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Conversation with…David Harris


American Jewish Committee CEO to speak at Temple Beth El in Springfield

By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – David Harris, chief executive officer of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), will speak at Temple Beth El on Wednesday, May 25. His topic will be “Global Jewish Advocacy: A Front-Line Perspective.” This program is free and open to the community.

Harris worked on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s, prior to becoming the leader of the AJC. He has authored seven books, spoken at numerous universities, testified before Congress, addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, spoken at the UN, and addressed the French Parliament.

The New York Times has referred to AJC as “the dean of American Jewish organizations.” Israel’s former President Shimon Peres commented about AJC, “I don’t know of any other organization that pays so much attention to what’s happening outside the United States and outside Jewish life, from India to Germany to France, and many other places.” He also referred to David Harris as the “foreign minister of the Jewish people.”

For more than a century, AJC has been the leading global Jewish advocacy organization. With offices across the United States and around the globe, and partnerships with Jewish communities worldwide, AJC works to enhance the well-being of the Jewish people and Israel, and to advance human rights and democratic values for all.

Harris recently spoke to the Jewish Ledger about his mission at the AJC.

Q: You have been referred to as the “foreign minister of the Jewish people” by Shimon Peres. How exactly would you describe your work and the mission of the American Jewish Committee?

A: AJC is the global Jewish advocacy organization. We deal principally with the intersection between the Jewish and larger worlds – the 192 nations that are not Jewish-majority, other faith and ethnic –communities, and civic leaders. We have interests to defend, as well as aspirations, and they need to be pursued smartly if there is to be a chance of success. I’d like to think that AJC is the address of smart advocacy.

Q: Your talk at Temple Beth El is called “Global Jewish advocacy: A Front-Line Perspective.” You were on the front-line in Brussels — What was your first course of action after the attack with regard to the local Jewish community there?

A: In the end, I was fortunate, as were my AJC colleagues in Brussels. We emerged safe and sound. But I must tell you that, as I left Brussels the next day, I felt profoundly concerned for those who stayed. They have families and difficult decisions to make in their daily lives, all the more so as reports following the attacks revealed how unprepared Belgium was to grapple with the terrorist situation.

Q: Can you describe the Brussels Jewish community? Is it a vibrant one? How large is it in terms of population and the number of Jewish institutions?

A: Yes, the Jewish community in Belgium, principally situated in Brussels and Antwerp, is vibrant, with many synagogues, schools, and organizations.  And, given Brussels role as the European Union’s capital and NATO headquarters, at any given time, there are many other Jews living and working in the city.

Q: Why is Brussels such a target? Is it a good breeding ground for terrorists?

A: It’s become clear that Brussels has witnessed the development of, let’s call them, parallel societies in parts of the city, reflecting weak integration of migrants, particularly those coming from North Africa. These have become fertile recruitment areas for Islamic radicalism. Strikingly, per capita, Belgium has the highest number of “foreign fighters” in Iraq and Syria of any European country. And if these jihadists return to Belgium, proper surveillance of each of them requires an enormous commitment of manpower and resources, more than are currently available.

Q: Is the Jewish community in Brussels in danger now? I read of a plan to attack Jewish children. Have things calmed down there at all? What work is the AJC still doing there?

A: All Belgians must surely be on edge. There have now been several deadly terrorist attacks, including the assault on the Jewish Museum that killed four people, plus, as we know, the ringleaders of the Paris attacks had strong Brussels connections. In addition, the weaknesses of the government have been revealed on this front, compounded by jurisdictional issues, linguistic divisions, and some antiquated laws. Let’s hope that these wake-up calls materially change things on the ground. With an AJC presence in Brussels since 2004, we are monitoring events as closely as we can.

Q: How are things right now for the French Jewish community?

A: What’s true for Belgium is also, of course, true for France, another site of deadly attacks against the state, its values, and its Jewish community. And, given France’s size and demography, the stakes here are even higher. What’s been different has been the capacity of the French security forces to face up to the challenge, as well as the bold statements of its leaders, starting with the President, Prime Minister, and Minister of Interior, to see reality as it is and summon the courage to face it.

Q: So many French Jews have left over the past few years – are they still leaving?

A: Yes, there are those still leaving, many for Israel, and here we have precise numbers, but others as well for the U.K., the U.S., and Canada, and for these three countries there are no available statistics, only impressionistic accounts. Other French Jews, however, are staying, declaring they’re determined not to show fear or abandon the country that has been home to them and their ancestors for many years, if not centuries.

Q: What other areas are you concerned about now in terms of possible terrorist attacks in Europe or other places around the world – anything since Brussels that is of particular concern in other counties?

A: With the continued flow of migration, principally from North Africa, the Arab world, and nations like Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Pakistan, to Europe, the challenges are immense. It’s not just about shelter, job training, and other survival issues. It’s every bit as much about values education and acculturation, yet it is far from clear if Europe has developed successful models that offer a measure of reassurance about how this will unfold. If there is a failure, even for a percentage of the migrants, then, tragically, we are likely to witness more disaffection, more parallel societies, more foreign fighters, and more threats to Europe’s security. And to complicate matters still further, the far right in several European countries is enjoying a surge in popularity, largely as a response to the perceived threat to European identity, values, and safety. The Islamists and the far right  may not agree on much, but on one thing, alas, they do share an overlapping view – Jews. Thus, there is no room for complacency or empty wishes that “everything will turn out alright.” For AJC, as long-time friends of Europe and the transatlantic relationship, we’re working flat-out to help ensure that Europe overcomes these challenges rather than, heaven forbid, succumb to them.

David Harris will speak at Temple Beth El, 979 Dickinson St., Springfield, on Wednesday evening, May 25 at 7:30 pm. Following his presentation, there will be refreshments, sponsored by the Anna P. Housen Israel Desk of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. For more information, contact Temple Beth El at (413) 739-4715.


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