Harris: ‘We Need the United States to Lead’

Harris: ‘We Need the United States to Lead’

AJC CEO David Harris spoke at the Selig Distinguished Service Award Dinner in Atlanta May 24. The following are excerpts from his speech.

Photo by Paula Gould Photography
AJC CEO David Harris speaks in Atlanta about this key teaching moment in history.
Photo by Paula Gould Photography AJC CEO David Harris speaks in Atlanta about this key teaching moment in history.

American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris flew in from New York for the Selig Distinguished Service Award Dinner at Flourish Atlanta on Wednesday night, May 24, to help honor Beth and Gregg Paradies. The following are excerpts from his speech to the crowd of more than 600 people.

Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you who may have missed it, we had a pretty challenging presidential election. And that continues to this day. Now those of you who know AJC I hope understand that we are a 501(c)(3) organization, which, for the nonlawyers and nonaccountants in the room, means that by law we do not endorse or oppose candidates for office. And I would add, by temperament we don’t either. We are not Jewish activists who are masquerading as Democrats or Republicans; we are Jewish activists working on behalf of Jewish activism, which means, in this binary world in which, unfortunately, too many of us are living, AJC stubbornly and steadfastly refuses to succumb to binary thinking.

We’re not with you; we’re not against you. We have a set of a core values. We have a mission that is 111 years old, and we will do everything we possibly can to defend those core values and to advance that mission. And we will do so as a strictly nonpartisan, centrist and independent organization. And as far as we’re concerned, I wish more Americans would think like that instead of going into their own political, ideological, informational media bubbles, surrounding themselves with an echo chamber and refusing to come out of it, whatever their views may be. For goodness’ sakes, if public policy were so simple, we would have solved our problems by now. We need one America talking to each other and not at each other.

At the heart of AJC, we have three core values, and they are strictly non-negotiable.

Core value No. 1: We believe in a democratic and pluralistic America. We believe in a democratic and pluralistic world. We believe that all of us are strengthened and enhanced by difference, be embracing one another, learning from one another, advocating for one another. The fact that you chose as one of your speakers earlier a representative of the Catholic Church speaks highly to that value. The fact that you had Ronnie and Murray up on the stage earlier, focusing on the Muslim-Jewish link, speaks to the value. The fact that you’ve been the home of the black-Jewish dialogue that has been a hallmark of AJC for decades speaks to that value. We live in a fools’ world if we think we can escape from that kind of society in which we live. AJC proudly, passionately supports pluralism in a democratic world.

Secondly, we believe that America cannot, must not, must never retreat from the global stage. For goodness’ sakes, how bad can we be as history students if we fail to understand the consequences of a world in which America steps back? America does not always get it right; we know that. America cannot be the policeman of the world; we know that. But there is no substitute for the role of the United States in the world in which we live. Not if we want a world that advances democracy, human rights, respect for human dignity, peace. We need the United States to lead. We need the United States not to be AWOL.

And let’s not kid ourselves: If we step back, others step in. Dangerous vacuums are created. We saw that happen in the Middle East in recent years when we stepped back. The world didn’t wait for us to solve our own internal debates. President Putin saw an opening, and he stepped in. And we are all now paying a price for his attempted leadership in the Middle East, including principally in Syria and Iran. And it’s not just Russia. It’s North Korea that’s testing us and our allies, and I’m so pleased that the consul general of Japan is here tonight because we have few better allies in the world than Japan today. And don’t for a single minute believe that Iran’s ambitions have been quelled by the Iran nuclear deal of July 2015. Don’t for a minute believe that Iran will suddenly turn into a moderate, peace-loving, contributing nation to world stability and security.

We need American leadership to deal with these issues — of bad actors, of dangerous actors, of nuclear proliferators, of state sponsors of terrorism, or nonstate supporters of terrorism. We need America, and we need a leadership in Washington of both Republicans and Democrats that understand it and advance those principles.

And finally, but certainly not least, AJC’s core principles revolve around the well-being of the state of Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship and the relationship between Israel and other nations around the world and Israel’s rightful place in the community of nations. And there are few better moments to affirm that principle than right now, on the eve of one of the most dramatic moments in world history.

