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David Harris addresses opening session of the 98th Annual Meeting

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May 4, 2004 -  Click here to listen to David Harris's opening speech at AJC's 98th Annual Meeting.

Opening Session
AJC 98th Annual Meeting
Washington, D.C., May 4, 2004
David A. Harris
Executive Director, American Jewish Committee

Welcome to our Annual Meeting, as we mark our 98th year. To quote the late Ed Sullivan, "We've got a really big show for you."

Members and friends of the American Jewish Committee, ladies and gentlemen,

Picture the scene. A stately synagogue in London, where elegance and decorum are the rule of the day. Top hats and tails can be seen. The rabbi begins his sermon. He speaks of the weekly Torah portion with eloquence and conviction. Every few minutes, his homily is interrupted by a woman from the balcony shouting "Amen" or "Hallelujah." Eventually, an usher approaches the woman and asks if anything is wrong. "No," she says passionately. "It's just that when I hear the rabbi speak, I get all filled up with religion." "Madam," the usher replies scornfully, "I'm sorry but there's no place for that here."

Here's the deal this week. We bring you the best possible program, and you bring us your passion, only not the Mel Gibson kind, please!

This week is meant to enrich and stimulate our minds as we face complex issues; it's also meant to stir our souls and reinforce our mutual links as we reaffirm that all Jews are responsible one for the other.

Some of you are seasoned veterans of these meetings; others are here for the very first time. Some of you drove here; others crossed oceans and countless time zones to attend. Everyone is welcome. Each of you, I hope, will take the opportunity this week to participate in the deliberations, make new friends, and get hold of our latest publications, which you'll find on the literature tables outside.

This evening started on an upbeat note. That wasn't by accident. It was intended to serve as a reminder of who our friends are and what has been achieved, and there will be more of the same throughout the week.

I'm most grateful to Brigadier General Klaus Wittmann and Colonel Jochen Burgemeister for traveling from Germany to Washington especially to be with us. They symbolize for me one of the most exciting, forward-looking, and rewarding programs launched by the American Jewish Committee in recent memory.

When we began the relationship with the German armed forces a decade ago, Colonel Burgemeister was our very first partner. He believed in the importance of introducing German military officers and American Jews to one another, both to consider the painful past and to contemplate a brighter future together. While proud to wear the uniform of the Bundeswehr, he also fully understood the heavy responsibility resting on his shoulders.

Over the years, our relationship grew in a number of ways. More and more German military delegations visited AJC headquarters, making it an obligatory stop as part of their visits to the Pentagon, West Point, UN, and various American military bases around the country.

And we had the opportunity to travel to several German military sites, including the Ministry of Defense, the two German armed forces universities in Hamburg and Munich, the officers' school in Hanover, the refugee camp run by the Bundeswehr in Macedonia for Kosovar Muslims fleeing Serbia's ethnic cleansing, and impressive programs for German high school students conducted by the German military.

We also had the chance to receive in New York delegations from the Führungsakademie, the General Armed Forces Command and Staff College, in Hamburg, and to visit the college and address the officers, who were largely German but included Americans and other Europeans as well. It was through this process that we had the privilege of meeting and befriending Dr. Wittmann, director of the faculty, who became an integral part of the AJC-Bundeswehr partnership.

The presence of these two officers tonight to mark the tenth anniversary of our collaboration speaks volumes about the possibilities of shaping history if only we allow ourselves to dream dreams and commit ourselves to realizing their vision.

We dare not permit ourselves—not today, not tomorrow—to become immobilized by an inability to see beyond the moment. We must never allow the painful scars of our past to deprive us of the requisite strength to build a brighter future. And we cannot ever yield to a sense of helplessness or despair that saps our collective will to affirm who we are and the values that define us.

Brigadier General Wittmann, Colonel Burgemeister, with friends like you, we can look to the future with optimism and confidence. We salute you.

And I'm equally delighted that we had the opportunity this evening to pay tribute to one of our closest and most beloved coalition partners, Andy Athens. Much has been said about Andy. I would only add that our collaboration is proof positive of what can be accomplished when we work in tandem with our friends.

For our part, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the objectives of the American Jewish Committee, and for that matter of the Jewish community of Greece, have been substantially advanced, more than one might imagine, by Andy's steadfast devotion to those very same goals, which he always saw as entirely consistent with his abiding love of Greece and his devotion to enhancing Greece's ties with the world.

Andy, you've honored us tonight by allowing us to honor you.

Ladies and gentlemen, last week I had the privilege of addressing the conference of the fifty-five nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the OSCE, which was devoted exclusively to the subject of anti-Semitism and was held in Berlin.

