The young Jewish man from Brooklyn who famously shared breakfast with Yasir Arafat last April, holed up in his Ramallah compound, says the Palestinian leader is corrupt and should be replaced as the administrator of funds for his people.
But Adam Shapiro defended Arafat as committed to peace with Israel, rejecting the widely held belief (now part of U.S. Mideast policy) that the aging PLO founder has been tainted by ties to terrorism and is an obstacle to peace.
"[Arafat] has not done a very good job," said Shapiro in an interview here. "Most Palestinians will tell you that. Corruption clearly is one major, sore issue."
As reports emerge that Arafat has siphoned more than a billion dollars in international aid, Shapiro said he believed even before meeting the leader that he should not be in control of the PA’s purse strings.
"I don’t know if he personally has the money, but he’s used money and influence to control people around him … it hasn’t gone where it’s supposed to go. He should be replaced as the manager of the Palestinian Authority, absolutely."
Shapiro maintained, however, that Arafat remains an important figure among Palestinians and should remain involved in negotiations with Israel. "If there’s going to be a deal brought to the Palestinian people and accepted … Arafat’s the one who could do that."
Shapiro, 30, made international news by meeting with Arafat while Israeli troops pounded the PA compound in Ramallah in a massive anti-terror operation this spring following the Passover suicide bombing that killed 29 in Netanya.
An anathema to many Zionists, Shapiro spoke to The Jewish Week on Monday, a week after being escorted to Ben-Gurion Airport by police following five days’ incarceration. He was arrested on Aug. 7 during a protest march in the village of Huwwara. Although he left voluntarily eight days earlier than planned, he is currently fighting a deportation order that would keep him from returning.
Shapiro had been living in Israel or in Ramallah since 1999, during which time he married Huwaida Arraf, a Christian Palestinian from Detroit.
Shapiro said he plans to lecture about his experiences while pursuing a doctorate in international relations at American University in Washington, and will eventually return to Israel and the Palestinian territories. He is undecided on future career options.
Critics call Shapiro a willing pawn of Arafat who became an important public relations tool for the Palestinians at a time when most American Jews expressed solidarity with Israel.
"At a time when Israeli soldiers were giving their lives in Jenin, for him to ingratiate himself with Arafat was beyond the pale," said activist Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. "He will go down in history as being a pathetic figure. Even those on the left are just outraged by him."
Shapiro’s views do appear to be to the left of American Jewish groups that support the Oslo process and Palestinian statehood.
"The most important question now is who is acting to try to rein in Palestinian violence and terrorism," said Mark Rosenblum, founder of Americans for Peace Now. "Whether Adam Shapiro’s solidarity visit to the compound did that is highly unlikely."
Rosenblum said that while it’s up to the Palestinians to pick their leader, "my wish is that it will be somebody other than Arafat. I hope the Palestinians pick a responsible leader."
Shapiro, when asked about recent evidence linking Arafat to terrorist activity (such as the Karine A, an arms-laden freighter bound for Gaza intercepted by Israel) Shapiro likened the shipment to U.S. arms sales to Israel.
"It’s a war right now," said Shapiro. "There are tanks in every city. Every single day a Palestinian is killed … The Americans are still selling arms to Israel, still using American weaponry and getting more of it … Both sides are escalating the conflict."
But Rosenblum called that an "immoral symmetry," asserting that the Karine A incident was "contemptible and an utter embarrassment to most Palestinian nationalists, including many in the PA that I met with at the time. The weapons on board could only be used for terrorism. It’s thickheaded to dismiss the Karine-A."
Shapiro grew up in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn and is a graduate of Hunter High School in Manhattan and Washington University in St. Louis. Although he was raised in a home where Jewish holidays were celebrated and had a bar mitzvah, Shapiro said he’s an atheist who no longer considers himself a Jew.
"I don’t follow any religion," he said. "Other people identify me [as a Jew] but to me identity is up to the individual, not up to other people." He said his wife felt the same way.
During college, he said, "I had more Jewish friends than Arab friends," although he studied Arabic from "non-political" instructors. In 1996, he pursued a degree in Arab studies from Georgetown University in Washington, which led him to spend a year in Yemen at a language school. He visited Israel for the first time later that year, then Jordan, and while pursuing a doctorate at New York University learned about Seeds of Peace, a group that sponsors interaction between Israeli and Palestinian youth.
In 1999 Shapiro took up residence in Jerusalem, running the Seeds of Peace youth center there. It was there that he met Arraf, also involved with the program. The two were married last May.
Although fluent in Arabic, he says he never learned Hebrew during his nearly three-year stay in Israel.
Shapiro said that in September of 2000 he witnessed the turmoil in Jerusalem’s Old City when Ariel Sharon, then a cabinet minister, visited the Temple Mount. He later witnessed clashes between Israel and Palestinian youths in Ramallah, and saw stone-throwing youths killed by Israeli troops.
In December 2001 he left Seeds of Peace to become an activist with the International Solidarity Movement, a radical group that strongly supports Palestinian nationalism, among other causes.
Since his emergence in the media, Shapiro and his family have been harassed by Jewish militants, who greeted his return by plastering his Sheepshead Bay block with posters calling him a "traitor" and "self-hating Jew." His father, Stuart, was fired from a supplemental job teaching math a Brooklyn yeshiva because of the attention his son was getting. Stuart Shapiro declined through his son to be interviewed.
Adam Shapiro insists he’s been misinterpreted. "It’s not that I don’t understand the Israeli side or agree that they shouldn’t face fear or terror," he said. "What I’m saying is that both Israelis and Palestinians need to be safe and secure."
When asked if he felt sympathy for Israeli victims of Palestinian terror, Shapiro said he maintained friendships from his days living in Jerusalem.
"Every time there is a bombing, I start making phone calls to Israelis I know in that area," he said. "I get angry whenever I see an act of violence on either side. It means there is going to be a response."
As for the breakfast with Arafat, Shapiro said it wasn’t his intention to bunker down with the Palestinian leader.
Rather, he said he entered the compound to escort medical assistance to wounded Palestinian Authority staff, and became trapped there.
"We were stuck for the night," he said, insisting it was Arraf, not he, who alerted the media and American officials to his presence because she feared for his safety. "Everyone in Israel believed there would be a bloody battle."
Ido Aharoni, a spokesman for the Israeli Consulate here, said he had "no knowledge" of wounded Palestinians who were evacuated as a result of Shapiro’s efforts, as he claims.
"Arafat’s compound was a closed military zone, and there was no [reason] for any civilian to be in that area at that time, period," said Aharoni.