June 19, 2020
Warning that the United States has not been this polarized or despondent since the Vietnam War and Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 70s, AJC CEO David Harris said democracy must be defended if we expect it to last.
“Democracy is the glue that holds the civilized, sane world together,” Harris said in his closing remarks at the end of the first-ever AJC Virtual Global Forum. “Democracy is not as solid and stable as people might think. It needs to be vigorously defended each and every day.”
As the U.S. reckons with its long legacy of racial injustice, Harris also announced that AJC will expand its efforts to combat racism by opening offices in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, in memory of George Floyd, and another in Louisville, Kentucky, in memory of Breonna Taylor. The deaths of Floyd and Taylor, both killed by police in recent months, have renewed calls for racial justice across the country.
“We want to be part of the solution,” Harris said. “We want to restore the promise of America for all.”
Over the last five days, AJC hosted world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, along with representatives of both major U.S. political parties, at its first-ever AJC Virtual Global Forum. Participants watched debates about the 2020 Election, the future of the West Bank and limitations on free speech. AJC also welcomed leading Arab voices – guests once considered inconceivable for a Jewish organization.
But for decades, AJC has indeed conceived and deliberately pursued unlikely partnerships around the world – a mission that has required patience, persistence, and a fierce independence that stands out in today’s polarized political landscape.
Harris said AJC strives to be “an organization which has the reach and the access to decision makers not because we necessarily like or endorse them, but because they affect our world and our interests.”
“We try to look around corners and try to look ahead,” he said. “We have the resilience and sustained attention to say no matter how long it takes or what it takes we’re there. If it takes decades, we’re there. If it takes new thinking like the opening of offices in the Twin Cities and Louisville … we’re going to be there.”
More than 8,000 people registered to attend AJC’s signature annual event this year. Originally scheduled to take place in Berlin, Germany, the venue was changed to an online experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harris called on all attendees to seize the opportunity and use AJC as a vehicle to make a difference on a range of advocacy issues central to democratic values.
“Our focus is how can we help the compelling issues in America today,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, whatever our camps may be, we are all Americans and we all have a stake in trying to ensure that this country moves forward … acknowledge the mistakes along the way and remedy the shortcomings. We’ve seen once again in recent weeks and months, as much as we’ve accomplished, we still have a long way to go. For us, this is the frontier.”
At last year’s AJC Global Forum in Washington, D.C., AJC unveiled the Congressional Caucus for Black Jewish Relations and the Community of Conscience, an effort to galvanize Americans around the core values of democracy. Harris said people shouldn’t confuse nonpartisanship with an absence of values. On the contrary, he said, AJC upholds the values of liberal democracy: the rule of law, human dignity and pluralism.
“We stand for common values,” he said, “and we’re prepared to act on them.”
The other frontier is Muslim-Jewish relations, which Harris has proclaimed is AJC’s interfaith priority. AJC’s friendship with Dr. Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, Secretary General of the Muslim World League and chairman of the Centre for Responsible Leadership, who addressed the opening plenary of the AJC Virtual Global Forum, is just the start.
“We must make the 21st century a century of writing a new history in the ties between the Muslim and the Jewish worlds,” Harris said.
But strengthening democracy must become the overarching mission, Harris said.
“I believe in democracy because I know what the deprivation of democracy means,” said Harris, who was twice detained by Soviet authorities and expelled from the Soviet Union on one occasion. “If you think of the sweep of history, liberal democracy is a blip on the screen.”
But to really make a difference and fortify democracy, Americans need a way to effectively channel their concerns to the change makers and that’s what AJC provides.
“Those of us who care need a platform,” Harris said, “to engage the world, to present our best selves, our best case, our best arguments in order to defend democracy, ensure Israel’s rightful place in the world and oppose any manifestation of antisemitism and racism that scars the promise of democracy and human equality for all.”