Even after dozens of trips, each time I'm in Germany I feel like an emotional yo-yo. This time was no exception.

I try to imagine a twelve-year-old boy in Berlin in 1932 doing what boys of that age like to do—play sports, visit the candy store, build a model plane or ship, and wonder what the future holds.

And then, within a year, that boy was facing the abyss, as he and his parents, and hundreds of thousands of other German Jews, became the primary target of Hitler's Nazi regime that had just assumed power.

That boy was my father. The ensuing twelve years, until the war's end in 1945, were a far cry from what he once imagined his life would be.

Now here I am, that boy's son, traveling regularly to Berlin, visiting the American Jewish Committee's Ramer Center on the rebuilt Leipziger Platz, calling on the German government as a friend to discuss issues of mutual concern, and looking to the German armed forces as partners.

And then I visualize the day in 1961 when the East German government began constructing a wall for the purpose, not of keeping unwanted people out, but rather of penning in its own citizens. Not long after that I read in the paper that two Americans had been detained in East Berlin for some alleged political transgression. To my dismay, one was my father, and the other was Daniel Schorr, now with National Public Radio. Both were on assignment for CBS. Fortunately, they were released rather quickly.

As a child of the Cold War, I make a point of walking through the Brandenburg Gate each time I'm in Berlin. I remind myself of what once was—a divided city, with repression on one side and democracy on the other, and many valiant attempts, some ending in tragedy, to cross that wall and savor the precious gift of liberty. And I'm reminded, no less, of what can be—in this case the triumph of freedom over tyranny.

Last Wednesday, I was invited to a state dinner hosted by German President Johannes Rau in honor of Israeli President Moshe Katsav. Again, the yo-yo experience.

On the one hand, I couldn't help asking myself how Jewish history might have turned out differently had there been an Israel in the 1930s, when Jews could still leave Europe, if only they had a place to go.

On the other hand, the evening was one more reminder, if any were needed, of history's evolution, or perhaps revolution in this case, as Germany and Israel continue to develop their unique bilateral relationship.

And there was still more in Berlin.

Here was an intergovernmental conference on anti-Semitism and—you know what—it seemed entirely appropriate and fitting that it was held in Berlin. After all, it was Germany that, in the postwar years, went about the enormous task of creating a modern-day democracy, teaching unflinchingly about the past, establishing a special bond with Israel, and witnessing not only the rebirth of a Jewish community, but also the world's fastest growing Jewish community at that.

And yet how painful it was that such a conference on anti-Semitism was even necessary in 2004, less than sixty years after the war's end.

Who among us would have imagined even five years ago that the nations of North America, Europe, and Eurasia would feel compelled to gather for two days—and for the second time in as many years—because of a growing realization that the cancer, which had largely been in remission, at least in Western countries, was now back?

And not only was it back, but we could identify three different malignancies: the racism and xenophobia of the extreme right; the virulent anti-Zionism mixed with anti-Americanism and anti-globalization of the extreme left; and the unalloyed vilification of Judaism and the Jewish people emanating, not from the Islamic world in its entirety, but certainly from important segments thereof.

If there was any good news, it came in the fact that of the fifty-five nations gathered, many, like the United States, were represented by their secretary of state or minister of foreign affairs. Indeed, it was Colin Powell who set the tone when he told delegates: "Today, we confront the ugly reality that anti-Semitism is not just a fact of history, but a current event."

I don't wish to spoil your evening and make you regret your decision to come to Washington, but it's important that we all come face to face with the kind of current event being spoken of. These days, ignorance is no excuse, denial no longer an option.

The first film clip you're about to see, which lasts three-and-a-half minutes, depicts a modern-day blood libel and comes from a twenty-six part series courtesy of Hezbollah and Syria. It was first aired last fall. Importantly, it was also transmitted around the world via satellite technology. One of the countries where it could be seen was France. In fact, it prompted the French ruling party to introduce legislation into the parliament banning, as I understand it, shows that seek to incite religious or racial hatred.

We are grateful to MEMRI, the Middle East Media Research Institute, for permission to show the film.

The second film clip, which is about the same length as the first, comes from a longer film prepared by the Washington-based Investigative Project. It shows in graphic detail the Islamic radical threat right here on American soil.

And finally, regular readers of my monthly letter will be familiar with some of the grotesque cartoons that have been published in leading European newspapers and magazines. While I would never question the right to criticize Israel, or, for that matter, any other country, what you will see goes far beyond the bounds of legitimate criticism by touching on such incendiary themes as deicide and Holocaust role reversal, with the Jews this time portrayed as Nazi-like perpetrators.