Fifty years ago, on June 5, Egypt, Syria, then joined by Jordan, threatened the very existence of the state of Israel. The record is clear in the weeks leading up to that date. “We are going to annihilate Israel,” they said in Cairo. “We are going to destroy Israel and drive the Jews into the sea,” said Damascus. And 50 years ago the Six-Day War began.

One has to be today probably about 65 years old to have any actual awareness of those days, which means the majority of people in this country, including in the Jewish community, and around the world do not have those memories. All they seem to understand is the consequence of that war: Israel was victorious. Israel gained land. And to some, regrettably, all they see is that image of Israel somehow purportedly occupying someone else’s land.

This is a great teaching moment, and the first thing that we need to teach is that from 1948 to 1967 the West Bank was not in Israel’s hands; it was in the hands of Jordan. Eastern Jerusalem was not in Israel’s hands; it was in the hands of Jordan. A Palestinian state on the West Bank could have been created any day of the week had the Arab world had one wit of interest in doing so. They didn’t. Their interest suddenly emerged only after 1967. Had they been so interested, Gaza was in the hands of Egypt. Egypt never spoke about a Palestinian state there. Instead, they extended military annexation of Gaza and imposed military rule on Gaza. Where was the outcry? Where was the concern for Palestinian statehood when it could have happened any day of the week?

Secondly, shortly after the end of the war, Israel quietly passed word to the Arab League, “We’re ready to trade land for peace.” The Arab League’s response came on Sept. 1, 1967, in Khartoum, Sudan, where they were meeting. It came in the form of three no’s: no negotiations, no peace, no recognition. Where was their desire for peace when Israel extended the olive branch? It was nonexistent.

A third consequence, a very personal one to me: my wife. Few of you in this audience have met my wife, Julietta. My wife, her seven brothers and sisters, her parents, and all her ancestors from time immemorial have lived in an Arab country, Libya. In 1967, my wife was 16½ years old when the war broke out in the Middle East. Within a matter of weeks, a raging mob of Libyan Arabs surrounded my wife’s home, and they were prepared to torch it. In the end, my wife’s family was saved by one brave local Arab gentleman, who, by the way, to this day is alive and refuses to be identified for fear that, having saved 10 Jews, he would be killed by jihadists.

But then my wife and her family were given safe passage, as were thousands of other Libyan Jews, and Libya became Judenrein. Thousands of years of Jewish history ended, destroyed, and not only in Libya, throughout much of the Arab world. And I dare say, if you will allow me, had the world spoken then, had the United Nations even met once, once, had there been an editorial in any of the major newspapers speaking out against the end of Jewish life in this and other Arab countries, maybe the Christians would have been spared their fate when the Jews were all gone and the Christians were next on the list.

But the world was quiet, and the world continues to perpetrate the notion that there is only one refugee population from the Arab-Israeli conflict. There were two. There were two. But one was instrumentalized; the other was solved. You don’t hear about Jews in the fourth generation being kept in refugee camps funded by the U.N. and the international community. With pain, with difficulty, with enormous distress, my wife, her family and hundreds of thousands of others recovered and rebuilt new lives, unlike those kept in Palestinian refugee camps, for whom the U.N. definition extends the world refugee for all generations to come. Not just for the refugees themselves, but their descendants ad infinitum.

So this is a moment to remember, to learn, to teach, but, and with this I conclude, never to lose hope. Because in 1967 when Gamal Abdul Nasser, the president of Egypt, the fiery Arab nationalist, was inciting Arabs throughout the world to kill the Jews and destroy Israel, no one could have imagined that almost exactly 10 years later, another Arab leader, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, who followed Nasser, would make that extraordinary journey to Jerusalem, appear before the Knesset and talk about peace, not war. And two years later, peace arrived. And then King Hussein of blessed memory in 1994 achieved a similar peace agreement with Israel.

AJC will continue to travel throughout the Arab world, throughout the entire world, looking for new King Husseins, looking for new Anwar Sadats, looking for new openings and opportunities, because at the end of the day, we seek an Israel at peace, not at war.

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