January 18, 2022
In the first installment of a six-part series titled A Life in the Trenches: An Oral History with AJC CEO David Harris, Harris shared his personal Jewish journey, lessons learned, highlights from his decades-long career, and what lies ahead for the Jewish future. A tireless visionary and a passionate advocate for world Jewry, the State of Israel, and democratic values, David has built AJC into the leading global Jewish advocacy organization it is today. This is a conversation you won't want to miss.
Advocacy Anywhere is a new platform that will enable you to engage with AJC’s leading expertise, content, and advocacy opportunities from wherever you are, using cutting-edge technology.
DANIEL SILVER: Good day and welcome to Advocacy Anywhere, powered by American Jewish Committee. Advocacy Anywhere is AJC's digital platform that enables you to engage with AJC's global expertise, content, and advocacy from wherever you are. We are delighted to bring to you today the first program in AJC's new six-part series titled “A Life in the Trenches: An Oral History with AJC CEO David Harris.” Today, David, in conversation with AJC Chief of Staff to the CEO Jillian Laskowitz, will share his personal Jewish journey, and what inspired him to take on this lifelong mission.
A lifelong Jewish activist, David has led AJC since 1990, referred to by the late Israeli president Shimon Peres as the "foreign minister of the Jewish people." He has been honored more than 20 times by foreign governments for his international work, making him the most decorated American Jewish organizational leader in U.S. history. After we hear from David and Jillian, time permitting, we will take your questions. You may email your question to email@example.com (that's questions plural) or use the Q&A feature in Zoom. Jillian, I turn the floor over to you.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you, Daniel, and welcome to our global audience. David, it's a true privilege to be a part of this new oral history series on your lifetime of global Jewish advocacy, and as always, it's great to be with you today.
DAVID HARRIS: Jillian, it's my pleasure to share this story with you.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: So, let's get started because I know there's a lot to cover. So this session is focused on the beginning of your Jewish journey. I know that very much begins with your own family history. So can you start us off by giving us an overview of your family's own history, their Jewish journeys, and how this all affected your own upbringing?
DAVID HARRIS: That could take the full hour, Jillian. So I was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, 123 West 74th Street was where we lived from age one in my case. My mother actually lived there long after I left for college. The Upper West Side was the home of my extended family. We lived in Apartment 6B. My maternal grandparents lived in Apartment 6C, and I'd love to come back to what that meant for my upbringing, my Jewish upbringing a bit later. My one aunt and uncle lived seven blocks away. My paternal grandparents lived a few more blocks away and then there were various cousins and great uncles. We all lived in this sort of enclave on the Upper West Side, essentially between 72nd Street and 96th Street, between Central Park West and Riverside Drive.
Those were the boundaries of my life basically for many, many years, and it was a very Jewish neighborhood in some respects. There were also other subcultures there, principally Italian, Puerto Rican, and it wasn't then called LGBTQ but the Upper West Side was sort of on the forefront of that movement as well. But I found within that space an ethnically, religiously, culturally and I dare say tribally, a very strong Jewish neighborhood, which in many ways reinforced my identity pretty much every step of the way. My family was not religious. We did not have a mezuzah on the door. We never celebrated Shabbat. In fact, I did not experience my first Shabbat dinner until after I finished graduate school, and my father knew very little about the Jewish holidays and probably cared less.
So in the classic sense, not going to Jewish day school, not going to Jewish summer camp, it's hard in the year 2022 to understand what were the feeders that sort of created my identity. And obviously when I was younger, I didn't fully appreciate them anyway. Now as I look back, I understood that number one, my family was nonetheless very comfortable in their own skin as Jews, especially my mother and her parents. My mother was an extraordinarily proud Jew. She was also, as some on this call know, a survivor of the Holocaust as was my father as were all the people in my family older than myself, they all had stories with few exceptions. Thankfully, miraculously, they all survived but my mother especially never wanted to let go, nor did her parents, and that had a great impact on me.
My grandparents lived next door as I said, and when people talk today about what are the best methods for nurturing identity in Jewish children, my first answer is Jewish grandparents. I was blessed, extraordinarily blessed. I saw my grandparents every day, and while my parents were busy sort of getting on with life and working and doing all of the daily things that parents have to do, my grandparents had a kind of longer view. They transmitted a lot to me, just in the daily interaction. It wasn't indoctrination. There were the stories, the stories of Russia where they came from, the stories of France, where they landed after they left Russia, then coming to America. There was the fact that my grandfather received The Forward newspaper in Yiddish every morning at the door. So I associate being Jewish with family, I associate it with stories, I associate it with pride, I associate it with Israel because some members of my family from Europe ended up in Israel and stayed in Israel. So there was just this natural connection to where my family was.
