Sharpton Israel Visit Raises Hopes, Hackles: N.Y. Activists Grumble as Foreign Ministry Extends a Welcome

An upcoming visit to Israel by the controversial Rev. Al Sharpton is
causing a stir among Jewish community activists in New York, pitting some
key Jewish institutional leaders against Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

The Israeli government, in an official statement, welcomed the planned
visit by Mr. Sharpton, who is widely viewed as a divisive figure in
black-Jewish relations. Mr. Sharpton “has expressed his desire to stand
with Israel during its time of crisis,” said the statement, issued by
Israel’s New York consulate. “The government of Israel welcomes anyone
wishing to visit and express his or her solidarity with the people of
Israel in this difficult period.”

Mr. Sharpton met last week with Israeli Consul General Alon Pinkas, who
told the Forward afterward that while the preacher-activist is “a
controversial person,” nonetheless “he has an important position and status
in the African-American community and it was a duty to hear what he has to
say and whether there’s any point in having a dialogue with him.”

But the visit is raising hackles among many local Jewish community
activists, who say Mr. Sharpton has not apologized for past actions and
statements that have offended many Jews.

“This trip to Israel seems to be a step in the right direction, but it does
not address the hurt felt by the New York Jewish community for things Rev.
Sharpton has said and done over the years which have offended us,” said
Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations
Council of New York.

Mr. Sharpton was scheduled to depart October 27 for a three-day trip to
Israel, accompanied by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, author of “Kosher Sex,” and
Rabbi Marc Schneier, a former president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

The trip comes amid a new push by Mr. Sharpton for reconciliation between
the African-American and Jewish communities in the wake of the September 11
terrorist attacks. Last month he said that he now “understood” the daily
threat of terror that Israelis face.

Mr. Sharpton said he hoped the trip would lead to “a real, honest, open,
healthy dialogue between the African-American and the Jewish communities.”

“We need to be more sensitive to the issues,” Mr. Sharpton said at a press
conference Tuesday. The goal of the trip was “to deal with victims of
terrorism in Israel and in the U.S., and to deal with the fact that we
should not be terrified and be traveling,” he said.

Earlier this month Mr. Sharpton met with Mortimer Zuckerman and Malcolm
Hoenlein, respectively chairman and executive vice-chairman of the
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Mr. Hoenlein said that the Conference of Presidents had “no role in
organizing the trip.” Still, he said the trip was “welcome.” “If in fact he
is going to, as he has said, come back and communicate the reality of what
Israel faces and sensitize, particularly the black community, that is all
to the good,” Mr. Hoenlein said.

Within New York’s local Jewish organizational leadership, however, many
have never forgiven Mr. Sharpton for railing against “white interlopers” in
Harlem shortly before an arson attack killed seven in a Jewish-owned
clothing store there in 1995. Others point to comments he made during the
racially charged Crown Heights riots in 1991, which appeared to endorse the
rioters who were attacking Jewish targets in the mixed neighborhood.

“There are more appropriate avenues where he could have gone to make up to
the Jewish community that he has so offended,” said William Rapfogel,
executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. He
singled out JCRC and the United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York.

Rabbi Boteach urged the Jewish community to “focus on the future, not the
past” in its dealings with Mr. Sharpton. “We should focus on current
gestures and efforts,” he said.

Said Rabbi Schneier: “Rev. Sharpton has once again extended his hand. We
should take it.”

The itinerary is not yet fixed, but Mr. Sharpton is expected to meet with
some Israeli officials and attend the World Jewish Congress plenary
session, Rabbi Boteach said.

Mr. Sharpton said that “different organizations” were paying for the trip.
He said that “to my knowledge,” the Israeli government was not funding it.
A spokesman for the Israeli consulate would not comment.

For excerpts from Tuesday’s news conference with Mr. Sharpton, Rabbi
Schneier and Rabbi Boteach, see our Web site at www.forward.com.

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