April 19, 2022
David Harris has revolutionized what it means to be an advocate for world Jewry. Under David’s visionary leadership, AJC has become the most influential and transformational force advancing Jewish interests throughout the world. Join us to hear first-hand the highlights and lessons learned from David's decades-long experience of global Jewish advocacy.
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.
CLAIRE BAILEY: Good day, ladies and gentlemen, our program will begin in just a moment. Good day, ladies and gentlemen, our program will begin in just a moment. Good day. 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. Today, we're delighted to bring you the fourth program in AJC's six-part series titled, "A Life in the Trenches: An Oral History with AJC's CEO, David Harris." Today, David, in conversation with AJC Chief of Staff to the CEO, Jillian Laskowitz, will share highlights and lessons learned from a lifetime of Jewish activism. A passionate Jewish advocate, David has led AJC since 1990 and has been referred to by the late Israeli president Shimon Peres as the foreign minister of the Jewish people. He's 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 can email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions is plural, or you can use the Q & A feature in Zoom. And now Jillian, the floor is yours.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you, Claire. And hello, and welcome back to our global audience. David, as Claire mentioned, we are discussing highlights and lessons learned of your over four decades, long career in Jewish advocacy. It's going to be difficult to fit all of this into one hour, but let's start at the beginning, so in 1990. I've heard you discuss that between August 1990 and March 1991, I believe, this coincided with the Gulf crisis when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and also coincided with you becoming CEO of AJC. I believe you led four separate trips to the region, including in the middle of these missiles. In doing so, you sort of set this new tone for AJC, right from the start. Let's start, why did you make that decision at the time?
DAVID HARRIS: First of all, hello, everyone. And Jillian, thank you for leading the conversation again. My advocacy of course began in 1975, so even 15 years earlier, but we're talking about the AJC CEO piece of the story, which began as you said, in 1990. And my start more or less coincided with Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the who took over Kuwait in August of 1990, and then began to threaten Israel, ultimately leading to missile attacks from Iraq to Israel in January of 1991. And I felt right from the get-go in my tenure, it was important to make clear my priorities and centrally that was Israel.
So yes, we went in August of 1990 to understand what the implications of Saddam Hussein's move were for Israel. We went back in, I believe it was December, as things heated up. In January, we were on the first plane to Israel after the first Scud missile struck. And I would say that we were three from AJC, Sholom Comay was then the president at a moment's notice he dropped everything and joined. Al Moses was Chair of the Board of Governors. He joined as well at a moment's notice. The three of us went. We were on an empty plane other than the late comedian, Jackie Mason, who also wanted to go in order to do whatever he could to sort of strengthen morale as the Scud missiles began falling. And then in March, as the war ended, we had a very large group of 130, 140 people from AJC who went in order to show their solidarity with Israel as Israel rebuilt and recovered from the war. So from the get-go, Israel was at the center of our universe.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely. And David, I know another highlight for you and your career at AJC is the Belzec Memorial in Poland, the Holocaust Memorial. I know AJC and you, yourself, had a key role in establishing this. Can you tell us a bit more about this story?
DAVID HARRIS: Sure. Many may not know the name, Belzec, B-E-L-Z-E-C and are surprised when they hear it for the first time and learn that roughly 500,000 Jews were exterminated at this one Nazi death camp located in Southeastern Poland. Miles Lerman was for many years, the chair of the U.S. Holocaust Museum. He, himself, was from Poland and he lost much of his family in Belzec. And for years he had wanted to memorialize the site. The site was largely left untended, and he felt this needed to be corrected. And after Poland regained its democracy in 1989, he saw the chance. To make a very long story short, the Holocaust Museum initially wanted to engage this project and then changed its mind. And so, Miles Lerman came to me, and he said, "David, AJC has developed a very special relationship with Poland (which was true in the 1990s), would you consider taking on this project and I will help you?" And it was really in a way beyond our capabilities, but nonetheless, who could say no to this? And so, we said we would do it.