And then again, it was walking on the streets of the Upper West Side. I look back and I call it my accented neighborhood. When I was growing up, there was a very European Jewish subculture. Most people on this call would not necessarily know the references, but the number of stores, food stores, cafes, other stores, which had a kind of Jewish environment. I remember very much going to synagogue with my mother really twice a year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and taking such pride in walking back and forth on Broadway and counting the number of stores that were closed for the Jewish holidays and the number of other Jewish families, by the way they were dressed up for the occasion, sort of walking back and forth. It was easy to be a Jew on the Upper West Side and it was a source of pride.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thanks, David, and I know at a certain point, I think it was in seventh grade, your family had to make a large decision about moving from the Upper West Side to Germany, which I am sure wasn't an easy decision given your parents' background as Holocaust survivors. So you moved to Germany and I know that was a really formative year for you. So can you talk to us a little bit about that experience and that transition as a Jewish family?
DAVID HARRIS: It was the beginning of what would have been seventh grade and my father, Eric Harris, was an engineer at CBS, and he had been involved with some of their innovative technology at the time. This takes us back to 1960, so that was the introduction of video replay. Things we take for granted for example in watching sports today and special effects, and CBS signed a contract with a large German television network and was asked to provide this new technology and my father was a logical person to be asked to go to Germany. What CBS did not know at the time was that my father was a survivor who had absolutely no interest in ever, ever setting foot in Germany again. Remember in 1960, the stories of the survivors were largely not known. They were not being told and frankly even if they had been told, there were not many people listening. It's a very different time than today.
But my father was faced with this dilemma. His employer had asked him to go to work in Germany, and he wasn't sure that he could refuse. On the other hand, how could he go? And I remember the late night discussions that my mother and father had in the next room when they thought I was asleep. Can we go, should we go, is it the responsible thing, is it not. And ultimately, my father decided to go for a trial period, and if he could manage it emotionally, we would follow, and if not, CBS would let him return. And that's exactly what happened, Jillian. He went I think in August of 1960, maybe early September, and I remember a few weeks later, my mother picking up the telephone. In those days there was the rotary telephone, and there were things like person to person calls and collect calls and she said, "Yes, I accept the charges," and I heard her say, "We'll start packing."
And so here we are, 15 years after the Holocaust. I'm just turning 11 years old and I'm off to Germany, to live in Germany with two Holocaust survivors, who swore that they would never want to see Germany, hear German even though it was my father's native language. And we arrived in Munich and I started the seventh class. And on the one hand, it was a perfectly normal existence. I was a child for goodness sakes. What interested me at the time? Sports, stamp collecting, fun food, skiing, adventure, and all of that was possible. All available. It was new, it was fun to take a street tram to school. Never done that before in New York. On the other hand, there was something completely abnormal about the experience. In the early weeks that we were there, we were in a hotel before we found an apartment, and I learned the next morning from my mother that my father thought he heard Nazi era songs being sung in the beer hall on the floor just below us. And my father is a fighter and my father was a fighter during the Second World War, French Foreign Legion, OSS, escapee from a Vichy prison camp, you name it. My father did it, with a bullet wound in his ankle to show for it all his life.
My father apparently went downstairs at 2:00 in the morning to confront those singers of the Nazi-era songs by himself. I remember when we were together at the main train station one weekend. I didn't know where we were going. My father saw a poster to visit Dachau for the day. Not Dachau the prison camp but Dachau the lovely village, and my mother had to practically physically restrain my father from trying to grab the poster and ripping it off the wall, saying, "Eric, you're going to be arrested for this." And he's saying, "But how can they talk about Dachau as anything other than what it became?" During Hanukkah, even though we were not a religious family, my mother made a special point of putting the Hanukkiah in the window, facing outward. And she told me afterwards that some of the snide comments and ugly looks that she and we got because we had publicly identified ourselves as Jews in Germany 15 years after the war.
So here I was, trying to process sports and stamp collecting and as I said fun foods, and on the other hand, I began to understand something bigger was going on here. Wrapping myself around it at age 11 was not a simple or obvious process. But as I look back now, it was the beginning of something else, and maybe the fact that to fast forward, I became so interested in German-Jewish relations and AJC became the chosen vehicle for that might in some way have been linked to that year in Munich on Ainmillerstraße in a neighborhood called Schwabing and being there 15 years after the war with two Holocaust surviving parents who had sworn they would never go to Germany.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: David, would you also link this year in Munich to your decision to devote your career to Jewish advocacy? You've mentioned that your family wasn't religious or observant but they were very much survivors and fighters and that was very much ingrained in your family. So I know it wasn't a synagogue or Shabbat as you said, you didn't have a Shabbat dinner until later in life. What was it exactly that drew you to this career?
