The head of the American Jewish Committee said on Monday that he has a “Jewish duty” to put aside whatever political differences he has with Donald Trump, and the Republican Congress, too, so as to advocate for Israel.
“When I’m on Jewish duty, AJC duty, our job is to represent our interest to whoever sits in the White House, whoever controls the Congress and the key committees, whoever the decision makers might be that will affect the fate of those matters of greatest concern to us,” David Harris said at Temple Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, N.Y.
A crowd of 170 people, surely most of them Westchester liberal Jews who cannot abide Donald Trump, filled the august sanctuary of the Reform synagogue, where Harris’s own sons were bar mitzvah’d. Harris tipped his hat to one of those listeners, Congresswoman Nita Lowey, who has been relentlessly critical of Trump from Day One.
Harris played to Lowey and the crowd when he took a jab at Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Asked by a member of the audience, “Has Jared Kushner sought your counsel?” Harris shot back: “You’d have to ask Moscow.”
But Harris was introduced by a fellow AJC official as the representing the “State Department of the Jewish people,” and he emphasized how important it is for the AJC to advocate for Israel no matter who is president.
We as Jews, as advocates, as friends of the state of Israel, may have our partisan inclinations. I get that. But when it comes to the work of an organization like the AJC, we leave those at the door.
“You don’t get to pick your moments in history,” Harris said. In 1948 when Israel was recognized minutes after its establishment by President Harry Truman, Harris said, “We needed not Harry Truman per se, we needed the president of the United States of whichever party to do the right thing.” Jewish advocates were able to convince Truman to meet Chaim Weizmann to press Truman for that recognition– “when Harry Truman tried to slam that door shut.”
And when Richard Nixon was president in 1973, Israel needed the American government to resupply it with arms after the initial setbacks of the October war. Harris said that’s when he learned the lesson about his “Jewish duty”:
Richard Nixon was not a terribly popular president among American Jews. Many proudly distanced themselves from Richard Nixon. But for those who cared about Israel in 1973, the question was not whether he was popular or not, but would he do the right thing or not. In the end he did. In the end, Israel went on to win an extraordinary military victory. As a young man in my 20’s at the time, I learned my lesson in advocacy. I may vote this way or that way. That is my gift in America. But when I’m on Jewish duty, AJC duty, our job is to represent our interest to whoever sits in the White House, whoever controls the Congress and the key committees, whoever the decision makers might be that will affect the fate of those matters of greatest concern to us.
Trump is hugely unpopular in the Jewish community, and the AJC has reflected some of that criticism on domestic issues. It denounced Trump’s revocation of DACA, the Obama program to allow illegal immigrants who’d come to the country as children to stay here. Harris has voiced guarded criticism of the president. He expressed “dismay” at Trump’s failure to condemn anti-Semitism at a presidential news conference in February. In September he said that Trump had “stunningly failed” to provide moral clarity and condemn neo-Nazis after the violent Charlottesville rally the month before.
But the AJC has praised Trump on the Middle East; and on Monday night, Harris approved Trump’s approach to the Middle East, saying that “at least until recently,” Saudi Arabia worried that only Israel was “standing up to Iran.”
They [Saudis] had a profound concern about the Obama administration’s approach to these issues.
He also said that the Trump administration’s ideas of peacemaking could be successful if the Arab countries pressure Palestine. Many Arab countries are privately “fed up” with the Palestinians, Harris said, and say that the Palestinians should cut a deal with Israel because the Palestinian position is only getting “weaker” over time.
Will there come a point where they put the squeeze on the Palestinians, and essentially say, we’re not going to cover for you any longer, we’re not going to carry the water for you any longer– make a deal? … “So get with it.” Will that message come? I don’t know. It’s certainly something we’re discussing. I know the Trump administration is discussing. Will it bear fruit? I don’t know.
When it was formed more than 110 years ago, the AJC was a non-Zionist group with many anti-Zionists among its leaders. Its chief concern was then Jewish persecution in Russia. It did not abandon its non-Zionism till the 1967 War.
H/t James North.