It's painful viewing, isn't it? But if it doesn't serve as a wake-up call, what will?

We can't afford the luxury of the businessman in the New Yorker cartoon who's pictured in his house talking on the phone, with his briefcase in hand, and the caption reads: "I just got home. Can you call back tomorrow when I'm still at work?"

Friends, in a world:

  • in which the chief rabbi of France urges observant Jews not to wear a kippah at night while riding the metro and to travel in groups;
  • in which synagogues, Jewish schools, and cemeteries have been the targets of terrorist attacks, while other attacks planned against Jewish institutions from Germany to Hungary to Spain were foiled by alert law enforcement;

  • in which the New York Times carries a front-page story last month reporting on those Muslims in Europe who seek to impose Islam on Europe;

  • in which a Belgian Arab leader presses the Belgian government to adopt Arabic as an official national language;

  • in which, as the astute Fouad Ajami points out, Europe is attempting "false bonding with the peoples of Islam" in the vain hope that "the furies of radical Islamism" will pass it by;

  • in which Israel is subject to nonstop demonization by those who see in the current circumstances a new opportunity to brand it a pariah state;

  • in which Israel is declared the greatest threat to world peace in a European Union survey;

  • in which Israel's very right to defend itself against terrorist groups, whose declared aim is Israel's destruction, is repeatedly challenged;

  • in which the United Nations reveals its utter moral bankruptcy when issues pertaining to Israel are brought before it;

  • in which jihadists openly and unabashedly announce their intention to target Jews anywhere and everywhere;

  • in which terrorist links have been revealed right here in the United States, from Bridgeview, Illinois, to Richardson, Texas; from Tampa, Florida, to Herndon, Virginia; and from Lackawanna, New York, to Charlotte, North Carolina;

  • in which AJC's many attempts—and we were not alone, though altogether we were few in number—to call attention to the domestic link to international terrorism in the decade prior to 9/11 too often fell on deaf ears, Democratic and Republican alike;

  • in which some American universities, once considered oases of civility and reason, require warning signs for Jewish students, especially those supportive of Israel;

  • in which an Oxford University professor rejects an Israeli applicant on the grounds that he served in the Israeli army, while his colleague in Manchester summarily dismisses two Israelis, both incidentally sympathetic to Peace Now, from the boards of two academic journals, solely on the basis of their citizenship;

  • and in which a former Israeli prime minister is physically prevented from addressing students at a Canadian university by violent protests;

we have no choice, no choice whatsoever, but to face reality as it is.

Thankfully, we have a savvy and sophisticated organization, the American Jewish Committee, as a vehicle for confronting that stark reality.

AJC empowers us by sponsoring groundbreaking research and analysis, leveraging our voices, reaching the highest levels of decision-makers and opinion-molders, testifying before the United States Congress, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Organization of American States, and the OSCE, advertising in the media—including tomorrow's New York Times and Thursday's Wall Street Journal, and projecting our vision and values.

We need the American Jewish Committee today more than ever.

And the American Jewish Committee needs us no less. Not only does it need us, but it needs our friends, our colleagues, and, yes, our children and grandchildren, for we are in this for the long haul.

That's precisely why we've launched a Centennial Campaign to raise at least $60 million in new endowment funds, because we must have a financially secure agency to serve future generations. This is our responsibility to them. Let history show that we rose to the occasion.

For those of us immensely proud to be Jewish and incalculably enriched by our identity, who feel an unbreakable link to Jews around the world, who support Israel's right to live in peace and security, and who believe that the Jewish people, by dint of our history and heritage, have an important contribution to make to a world badly in need of repair, I know of no other organization that gives us a better chance to have an impact than AJC.

I know I'm preaching to the choir—you're here—but it's important to underscore that we are blessed with an institution that is particularly well-suited to the times.

We have a superb chapter, national, and international staff that just keeps getting better in every sector of our work. As my counterpart in another national Jewish agency said to me, "You guys are the Jewish organizational equivalent of the 1961 New York Yankees." We have talent galore among our lay leaders. And we have a smooth working partnership between the lay and staff leadeship that provides a model for how an effective agency ought to be run.