DAVID HARRIS: So I think it would be disingenuous to say that I came back in 1961 after a year in Germany and made a resolution that I would now devote the rest of my life to the Jewish world, not at all. I came back and I went to eighth grade, and life in New York resumed and life in Germany receded, and without social media platforms and all, I couldn't stay in touch easily with friends I had made and we did not go back to visit again. In my case I didn't go back to Germany for many, many years. But other things happened along the way, Jillian. Again, one by one, there was no ... If I can use the word epiphany in this Jewish conversation, there was no single epiphany. I remember about age 14 hearing about the book Exodus by Leon Uris, and I was a reader in any case. I loved to read, and I remember picking up the book and I sat in the armchair in our living room one evening, it was a school night, and I did not get up from that armchair until I had finished the book the next morning.
Now anyone who knows me knows I needed a lot of sleep. An all-nighter was not something in me. But I was so gripped by this book, every word on every page just jumped out and talked to me, and I became completely consumed by this extraordinary story told by Leon Uris. Then I read Mila 18 about the Warsaw ghetto, again by Leon Uris. And then later, I remember in graduate school another book that really hit me between the eyes and began to kind of change my overall direction. It was a book by a gentleman, Arthur Morse called While Six Million Died, and it was a book essentially about U.S. administration policy during the Second World War toward Jewish refugees, and basically, how scandalous so much of that policy was. Now, understand at the end, of the day, most of my family came to the United States. My mother during the war. In fact she was one of 14 members of my family that were able to get very rare U.S. visas during the war. Largely because of a congressman, Ivor Fenton from northeastern Pennsylvania, who took an interest in our family.
So for me, the American piece of the story had always been a very positive one. Then I read this book and I realize, "Wait a second. My family's experience was extraordinarily unusual. The norm was rather turning a blind eye, rejecting the passengers on the S.S. St. Louis who were off the coast of Florida who could see the skyline of Miami, but who were not permitted to disembark and find refuge in the United States." The largest story was the 1943 Bermuda Conference, which the U.S. and the UK held together, ostensibly to address the refugee problem, but ultimately was essentially a charade that did not address the refugee problem, much less even mention Jews by name. So, that was a story he told. People like Breckinridge Long, the Assistant Secretary of State in Washington who also turned his back on Jews for a whole host of reasons. That began to open my eyes. And then after reading several books along these lines, I took my first trip to Israel, and there I think I also had another awakening. A big awakening.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: So, David, I'm glad you mentioned Israel because going hand-in-hand with your Jewish identity is your connection to Israel. So, can you talk to us a bit about that visit and what Israel meant for you and your family growing up and sort of how did that connection intensify or evolve throughout your formative years?
DAVID HARRIS: It evolved first because of family. I knew long before I ever visited Israel that some of our family ... Our family had all been in France. They had all sort of migrated to France basically from the Soviet Union as they could escape Stalin, and they all kind of regrouped in Paris. And when the war broke out, a number of members of the family tried to make their way south, hoping eventually to cross the Pyrenees into Spain and Portugal but to do so, you needed an American visa. And it took 17 months before the visas that I mentioned earlier, with the help of Congressman Fenton, came through.
So for 17 months, a big part of my mother's family were in hiding or fleeing. My father took a different course because he was sent to the French Foreign Legion in Algeria by the French. He was arrested by Vichy after France fell in June of 1940. He spent three years in Kenadsa which was a French Vichy labor camp in, I believe Western Algeria, in the coal mine area. It was hard, laborious, dangerous work under very difficult conditions, all the more so because he was a Jew. He escaped and after he joined OSS, the U.S. wartime espionage agency, and parachuted behind enemy lines, OSS brought him to the United States at the end of the war. His parents, my paternal grandfather, ended up first in China, having fled east, and eventually came to the United States. My paternal grandmother ended up as a cook in the Soviet army and eventually after the war made it to Australia and then by a vote of two to one, my father and his father voted for her to come to the U.S., and she voted to stay in Australia and for them to come to her, but she was outvoted.
And then another part of my family stayed in France and fought in the French resistance, the French Jewish resistance. Most notable among them was Mila Racine, whose job it was to smuggle Jewish children from Haute-Savoie that's in Southeastern France, across the border into Switzerland. She smuggled over 230 children successfully, safely. She was caught in 1943. She was taken to Annemasse to Gestapo headquarters. She was tortured, she was then deported to Ravensbruck and then to Mauthausen and she was killed about six weeks before the war's end. The other members of that part of our family stayed in France were also in the resistance, and after the war, moved to Israel. They were Zionists, and they helped create and build the State of Israel.
