AJC CEO talks about anti-Semitism and the power of coalitions

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On April 1, David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, spoke on “The State of Antisemitism today and AJC’s Global Jewish Advocacy.” He covered rising anti-Semitism, coalition building and what the AJC is doing to combat global hate and prejudice.

The talk was the first of the 2021 Judah Touro Lecture Series, sponsored by the Touro Synagogue Foundation. Close to 150 people participated in the Zoom event.

Harris, who has been at the helm of the AJC since 1990, gave a brief history of the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe since 2000. He also described his sabbatical year in Switzerland with his family and how they saw first-hand the rising tide of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiment.

“It was a wonderful year, but we saw up-close the rebirth of anti-Semitism,” he said. “We [also] spent a lot of time in France. We began to hear the alarm bells in Paris … largely from the left.”

At the time, the focus was on accusations such as that the Israeli government practiced apartheid.

The AJC is uniquely qualified to speak to the problems that Harris saw. Founded in 1906, it was the original American Jewish experiment in political advocacy, Harris told the group. Its first cause was bringing pressure to stop the pogroms in Russia in the early 1900s.

According to Harris, the AJC has 24 offices across the U.S., seven in Europe, three in Asia and one in Latin America.

He said the AJC went to the European governments after his sabbatical and told them that this was not just a Jewish problem, but a European problem.

“In the 1930s, the Jews were trapped [in Europe]. Now, they aren’t trapped. The Jews will leave if necessary, but what will happen to the Europeans [from a human-rights standpoint]?”

Harris said that what he didn’t foresee was the jump of anti-Semitism to the United States, where it has joined with other forms of what he called “poisonous bias.”

He said the key to fighting all this bias is coalition building.

“We seek to build a world respectful of all human beings,” he said. “Jews can’t do it alone and shouldn’t.

“Our strategy is to weave together as many groups as possible who believe that an attack on one group is an attack on all. We are building communities of conscience with those who share our belief in the American democratic experiment in pluralism.”

Harris went on to discuss some of the important coalition building he’s participated in, including a trip to Auschwitz with 62 Muslim world leaders, work on interreligious challenges with leaders in the Catholic Church and support of the Asian-American community.

“The goal is not to fight yesterday’s battles, but to seize tomorrow’s opportunities,” he said.

The next presentation in the 2021 Judah Touro Lecture Series will take place on May 13, when National Trust for Historic Preservation Vice President and Senior Counsel Thompson M. Mayes will speak on his book “Why Old Places Matter.” For more information, go to tourosynagogue.org.

FRAN OSTENDORF (fostendorf@jewishallianceri.org) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.