As the United Jewish Communities convenes in its annual General Assembly, days after Yasser Arafat’s death, I am still awaiting an expression of gratitude for saving the august organization from a terrible embarrassment
In October, 1999, the plan by United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization of the Jewish establishment of North America, to award Arafat its Isaiah Peace Prize was all set.
The Isaiah Award had already been purchased, Arafat’s office had been notified, and the presentation ceremony was scheduled for October 13 at the Palestinian Authority’s office in Ramallah.
The ceremony was scheduled to 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.
On October 5, 1999, 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 have marked the first major award to Arafat by a mainstream American Jewish organization.
However, as reported in the Jewish Advocate of Boston, “In the early afternoon of October 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”.
A high ranking official of the Jewish Agency in Israel got wind of the planned award and was shocked. He provided written documentation to Israel Resource News Agency, which provided it to the Jewish Advocate in Boston, Mass. — 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 was pleased to accept the award.
On October 5, a UJC communications assistant contacted the Jewish 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.
The next day, UJC director Steve Solender and UJC spokeswoman Gail Hyman called the Advocate and denied that Arafat was ever to be the recipient.
Despite the denial by the UJC, the Advocate interviewed Dr. Anis Al-Qaq, the head of the PA’s department of international cooperation, who 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.
Despite the continued denial, a senior cabinet minister closely aligned with then-Prime Minister Barak told the Jewish 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 met with nearly unanimous condemnation. The Jewish Advocate report in its October 19th issue read as follows:
“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.”
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?”
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 Forward, an independent weekly Jewish newspaper in New York, reported in a headline on November 4th, 1999 that the UJC went so far as to hire a top detective agency to find out who it was that leaked the report of the Isaiah Award for Peace to Israel Resource News Agency. In an article entitled, “Charity Hires a Gumshoe To Discover Who Leaked Its Plan To Honor Arafat: Celebrated Detective, Jules Kroll, Raises Eyebrows Among UJC Bigs” Forward correspondent Elissa Gootman reported that the President of the United Jewish Communities, Stephen Solender, confirmed to the Forward that Kroll Associates has already begun to investigate “where our system broke down?”, so that the UJC can finally determine who had leaked the report of the Arafat award to The Jewish Advocate of Boston and the Israel Resource News Agency.
Gootman reported that “The hiring of Kroll Associates is prompting further outrage from Jewish leaders who were already upset by the news that the UJC was considering honoring Mr. Arafat” and that “The newly appointed chairman of the UJC’s Campaign-Financial Resource Development pillar committee, Richard Wexler, called the hiring of Kroll “preposterous.”
The first words that the president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, uttered when hearing that the UJC would be using the services of Kroll Associates were, “Oh, for crying out loud.” Rabbi Yoffie said, “The point here is that Jewish organizations, particularly large and important Jewish organizations that are in the public eye, really can’t expect to maintain a high degree of secrecy…. For us to bring in private investigators to try to maintain a government-like atmosphere of secrecy — as if the security of the free world depended on such matters — I think is destructive of any organizational culture.”
“By and large, the problem in the Jewish world is that we want more openness…. There’s something unseemly about rushing around trying to block leaks or something, unless you’re dealing with something in which issues of security of Jewish lives are at stake,” Rabbi Yoffie said, adding, “It’s important that the UJC succeed.”
On the other hand, when Gootman asked if he supports the hiring of Kroll Associates to uncover who leaked the story about the Isaiah Award, the chairman of the UJC, Charles Bronfman, responded via facsimile: “I do support the decision to ask Kroll Associates to look at UJC’s security measures.”
Some leaders of Jewish Federations also voiced support for the UJC’s decision to engage Kroll Associates. “I think an organization has a right to determine who speaks on its behalf and how information is disseminated. I don’t find it hard to understand that an organization would take steps to ensure that it can act accordingly,” the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, Ted Farber, told the Forward.
The executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, Stephen Hoffman, told the Forward that “he had not heard about the decision to hire Kroll Associates in the wake of the Isaiah Award matter, but that it is a decision with which he empathizes. “If there was something about Arafat and if somebody leaked it inside the organization, I would be concerned about how people inside my organization are dealing with sensitive issues. And I would probably take appropriate steps to determine where things broke down,” Mr. Hoffman said.
Mr. Hoffman said that if he had employees who “didn’t have the discipline to know how an organization deals with sensitive issues,” he would no longer want them in his company.
Epilogue For the past five years, spokespeople of the UJC have refused to express any regret for making the decision to honor Yasser Arafat with the “Isaiah Award for Peace.”
At the same time, spokespeople of the UJC have consistently stated to the media for the past five years that the UJC never really intended to give Arafat any such award.
The Kroll Investigation produced no results. Israel Resource News Agency would not reveal its source for an award to Arafat that the UJC now denies ever existed. For the past five years, the UJC has quietly blacklisted me from addressing any constituency organization of the UJC for not cooperating with their investigation of my sources and for revealing their intention to honor Yasser Arafat.
From my point of view, the price of integrity is worth it. With the passing of Arafat, perhaps the UJC will thank our agency for preventing them from going down in history as bestowing such an honor on Yasser Arafat.