So for me, Israel was not a political expression first nor a religious expression first. It was family connection. Later, even if I was an infrequent synagogue goer, I understood. It was abundantly evident that one could not talk about being Jewish without an understanding that there was a connection between a people and a land, just as there is a connection between a people and a faith. And it's not just any land of course.
It's a very specific land. And then I traveled to Israel, I was 21 years old, and I was surprised by my own reaction even before we landed. I looked out the window, I had a window seat, and we were approaching the coast of Tel Aviv and I think the tears began to flow. It caught me by surprise. Somehow, when I had landed and got into the bus to go to the youth hostel, wherever I was staying, I just began to marvel at every car, every building, every tree, every road, that this was Israel, and it spoke to me, cried out to me. And I saw young people, many of them wearing army uniforms, young men and young women. I was coming from this country, where there was in the late 60s early 70s so much anger, so much division, so much opposition to the Vietnam War, such a national malaise if I can call it, and then I come to Israel and it's three, four years after the Six Day War and here I see these young people, who at least superficially, look and act totally differently than the young people I left behind back home and on the college campus. And I was just caught up in the whole thing.
And then perhaps most poignant for me was being on a bus in Haifa I think it was. It was a crowded bus and I was standing. I was holding onto the railing and the man next to me was doing the same and it was summer and he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. And he had a tattoo, but not the 21st century tattoos that are all the craze. He had a Nazi vintage number tattoo. Now I come from that world. So it was not the first time I had seen it, nor the second time. But it was the first time I saw it in Israel, and I found myself staring at him and asking myself, "What does it mean for this gentleman?" I'm guessing he was maybe 40, 50 years old, what does it mean for him, a survivor of the Shoah, to be living as a free citizen in a Jewish majority state with an army to defend that state and knowing that wherever it was that he was arrested, denounced, detained, deported, tortured, whether it was coming from, who knows, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Greece, who knows. There was no Israel. There was no Israel then to perhaps save him. To offer him refuge. At a time when as we discussed few if any countries were prepared to offer a haven to fleeing Jews.
And if there was a single moment, that was it. That was it. Seeing that man, staring at the number on his forearm, looking around me and realizing he, a free citizen of Israel, could never have imagined this, but there he was, and if I had to encapsulate what Israel meant, it was in that unexpected encounter. By the way, no words were exchanged. I didn't ask him anything, I didn't think it was appropriate. But words were not necessary. I mean here I am, 50 years later, talking about the story as if it were yesterday and feeling the same emotion.
So Israel for me is not just another country, Jillian. For me, Israel is both the realization of an ancient dream and prayer and yearning, and Israel is at the same time a modern realization that Jews must have self-determination, must have sovereignty on some sliver of land, and must have the ability to control our own destiny. Now this of course gets us very quickly for some into politics and conflict and I never saw it that way. I never saw it as a zero-sum game where if Israel exists, a Palestinian state could not exist. That for me was not the issue. I was never opposed to a Palestinian state as my thinking evolved as long as the state was there to live alongside Israel in peace and not as a stepping stone to replace Israel. But I feel blessed beyond words by my sort of crude arithmetic, roughly 75 generations of Jews, beginning in the year 70 in the Common Era, prayed, prayed for Israel, next year in Jerusalem and did not live to see it, and in my time on Earth, I've lived to see it.
And I feel sad for those Jews and I'm sure like all of you, I know some personally, for whom Israel has no meaning, no connection, or even worse, is a source of some embarrassment or shame. I feel badly for them. They're missing out on arguably the most exciting moment in modern Jewish history, the rebirth of the State of Israel. It's a permanent work in progress, a country that yes has its flaws and its shortcomings, which country doesn't including our own here in the United States. But what an exciting journey and I'm happy to be a small part of it.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely David, and around this time, this moment that you've described in your first visit to Israel, I know you were on college campus at the University of Pennsylvania. So I wanted to ask you, what was your Jewish experience like on campus at that time, and I also know you went abroad for graduate school, to the London School of Economics. So also was it different in the UK? Was it different abroad as opposed to your experience on campus in the U.S.?
DAVID HARRIS: So yes. I went to Penn. It had a fairly large Jewish population. By the way, in those days, you had to think twice when applying to college which colleges were more or less open to Jewish applicants. It wasn't just about qualifications. There were some schools that I might have wanted to apply to that I've been told were really not quite that friendly, trying keep the Jewish population down and even those Jews who came tended to try and sort of hide their Jewish identity because it wasn't particularly welcome. So Penn was a very comfortable place for me. I joke that I went to Hillel twice in my five years at Penn, the first time and the last time, and that was because when I went there, it seemed to be a very comfortable place for self-identified Orthodox Jews, for Jews who wanted a kosher dining room, and I was neither Orthodox nor was I kosher and I didn't quite find the space for me at the time there. Maybe I didn't look hard enough, I know things have changed.