We have proved again and again our ability to anticipate trends and adapt ourselves institutionally:

  • From establishing a division on international terrorism years before 9/11, to creating a division on Latino and Latin American affairs;

  • from instituting a model fellowship program for young people now in its fifth year, to developing a leadership program for Russian Jews in the U.S. entering its eighth year, as well as a division on Russian Jewish affairs;

  • from opening the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels, Europe's capital, to hiring a representative in India, the world's largest democracy;

  • from creating a state-of-the-art multilingual Web site, to airing biweekly radio commentaries that reach 10-15 million listeners per cycle;

  • from expanding our global reach to include twelve active partnerships with Jewish communities abroad, plus our five overseas offices, to substantially increasing our interfaith and interethnic outreach and diplomacy in this country;

  • and from launching Project Interchange Europe eighteen months ago, to focusing on Israel advocacy in American high schools and teaching about Israel in colleges;

we have been there—early, well-prepared, and ready for the long run. And each of these initiatives, and many others, are yielding concrete results. Our efforts are making a difference in ways that are both seen and unseen.

Moreover, we aren't hampered by ideological blinders. We adjust our thinking to the facts, not the facts to our thinking. We resist labels in a society that loves to assign them.

Literally within the span of twenty-four hours last month, I received two letters. One was from a gentleman who said that he had never joined AJC because of "our ultra-liberal approach to things" and our failure to understand "the realities of the situation." The other was from a lady who asserted that, as a Democrat, she is finding it harder and harder to justify her membership in an organization that is widely seen, she claims, as "Republican."

Ah, it's not easy being a centrist organization that one day tilts in one direction on one issue, the next day tilts in another direction on another issue. It means being shot at from both sides.

By the way, it's not that we're centrists because we can't make up our mind. You know the story of the man who found himself equidistant from two glasses of water and died of thirst.

We're centrists because we value independent thinking and reject those who have one-ideology-fits-all explanations for everything that happens. History has taught us that no school of political thought has a perfect track record when it comes to major public policy challenges in democratic countries.

On a related note, shortly after Israel's creation, David Ben-Gurion warned his fellow Jews of "the danger of political blindness," "the naiveté with which we attempt to solve complicated questions," "the lack of talent to understand each other and appreciate each other's difficulties," and the "lack of talent to act as one entity in which a single member bends his will to that of the majority." We at AJC have taken those warnings to heart.

And there's another AJC strength I must mention. I like to think it's in our bloodstream. It's called integrity.

You've put your trust in this organization. We take our fiduciary responsibility seriously and are working night and day to justify the confidence you've placed in us.

Ladies and gentlemen, we've come a long way, a very long way, in the postwar years.

We have scaled one mountain peak after another, defied the odds again and again, and, in the process, written bright new chapters of our history.

We have seen Israel not only survive but flourish. We have seen Israel defend democracy as fiercely as it defends its borders. We have seen Israel extend the frontiers of knowledge to the benefit of all humanity. We have seen Israel stand tall as its enemies have repeatedly tried and failed to bring it to its knees. We have seen Israel achieve peace with two of its neighbors and aspire to peace with its other neighbors, but tragically to no avail, as yet.

We have seen the miracle of the return of millions of Soviet Jews to the Jewish people and the rescue of tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews who yearned for two millennia to live in Zion.

We have seen the rebirth of Jewish communities in Western Europe after the war wrought its devastation, and in Eastern Europe since the Iron Curtain became a discarded relic of history.

We have seen vibrant, dynamic Jewish communities throughout the world that, whether big like the Canadian or small like the Costa Rican, look hopefully to the future.

We have seen Christian-Jewish relations achieve more progress in the past fifty years than in the previous 1900.

We have seen the unspeakable tragedy of the Shoah etched on the consciousness of many nations, many people—never enough, of course, but far more than we might have imagined.

And we have seen the emergence of a remarkable Jewish community in this blessed country that has come a long way from the time, 350 years ago, when twenty-three Jews from Recife, Brazil, disembarked from the Ste. Catherine, a French ship, in the port of New Amsterdam, later New York, and established the first Jewish community in North America—over the objection of Peter Stuyvesant, I might add.

Yet, at the same time, we have challenges.

I've touched on some of them tonight, those that seem to me most immediate and ominous. They'll be explored in further detail in the coming days.

I've written about others, including, in my April letter, the long-term challenges we as a Jewish community face here in light of dramatic and accelerating socio-demographic changes.

And I've both spoken and written about what I believe to be the single greatest challenge of all—the challenge of instilling in our children and grandchildren a sense of joy, enrichment, and pride in being part of the Jewish people, a visceral link to fellow Jews and to the State of Israel, a belief that by our actions we can make a difference in improving the world around us, and a passion—yes, there's that word again—to participate in shaping the Jewish destiny.

Working together in this extraordinary organization, and collaborating with good friends at home and overseas, we can rise to any challenge, I believe, however great.

Am yisrael chai.