Precisely twenty-two years ago – Monday, October 23, 1995 – New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani threw Yasir Arafat out of a UN event – and in so doing brought down upon himself the anger and opprobrium of the Clinton administration, New York’s political elite, and not a few feckless Jewish “leaders.”
I wrote a column about the incident on its tenth anniversary, and am revisiting it here, because neither the relentless passage of time nor the gradual erosion of Giuliani’s luster should dim our memory of – and appreciation for – this singular act of principle and courage.
The UN was marking its fiftieth anniversary in 1995 with a series of galas around New York City, including an Oct. 23 invitation-only Lincoln Center concert by the New York Philharmonic for a glittering list of dignitaries and diplomats. When Giuliani spotted Arafat and his entourage making their way to a private box seat near the stage that evening, the mayor sent word that he wanted the Palestinian leader off the premises.
The man in the street cheered the mayor’s move – a Daily News poll found that 63 percent of New Yorkers supported it – but the city’s liberal establishment was appalled.
“The proper role of New York, as the UN’s home city,” sniffed The New York Times, “is to play gracious host to all of the 140 or so world leaders present for the organization’s gala 50th birthday celebrations.”
Also scolding Giuliani for being an ungracious host was “etiquette expert” Sara Gorfinkle, an instructor at the New School for Social Research. By contrast, said Ms. Gorfinkle, Arafat “showed the better manners by leaving when he was requested to leave and not making any kind of scene.”
Former mayors David Dinkins and Ed Koch, who agreed on little and in fact held each other in a state bordering on contempt, came together for a joint press conference to denounce Giuliani.
Two days after the concert, an unrepentant Giuliani told reporters, “Somehow, someone gave [Arafat] a ticket. I would not invite Yasir Arafat to anything, anywhere, any time, any place.”
As for Koch, Giuliani recalled the former mayor had once referred to the UN as a “cesspool” and therefore “if we’re going to take lessons in diplomacy…the last person in the world we should take [them] from is Ed Koch.”
Naturally, a spokesman for the Clinton administration, which had done so much to build up the illusion of Arafat as a peacemaker and a statesman, termed Giuliani’s action “an embarrassment to everyone associated with diplomacy.”
Just what Giuliani was up against is clear from some of the remarks made that week by Jewish bigwigs such as Dr. Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the old National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (since renamed the Jewish Council for Public Affairs), who sought to portray the mayor’s action as one motivated by politics.
“We think it’s important to demonstrate that the normalization of relations between Israel and the Palestinians can go forward,” said Rubin. “But clearly Mayor Giuliani has domestic political considerations.”
Let’s cut through the typical Jewish organizational blather and recall where things stood in October 1995, two years after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Arafat had taken to telling Arab audiences, in Arabic, about his dream of jihad for Jerusalem and how Oslo was simply the implementation of the PLO’s long-held goal of destroying Israel in stages. Suicide bombers were blowing themselves up on Israeli buses, killing and wounding scores of passengers. Support among Israelis for Oslo had fallen precipitously.
But Jewish leaders just couldn’t help themselves. Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said Giuliani’s decision to evict Arafat from the concert did not reflect the wishes of the Jewish community.
“He didn’t ask us and we didn’t tell him,” Baum said, rather presumptuously. “Many people in the Jewish community have met with Arafat.”
Indeed, hours before getting the heave-ho from the Lincoln Center event, Arafat had met in Manhattan with about 100 prominent American Jews. A jolly time was had by all, and Arafat apparently made quite the impression.
“He’s got a very good sense of humor, by the way,” said Israel Levine – described in newspaper accounts as “a spokesman for many Jewish organizations” – of the man responsible for the murder of more Jews than anyone since Hitler and Stalin.
Speaking at a UJA-Federation fundraising breakfast shortly after the Lincoln Center controversy, Giuliani said he was proud of his decision to boot Arafat. “I’d make it again, and the day I’d stop making it is the day I’d resign as mayor… When I write my memoirs, this is one of the things that I probably will be proudest of.”
Giuliani’s comments were applauded by only about a quarter of his audience – this at an ostensibly Jewish event.
Such was the mesmerized state of organized Jewry during that surreal time in the mid-1990s when a mass killer of Jews was being feted around the world, by Jews no less than non-Jews, and invited countless times to the White House by an admiring Bill Clinton.
The aforementioned Israel Levine may have loved Arafat’s sense of humor, but Rudy Giuliani found nothing amusing about the Palestinian terror chief. And that’s the difference between Jewish leadership and real leadership.