So I can't say that I had any particularly Jewish life on campus. Most of my friends were Jewish. If we were involved in politics it was mostly around the Vietnam War or the civil rights struggle or local campus issues. I was always very proud, it's again the same story. A number of people in those years Jillian, a number of Jews in those years, had self-doubts. This was a time when a number of Jews began looking for other religions, other belief systems, other communities, other sources of spirituality, and in my case, none of the above. I was perfectly happy being Jewish, I was proud to be Jewish. Like some I was acutely conscious of who in the world was and was not Jewish or who did I want to ask were you Jewish or not, but that was about it.
But then later in my years at Penn, I was asked to be one of four undergraduate students, joined by a graduate student, who would serve on the search committee for the next president of the University of Pennsylvania. If I recall there were seven trustees, six faculty members, and five students, the first time they had ever asked students to participate and I was one of those five. And we went through about 18 months of deliberations. I mean this is a big job, a serious university, and then we came to our consensus conclusion, and the gentleman's name was Martin Meyerson, and at the time, he was the president of SUNY Buffalo. And lo and behold, a discussion ensued which again I had not seen coming. He was Jewish. No president of the University of Pennsylvania since its founding by Benjamin Franklin in 1740 had ever been Jewish. In fact, I was told that no president of any Ivy League university, going back to King's College Columbia, had ever been Jewish until that time.
So the fact that Martin Meyerson was Jewish became very material to the discussion. In the end, to the credit of the university, it went forward. Martin Meyerson came, fine president, and more or less at the same time, Dartmouth College, which traditionally was not known as quite as friendly towards Jews as say Penn, chose John Kemeny, who if I remember was a Hungarian-born mathematician, also Jewish. And suddenly, the floodgates opened in the Ivy League, from zero for 300 years, to two within the span of months, and now I think no one gives a second thought because it's become so normalized thankfully in the Ivy League and elsewhere.
Then as you say I went to the London School of Economics. I joke because again I found many Jews there that became my friends and we euphemistically called it the London Shul of Economics. But even so, the atmosphere was different. At Penn, I don't recall any political issues regarding Israel at the time. Things like BDS were unheard of, totally. Protests unheard of. Then we get to LSE, a little different. More politicized, more divided. By the way, that continued to evolve after I left to the point where some of you may have seen that the current Israeli ambassador to the UK, Tzipi Hotovely, was giving a speech at LSE I think just a couple months ago, and she was chased out of the school and harassed in front of the school, police and security guards had to sort of get her into a car and get her away. The university and others subsequently apologized to her, but I just had a little bit of a foretaste of it, Jillian. I don't want to say it was the same, but you could begin to feel that LSE was a more politicized and I would say in some respects radicalized campus then than Penn was in those years.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Right, and we've seen that time and time again, where trends that start in Europe make its way over to the States. That's just one example. David, I've also heard you talk about a series of events after graduation, after college, that changed your career aspirations from American or UN diplomacy to Jewish diplomatic work, which you are now in. So can you talk to us a little bit about that shift and the specific event at that time that led to this change?
DAVID HARRIS: As I look back on it now, again, I didn't fully understand it while I was living through it. But I think for me, the years say 1971 to 1974 or 1975 were absolutely critical in pivoting me away from what I had thought would be my ambition to be an American diplomat, I very modestly thought of myself one day as the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, or an international civil servant, a diplomat working for a United Nations specialized agency or for the International Committee on Migration. I mean that was the space I saw, that was the space I probed. I had a few interviews. In the case of the U.S. State Department, I came to realize that maybe I'll get to this later. I was too politically independent to work for any U.S. government, any U.S. administration. I visited the State Department to meet some lower level people that agreed to see me, and I saw the pictures on the wall of the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States and I wasn't sure that I wanted to work in an office environment where I had to put up with pictures and perhaps every four or eight years had to change the pictures.
Again, I wanted to be my own person. I loved America, I wanted to help America, but I couldn't see myself in this role. And I also vividly remember one informal interview with the U.N. specialized agency that I was interested in and again, this goes back to the early 1970s, where the person was kind enough to take time to meet me, but after we spoke for perhaps an hour, he said to me, "Look David, let me be honest with you. Because no one else will be honest with you. You've got three or four strikes against you. So it's not even worth trying. You're an American, you're Jewish, you're male, and you're white. And some combination of those four factors will probably derail your application process.” At a higher level governments can push through their favorite candidates, but at entry level, in the early 70s, these factors were very important. In UN politics and assignments of jobs it was all about numbers and country origin and all the rest.