So, Miles Lerman joined with AJC in what became a multiyear, very complex project to try and memorialize this site. I want to give a special shout out to an AJC colleague, Rabbi Andrew Baker, who took on the day-to-day challenge of dealing with the architects, the Polish government, other Jewish groups, those particularly concerned about the care for the deceased. And at the end of the day, we had for me, one of the most powerful and memorable days of my entire life, which was the opening of this site. In fact, I'll be going back there again in a few days with some AJC leaders to revisit the site, which is visited now by thousands and thousands of Polish and other visitors each year.
But again, 500,000 Jews exterminated within less than one year, followed by an attempt by the Germans to hide all traces of the tragedy. There were exactly two survivors of Belzec, two, one of whom was killed in a pogrom in Poland after the war upon returning home, and the other later committed suicide, perhaps unable to live with what had been experienced, but it's a site well worth seeing and I hope more people on this call and elsewhere will find time when they visit Europe to seek out Belzec and see the remarkable site, including a museum that AJC helped construct.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely. And David, you've also discussed the opening of our Berlin office as one of the highlights for you. I guess part one of the question is, can you talk a little bit about that? Part two, I know another enduring AJC success was persuading the German government to add a permanent museum to the center of Berlin. That museum was not originally part of the plan from what I understand, so how did you and AJC accomplish this as well?
DAVID HARRIS: Let me take the second one first, and apologies to the audience. But when you've worked as long as I have in the Jewish world, and especially on this AJC platform, there are lots of highlights. And I hope we'll get to some more along the way. When the German government announced this dramatic decision to set aside an entire square block in the center of Berlin across the street from the Tiergarten, which is the central park, if you will, of Berlin and very close to the Brandenburg Gate, it just doesn't get more central than that. There was a competition and some of the people on this call will have seen what resulted, an entire block dedicated to a, I would say, a fairly an abstract interpretation of Holocaust memory.
I will admit that it doesn't really speak to me personally, but when we saw the plans and they were already decided upon, the piece that was really missing for us was how do you turn the abstract into something much more concrete and real, especially if you think ahead years and even decades to those who may not understand at first glance, what this is all about, this sort of missing space in the center of Berlin representing the loss of Jewish life in Germany as a result of the Shoah.
So, we pressed our friends in the German government and many of you know, AJC has long had a very special relationship with Germany, uniquely positioned after the Second World War to engage with the new Germany. And we made this point very respectfully. We're not here to comment on the design you accepted, although again, not my taste. So what, but what's missing is a museum, something informational. And at the end of the day to the credit of the German government, they agreed. And for those who visit the site, and I hope many will, you'll see in the far corner, the farthest point from the Tiergarten, you'll see a museum that goes underground that tells a story, and I dare say that museum would not be there, Jillian, these last two decades and more, were it not for AJC's intervention and advocacy.
As for opening the office in Berlin, which was another big milestone for AJC and actually for Germany, it was the first such office of its kind, opened by an American Jewish group in postwar Germany. Here the initial credit goes to a wonderful long time AJC leader named David Squire from Austin, who called me one day, many years ago, and out of the blue said to me, "David, how are you doing? What do you think of about opening an office in Berlin?" And I kind of had this out of body experience where I heard myself say, absolutely, of course, love to. And then hung up and said to myself, "well, what did I just agree to?" No proper consultation, no real knowledge of what's going on.
But the story is an interesting story of a very prominent Jewish family in Berlin that was given back the land that had been stolen for of it by the Nazis. And they had no particular use for the land after the fall of the Berlin wall. So, they sold it to a Berlin developer who wanted to build an office building on what was once upon a time, Leipziger Platz, again, very much in the center of Berlin, right adjacent to Potsdamer Platz, which is the geographic center Berlin. And the family sold it to the developer with a couple of conditions. One condition was their name would be on the building. The second condition was that the building would have a living Jewish presence. And the third was that their nephew who himself was an architect in Boston, would be involved in the design of the building.
