JERUSALEM — Three members of the New York Board of Rabbis met Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat and Palestinian security forces chief Nasser Yusef in Gaza Wednesday of last week.
It was the first visit of its kind. The rabbis belong to a five-person delegation, consisting of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis, which represents 800 rabbis in the New York area.
Two delegation members objected strongly to the meeting with Arafat and demanded that it be canceled. Finally, they opted to stay in Jerusalem, while the others went to Gaza as private citizens.
The mission to Israel, intended to express support for the peace process, was organized by the International Center for Peace.
The director of the Israel-based Peace Center, Ofer Bronstein, said the rabbis requested the controversial meeting with Arafat before arriving in Israel.
Bronstein said he had "never seen Arafat behave so cordially with anyone before. He took them by the hand and saw them to their car after the visit, taking a long time over the good-byes. Arafat asked them to arrange meetings with leaders of the Jewish community on his visit to New York next month."
Rabbi Louis Frishman, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said the meeting with Arafat was "extremely touching and worthwhile."
"Arafat was very warm, he held our hands and insisted on calling us cousins," said Frishman, a Reform rabbi. Arafat told them the Arab word jihad, which he had used in a recent speech, meant construction and building, not Holy War, Frishman added, "but I think he realized it was a mistake to use that term."
Frishman was accompanied by David Lincoln, of the large Conservative Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, and delegation head Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum.
Despite the controversy over the session, Lincoln said he was convinced after meeting both left- and right-wing leaders that "the peace process would go on, no matter who was in power. This was made very clear to us. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu told us that he would meet Arafat [if the Likud comes to power] and the U.S. ambassador [Martin Indyk] told us that the peace process is the key factor in the dynamics of Israel's economic prosperity.
"I am sure there will be rabbis who will protest and be angry [about the visit to Arafat], but I have to do what I think is right for me and my community," Lincoln said.
Orthodox Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, of the Young Israel congregation of Scarsdale, N.Y., was one of the two rabbis who refused to meet Arafat. While all the rabbis on the mission support the peace process, he said, there were feelings of disenchantment and despair.
At their meetings with Israeli leaders, the rabbis asked about Arafat's apparent duplicity and the PLO's conduct, he said, and discussed the concern, pain and crisis atmosphere in parts of Israeli society.