So what happened to me along the way? Well in 1971 or thereabouts, I began to become aware of what was known as the Soviet Jewry movement. Now again, my own family, my mother was born in Moscow. My mother and her parents next door spoke Russian. I spoke Russian. I had learned Russian at home, I spent four years studying Russian in high school, I studied Russian in college. And it resonated. That this was essentially my family I thought, but a generation or two later. And I heard the words, otpusti narod moy in Russian, shlach et ami in Hebrew, let my people go. And again, I found that it touched me, and I felt I needed to respond. I had often thought about the kind of useless question, what would I have done if I were a 16 or 18-year-old and were living through the Holocaust? What would I have done? Would I have gone quietly, passively? Would I have fought? Would I have had the courage? Would I have survived in the woods as a partisan? What would I have done? But of course, ultimately would never know the answer.
What I discovered in the Soviet Jewry movement was that that was for me the test of my generation. Not what I think I might have done if I were born in Krakow, Poland, and the Nazis occupied my country. But here we were, 1971, let my people go was the cry from Moscow and from Leningrad and from Kiev and from Tashkent and from Tblisi and from Baku and from Chernivtsi and from Talinn and from Riga. And somehow, I thought they were also talking to me.
In 1972, the next year, I watched the Summer Olympics. I was a big sports fan, I mentioned it in relation to Germany. I had these fantasies of being an Olympic athlete and walking into the stadium in the opening program, proudly following the American flag. But of course, that was only in my own mind, and then I saw on the one hand the great pride in Mark Spitz, who won a number of gold medals as a swimmer. On the other hand, the 11 Israelis, the athletes and coaches, who were murdered. And there too, there was a big moment. They were murdered. That was tragic enough, but what happened next was no less tragic. For many in the world, it was an inconvenience to the grandeur of the Olympic games, and this kind of ... this fanciful notion of the world stops its politics for two or three weeks and comes together in sisterhood and brotherhood to celebrate sports. Baloney. And the reaction of the International Olympic Committee was in my mind nothing short of shameful.
The fact that there was this indifference to the plight of 11 murdered Israelis and all the more so on German soil just clung to me and the same year I joined an international organization, but an NGO, not a UN or a U.S. The organization was called AFS, the American Field Service. It's a great organization. It focused on intercultural programs, on introducing children from around the world to other cultures, other families, other school systems at the senior high school level, and it was great, except for one thing. I discovered in my two years there that Israel was not part of the program. Dozens of other countries were, including several Arab countries, good, great. And this became my first Jewish advocacy initiative.
On my own, as a newbie, the bottom of the ladder, I just sort of gently began asking questions. Why is Israel not part of the program? Shouldn't it be? All the more so, here in New York, for me the most Jewish of Jewish cities outside of Israel, how could this be? And I began to hear stories which frankly to me sounded like a runaround. "Make this guy David Harris go away with these bothersome questions about why Israel is not part of the program." And in my two years there, I was not successful in getting Israel to be part of the program. Later on I heard it did become part of the program, but it was my belief that Israel fell victim to the Arab boycott. That basically Arab countries were saying then in 1972, "You want our participation? Israel cannot be part of it. So it's either Israel or it's us, but it's not going to be both." Again, it's a far cry from 50 years later, where countries like Jordan and Morocco are at peace with Israel, then 50 years ago, they were part of the AFS program, Israel was not.
In 1973, I was at synagogue with my mother, again the twice a year at synagogue, at B’nai Jeshurun on the West Side of Manhattan, and all of a sudden, during the prayers, there was this murmur. And then the rabbi, I believe it was rabbi ... The legendary Israel Goldstein, or perhaps it was William Berkowitz, went to the bima and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Israel has just been attacked by Egyptian and Syrian forces on the holiest day of the Jewish year, on Yom Kippur." And again, I found that more than I might have expected, this just penetrated me from head to toe. I found myself shortly afterwards picking up the phone and calling the Israeli consulate. I didn't know anyone, I didn't know who to speak to, what to say, and I simply said, "You need a volunteer." And here I have to take some credit for Israel's victory in the Yom Kippur War, which was as many know a protracted war and a war in which Israel lost too many foreign soldiers.
And the reason I can take some credit is because the Israeli government rejected me. I can only shudder to think had they accepted me and I had gone to Israel with my very limited military and other skills exactly what I would have done. But here, I had a lifetime lesson in Jewish advocacy. So my first foray was at AFS and trying to get Israel off the boycott list. But that was me. Here in '73, I asked myself if I can't go to Israel, and by the way, the actual reason they rejected me, I learned later, was because I was the only child. Israel had a rule that only surviving sons would be treated differently. I was both the only surviving son and the only son. But if not, what could I do? In '73, the fear was that Israel might not survive. It was a far cry from six years earlier, of the miraculous redemptive victory of the Six Day War. And I realized again, who was I? I was just a lowly staff member of the American Field Service. But all eyes turned to Richard Nixon, the president of the United States. Why? Because Israel could not have anticipated such a long, protracted war, and in order to wage that war, Israel needed additional weapon systems and spare parts and who would make that decision, and the one country in the world that would actually consider responding to the Israeli request? The United States.