So, the developer accepted those conditions. And when it came to the living Jewish presence, the family, some of you will know the name Moser, George Moser was a famous professor at the University of Wisconsin on the history of fascism. The Moser family knew AJC's work in Germany, approached David Squire, who was their friend and said, "David, do you think AJC would want to do this?" And David said, "Let me check with David Harris." And that's how it all unfolded. So, we AJC, became the first tenants, if you will, free of charge, in the first building built in unified Berlin on the Leipziger Platz, which today is now filled with new buildings. It's an octagon. Our next door neighbor, as I recall, is the Canadian embassy. It's very well positioned. And ever since 1998, we have occupied that building as the first Jewish organization outside Germany to open a full-time office like this in Berlin.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you, David. It's really an incredible story of how the Berlin office came about. Staying in Europe-
DAVID HARRIS: By the way, and a shout out if I may to my longtime AJC colleague, Eugene DuBow, who became our first botschafter, the German word for ambassador, although without the diplomatic community, I'm sorry to say, but became our first AJC director in Berlin and really got a concept off and running with a full program and exchange of programs. And ultimately of course, it led to our idea in 2020, and I know we'll come to it Jillian, to have a Global Forum in Berlin, but I don't want to get ahead of ourselves.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Okay, we'll get there. So, staying in Europe, let's discuss some of our other European offices and those openings, because I know those are specific highlights of your career as well. Let's discuss the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels and how that office came about
DAVID HARRIS: In 2003, as a result of tensions between parts of Europe and the United States, especially over the Iraq war, we asked ourselves at AJC, if we're transatlanticist and we are, and we believe in the importance of the unity of Europe and the United States and addressing global issues and sharing global values. What's our role here? Is it simply to watch from the sidelines as these debates unfold between the so-called old Europe, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld in the United States, or can we do something? And so, the idea emerged that we actually create a transatlantic Institute in Brussels, and there was no such transatlantic Institute in Brussels. Brussels being Europe's capital, that is the center of the European union, the home of NATO.
And so, on one AJC occasion, I was asked to share my wishlist with AJC members of the Board of Governors and other AJC leaders. And I included the vision of a Transatlantic Institute. And a wonderful couple from Washington DC, the late Rhoda and Jordan Baruch, the parents of one of our executive council members, Bobi Baruch came up to me after that session. And they said, "David, we heard this idea about a Transatlantic Institute, are you for real?" And I was pleasantly caught off guard and I said, "Absolutely for real." And they said, "Okay, we will make it happen. And we will guarantee the first six years of its existence, just for starters." And that led Jason Isaacson and myself to very quickly travel to Brussels, to explore exactly how to open the office, where to open the office.
And soon enough during within a year, the office was open. We had a gala event in Brussels. It became the hottest ticket in Brussels that evening. We had an amazing lineup of speakers. My goodness, we had the Spanish Foreign Minister, the Belgian Foreign Minister, the EU Foreign Minister, Javier Solana. We had the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Nick Burns, who's just become the U.S. Ambassador to China. We of course had the Israeli ambassador. We had a whole host of people wanting to speak and wanting to be associated with the idea. And other than the fact that it was boiling hot because the air conditioning system broke down in the hotel, otherwise it was a fantastic evening and it launched this again, unique AJC initiative, the Transatlantic Institute, which today is so skillfully led by Daniel Schwammenthal and is an essential pillar of the work we do in Europe and globally.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you. And David, one of our newest offices is AJC Central Europe, which is based in Warsaw and covers seven countries. You are a veteran in dealing with Poland specifically, which I'd like to discuss later in the conversation, but what was the reasoning? Why did we open an office in Warsaw?
DAVID HARRIS: Because to me it was a missing part of our architecture. Europe is critical. The transatlantic relationship is vital to our understanding of the world. And these were all countries. And we identified seven, Jillian, the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and the four so-called Visegrád states, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia. These are all countries that have very intense Jewish histories, very complicated Jewish histories, but histories that continue to play out to this day. And Poland is a prime example where we continue to engage sometimes to argue, to debate, but it's ongoing. These are also seven countries that have developed post communism, very good relations with United States. They're all members of NATO. By the way, AJC played a part in their accession to NATO, by advocating for it energetically. They're all close to Israel in their post-communist era.
