47 Years on the Jewish front lines: A gratifying life

I simply liked being Jewish, identified with my family’s painful experiences as Jews under both communism and fascism.

 THE WRITER delivers an address at the AJC Global Forum in Jerusalem, 2018. (photo credit: AJC)
THE WRITER delivers an address at the AJC Global Forum in Jerusalem, 2018.
(photo credit: AJC)

It wasn’t exactly predictable that I would spend 47 years in the Jewish communal world.

After all, I didn’t go to Jewish day school or come from a religious home. In fact, I fled Hebrew school immediately after my bar mitzvah, never entered Hillel during college, visited Israel only after finishing college, and attended my first Shabbat dinner following graduate school.

So how did it happen?

Well, for one thing, I was always proudly Jewish, even if there wasn’t necessarily much content supporting it. I simply liked being Jewish, identified with my family’s painful experiences as Jews under both communism and fascism, was fascinated by the Jewish contributions to human civilization and was inspired by Israel’s rebirth as captured by Leon Uris’s Exodus, which I read when I was 14.

And then came a game-changing series of events in the 1970s.

 AJC CEO David Harris (credit: Wikimedia Commons) AJC CEO David Harris (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It started with the desperate plea from Jews behind the Iron Curtain for the right to leave and go to Israel. They needed a lifeline in the West. Would I, a Russian speaker whose mother was born in Moscow, hear their cry or ignore it?

The question answered itself within a few years. I had the rare chance to live in the USSR and work as a teacher, thanks to a government-to-government exchange program. During those months, I met Jews in dire straits because of repression and visa refusal. And when I was detained and expelled from the country due to contacts with Soviet Jews, I knew I had to continue the liberation struggle.

More or less simultaneously, I came to understand that Israel, despite its breathtaking successes, was in mortal danger because of neighboring countries who sought its isolation and destruction, while terror groups attacked Israeli and diaspora targets across Europe and beyond.

That led me to call the Israeli Consulate in New York when the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out and volunteer for the army. I was rejected. I was told that, as an only child, I couldn’t even be considered.

But if I couldn’t serve, was there any other role? The answer was yes. Israel faced a prolonged battle on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. It needed a resupply of weapons and spare parts. Only one country was even a candidate to provide them – the United States. Yet, Richard Nixon was president and he wasn’t wildly popular with American Jews, much less the younger generation. And that’s when I had my “eureka” moment.

Israel and the US

THE US was vital to Israel’s security. No other nation could play the same role. Advocacy was essential to maintaining the special relationship. But, to be effective, just as in the case with enlisting support for the Soviet Jewry campaign, that advocacy had to be nonpartisan, able to reach decision-makers in both parties whenever the need arose.

By 1979, I joined American Jewish Committee (AJC), after nearly three years working in Rome and Vienna, the two transit points for Soviet Jews able to leave the “workers’ paradise.” More than I ever could have imagined, I had found the work fascinating and fulfilling.

To my own surprise, a lifetime career in the Jewish world began to look appealing – all the more so as I enhanced my own Jewish literacy by struggling to answer the many Jewish-related questions from emigrating Soviet Jews who didn’t have previous chances to ask – and discovering I was an heir to an endlessly enriching, vast, and ennobling heritage.

Largely unfamiliar with the “alphabet soup” of Jewish groups, I decided to approach AJC, which was described to me by mavens in the Jewish world as the “Harvard University” of Jewish organizations. I soon discovered they were right.

Forty-seven years after “enlisting” in the Jewish frontline army, of which 43 were spent at AJC, it’s time to step down and welcome a generational change of leadership.

To recount the story of those nearly five decades would require a day-by-day account, as no two days were even remotely identical, and, without any exaggeration, every single one was eventful.

Rather, let’s start with 1975 and take a quick look at the course of Jewish history over the subsequent 47 years. All in all, it’s a remarkable story of previously unimaginable progress.

To say that is not to ignore, not by any means, the daunting problems which face world Jewry today – from the resurgence of antisemitism to the existential threats from Iran and its proxies targeting Israel; from engaging young Jews to savor the joys of being Jewish to questions about the future of Israel-American Jewish relations.

I WAS witness to some extraordinary, history-making changes, among them:

  • By 1975, few Soviet Jews had been allowed to leave the USSR. In the ensuing years, millions left in a modern-day exodus and the country itself thankfully entered the dustbin of history.
  • Following the demise of the USSR in 1991, 15 successor states emerged. Their transitions, in many cases, were bumpy, to say the least, but all of them witnessed the miraculous rebirth of Jewish life – synagogues, schools, centers, ties with Israel.
  • Jews in Ethiopia were largely trapped for centuries, often believing they were the only Jews on earth, even as they fervently prayed to the Jerusalem of their dreams. Fast forward and tens of thousands of Jews have found new homes in Israel in another modern-day exodus.
  • In both cases, USSR and Ethiopia, there was something more going on as well. Suddenly, to be Jewish could mean a ticket out of lands of tyranny and a new start in freedom, which is why some non-Jews in both countries sought to present themselves as Jews. Think about it. In World War II, it was the opposite. This was a remarkable reversal.
  • In 1975, Israel did not have peace with a single Arab country. Today, it has formal relations with Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and UAE (and perhaps Sudan), and unofficial ties with a couple of others.
  • In 1975, Israel had diplomatic links with only a fraction of the countries compared to today. Then, it’s relationship with India was frigid. Today, it’s red hot. The same could pretty much be said for Japan. Greece didn’t even have full ties with Israel and Cyprus leaned heavily towards the anti-Israel Non-Aligned Movement. Now there’s a strategic triangle among Athens, Nicosia, and Jerusalem. Other examples abound.
  • In 1975, there was no dialogue to speak of between the Muslim and Jewish worlds. Today, points of contact and cooperation are growing, as illustrated by the groundbreaking Muslim World League-AJC visit to Auschwitz in January 2020 – covered by the world’s media – with more to come.
  • And the US has further deepened and widened its special relationship with Israel, with the benefits flowing in both directions, especially as Israel has emerged as one of the world’s leading technology and innovation powerhouses.

It’s always tempting to succumb to despair. At any given moment, there are lots of reasons to see only the dispiriting, discouraging news. I get it.

But my biggest takeaway from 47 years of global Jewish advocacy is to delete the word “impossible” from the vocabulary. Time and again, the impossible has become possible. Despite the unrelenting threats, the Jewish people are better off, more free and more secure in 2022 than in 1975.

And the main reason is that Jews have determined we will no longer allow ourselves to be either victims or bystanders of history, but rather seek to become participants, indeed authors, of history.

May the best years yet of the millennia-long Jewish journey lie ahead!

David Harris has been CEO of American Jewish Committee (AJC) since 1990. He will step down on September 30.