Well, it was none other than Richard Nixon. The same Richard Nixon that was reviled and despised by so many, especially young people, on campuses and elsewhere. The same Richard Nixon who had been involved with Watergate, and the same Richard Nixon that came from a party that very few people, very few Jews at the time, supported, the Republican Party. So here for me was a great dilemma. Again, I'm speaking at very street level of, "Gee, if we can't reach Richard Nixon in order to help persuade him to make the right decision and provide those needed weapons, then what happens to the State of Israel?" And that may be the moment when I became a nonpartisan. Again, it was not a declaration. There was no Twitter in any case to announce it, but that's when I began to understand, "Wait a second. Whatever my personal politics might be in an American context, if the fate of Israel hangs in the balance and the decision from the United States depends on the person sitting in the Oval Office, whether or not I voted for him or her, I've got to figure out a way to lead my own life such that there could be a pathway to the Oval Office and a pathway to the powers that be in the U.S. Congress, both houses, both sides of the aisle. Otherwise, what?"
And then subsequently I learned, same for Soviet Jewry. As the movement built momentum and the U.S. role in responding to the cries from the USSR was essential, would the U.S. respond? Would the president of the day respond? Would the leaders of Congress respond? Irrespective of their party. For me, these issues were so overpowering. The future of Israel. The liberation of Jews from the Soviet Union, that I wanted to figure out what role could I play over time, and for myself, I realized that if I really wanted to play a role and be serious about it, then I had to find a nonpartisan way of doing it that would allow me access and entry and credibility, if you will.
In 1974, at the end of my two years at AFS, I was invited to go to the Soviet Union of all places. I was one of six Americans. I spoke Russian and they invited me to go and teach in the Soviet Union, in a U.S.-Soviet exchange program that was one of the early fruits of what was called détente, an effort by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader, to kind of calm things down in the Cold War. So I was one of the six. I went first to Moscow, I taught in School #45. Later I went to Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and taught in School #185. And there, there, in the Soviet Union, in the middle of the Cold War, there I started going to the synagogue. What I didn't do in New York. Though there was a synagogue on every street corner on the west side I began to do in Moscow where there was one synagogue on Arkhipova Street. And I began going every Saturday morning. Frankly more outside than inside because that's where Jews gathered, and I wanted to be with them.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: And David I know, a future session we're going to focus on the Soviet Jewry movement which is such an important case study for Jewish advocacy, and I know we have to switch to viewer questions soon, so one more for you because you mentioned nonpartisanship and centrism, which has really been a highlight and a focus of your career. You mentioned the context at the time and why you decided to become nonpartisan. Was it at all difficult and what were some other factors that contributed to that?
DAVID HARRIS: Right. So putting this all together now Jillian, I did become a nonpartisan and I have remained a nonpartisan. To the point where my late and beloved mother Nellie, until she died three years ago, begged me to tell her who I voted for in various elections or to advise her or guide her, and I wouldn't. Because I felt it was so important to my work in advocacy at AJC, to my credibility, to the organization's credibility, to be above partisan and electoral politics and that's the way I've been. So I've tried to understand why. Well I offered one explanation, the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But I realized that it didn't come out of the blue there either. First, my family is a very unusual family. In the case of my parents alone, they were confronted both by communism and by fascism. So I had an innate, inbred hatred, fear, and suspicion of both extremes. Both extremes, not one, both, and that kind of positioned me in between. Then I saw for example even during my campus days, and I was part of the anti-war movement but a small cog in the wheel and very moderate, and I saw people like Jane Fonda going to North Korea and I saw some of the activists burning the American flag. And to me this was as repugnant as the idea of the war was.
So I found myself once again between, betwixt and between. I was not a supporter of the war, I wasn't a gung-ho advocate for the war. On the other hand, I wasn't prepared to laud the North Korean Communist Party, and I wasn't prepared to stomp on the American flag heaven forbid. So once again, I found myself in between. Thirdly, going back to high school, and if I could wave a magic wand, every American high school would have debating, not as an extracurricular activity alongside soccer or glee club, but as a required part of the curriculum. I was an active, energetic debater for years, and in debating as some will know, you're assigned both a topic and a side. So I had to learn, in the course of my career as a debater, there could be more than one legitimate, rational, reasonable way of looking at things. And even if you disagreed fundamentally at the end of the day with the other side, you could see that there were arguments that could be for many compelling, and I often had to make those arguments if I was assigned the negative as opposed to the affirmative.
