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America called the award out of step with American public opinion. He referred to recent polls by Mideast Quarterly and the American Jewish Committee which have found that by a 3 to 1 margin, American Jews believe that Arafat still seeks to destroy Israel. “For a Jewish organization to give an award to Arafat is wrong,” said Klein.
When asked about the policy of selecting the Isaiah Award winner, the UJC’s Hyman said that protocols were being reviewed, and that a new policy for selecting a winner may be created in the future. “New protocols need to be established for UJC. We’re working on developing those now,” said Hyman.
The UJC was formed in April after the merger of the United Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal. The UJC represents 189 Jewish federations across North America and allocates $313.8 million overseas. Its prime overseas beneficiaries are the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee. Currently, the UJC has an annual budget of $37 million.