So I began to see there was more than one way of looking at things and finally, in my own Upper West Side, coming full circle, we did not live in the doormanned fancy buildings of Central Park West and West End Avenue and Riverside Drive and 72nd Street and 79th Street and 86th Street. We lived on a very dangerous block, and without a doorman. And the issue of crime was real, and much as we were all liberal in our outlook on social policy, on lots of things, as a child, the number of times that I was afraid, afraid to come home at night, afraid to enter the hallway, afraid of who might be lurking in the elevator and attack me or mug my mother, again put me in a centrist position because it seemed to me all those people in the luxury buildings with safety were all focused much more on the criminal than the victim. Of course I'm generalizing, I understand that. But then again, I realize, "Wait a second. There's something wrong here."
So what I'm saying to you Jillian is in a variety of ways, I realize that I'm neither here nor here. Sometimes I may be here, sometimes I may be here, but the most important thing is not to become a political robot. Not to put on an ideological uniform and then salute the doctrine of that uniform, and again, I know I'll return to it, but what attracted me over time to AJC was my belief that this organization was not putting on an ideological uniform and was not saluting a dogma or doctrine. I wanted to find a home, once I determined in those early, those decisive years of the 70s which we just spoke about, and my realization after my Soviet experience that I wanted to pursue Jewish advocacy.
I needed a home which did not have pictures on the wall, it had an independence of spirit and character, a non-partisan approach that said at the end of the day, we're here not to advance a particular party, we're here to advance the well-being of the Jewish people, we're here to protect Jews in danger, we're here to support the U.S.'s relation, we're here to stand shoulder to shoulder with the State of Israel, and as a result, those will be our starting points intellectually, and not what does the Republican Party tell me should be my view or what does the Democratic Party tell me should be my view or what do liberals or conservatives think needs to be the ideology of the day. So that's how it all began.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Those are some great lessons learned then that can absolutely be applied to the situation today, and I know we're heading towards the end of the hour, so Daniel, maybe we can include some questions from the audience, a quick lightning round.
DANIEL SILVER: David, in the minute we have remaining, I'll bundle these two questions together, because there are actually several people that have similar questions. So the first question from Samuel Myers in Milwaukee, "Hindsight is always 20/20. Looking back on your 30+ year history at AJC, what advice would you give your younger self at the beginning of your journey?" And then from Tal Schneidman in Tel Aviv, "You spoke movingly about what motivated you to get involved at AJC and Israel advocacy. 30+ years later, what continues to motivate you?"
DAVID HARRIS: Well first of all, allow me not only to thank the questioners, but also to correct them. I joined AJC in 1979. I actually joined the Jewish world in 1975 after my experience in the Soviet Union. So my Jewish advocacy journey is now 47 years long and my AJC journey is now in its 43rd year, 30 of which ... Actually 31+ now as CEO. My advice, all I can say is I often asked myself along the way, beginning at an early stage, what's the purpose of life? Or what's the meaning of life, these big towering questions. And I came to understand that the purpose of life is a life of purpose. So I would urge younger people who are thinking about their future, find your inner passion. In my case I've tried to describe to you how my inner passion emerged and evolved. I hope that there will be some other young people on this call for whom this may resonate, but in order to create a life of meaning, a life of purpose, find your inner passion. Don't be strictly transactional about it. And once you find that inner passion, go for it. Don't be deterred.
Unfortunately we live in a world today with a very short attention span and a desire for instant gratification. I view the Jewish journey as a relay race. For me it's now been 47 years and a journey that began nearly 4,000 years ago. So I'm roughly just over 1% of that journey. The Pfizer vaccine has not yet been found to protect the Jews, to protect Israel, to fight anti-Semitism, so the journey goes on, and here is the baton, and I'm more than happy to pass it to the younger people on this call. It's a journey that is well worth pursuing and a journey that will provide both meaning and purpose for you I hope as it has for me.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: David, as always, thank you so much for your willingness to share this personal Jewish journey and in such an inspiring way. To our viewers, if you enjoyed this session, there's more where this came from where we dive deeper into some of the topics that David mentioned today. So Daniel, I'd like to turn it back to you.
DAVID HARRIS: But remember Jillian, the baton is going to you as well.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: I gladly accept.
DANIEL SILVER: Thank you David and Jillian. Thank you to our global audience for joining us. And as David just said, for those of you share this passion for Israel and Jewish advocacy, I'd encourage you to visit AJC.org to learn more about ways to get involved and please mark your calendars for Thursday, February 17, for part two of this six-part series, where David will talk about what sets AJC apart from other Jewish organizations and how AJC has evolved since he joined its ranks. You won't want to miss it. Thank you again everyone and goodbye.