There's an awful lot going on, but it was that missing piece. And we had to decide where should it be located amongst these seven countries? And the logical place for me at least was Poland. Prague is probably the friendliest city in many respects, but Poland is the key city. It's not just the geographic center, it's the largest of the seven countries, and the layers of complexity are so many that we felt this was exactly the right place to be. So, we located the office in Warsaw.
And once again, as with the Transatlantic Institute, some wonderful lay people stepped up and said, we believe in this vision, we believe in the dream. They began with John Shapiro and his wife, Shoni Silverberg, and they were joined by Harriett Schleifer, Gail Binderman, and Steve Zelkowitz, and they helped make that possible. And now, in literally just a few days, many of us will be going back to Warsaw to mark the fifth anniversary of that office, which we opened in 2017 at the magnificent Polin Museum, which is the museum of the history of Jews in Poland, and a must visit for anyone who goes to Poland, so that celebration is just around the corner.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you for that context, David. Another unique piece of AJC's architecture is our Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs, otherwise known as BILLA. This flourished under your leadership. What was your vision for BILLA and what are some of the highlights?
DAVID HARRIS: Well, maybe I should step back for just a moment, Jillian, to talk about the fact that when I took this job in 1990, I was invited to create a new vision for AJC. The 1980s had not been kind to the organization, a series of self-inflicted wounds. And that gave me much more, if you will, running room and latitude to ask, what should the next chapter in AJC's story life look like? And for me, it will as global Jewish advocacy. It came about in large measure because of the dramatic events of 1989, 1990, 1991, when the Soviet Empire began to unravel and ultimately the Soviet Union itself came apart, and you had 15 successor states to the Soviet Union. And you had that string of east European nations that had sometimes been called satellite states that were now free and charting their own post-communist path.
I saw lots and lots of opportunities strategically for the Jewish world, and that led to a broader vision of, okay, so that's the European piece. We already had beginning of the late 1980s, an Asia Pacific Institute, which began then, and was first spearheaded by Bruce Ramer, an honorary national president. The missing pieces for us were going to be Africa and Latin America. And in the case of Latin America, we were able to hire a real dynamo. We called her a force of nature, Dina Siegel Vann, Mexican born, who herself shared the vision of an institute that would focus on Latin America, on its Jewish communities, on the relations between those communities and countries in both Israel and the United States.
And as one other essential piece, relations between Latinos and Jews here in the United States. So it's a very complex chess board. And from that emerged BILLA, the B is for Belfer, for Robert Belfer and his family who made it possible. And we just had the most recent strategic form of BILLA in Panama, brought together all the Jewish community, many of the ambassadors and others. And the final piece of this architecturally was Africa. And here Marion and Stan Bergman of New York and originally of South Africa came along to us and said, "We believe in Africa, we believe in its potential, both to engage the United States and Israel, and we want to help make it possible."
So, as we speak today, AJC, I think we can say has a unique architecture of a full-time staffed Africa Institute, a Latino and Latin American Institute, Transatlantic Institute with seven offices and posts across Europe, an Asia Pacific Institute with personnel on the ground in three countries in the region as well, as well as a string of partnerships. So, the goal was, and I think has been largely achieved, to create a global architecture to match the global vision.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely. And David, can you talk to us a bit about AJC's merger with Project Interchange, which as the audience might know, these are our trips taking global leaders to Israel. I'm not sure everyone knows the backstory.
DAVID HARRIS: There was a very farsighted dynamic woman named Debra Berger who lived in Washington DC. I had the pleasure of knowing her beginning in the 1980s, who together with a friend had a vision, and the vision was to try and introduce Israel on the ground to key leaders in the United States who might never have been, who might have no understanding of what Israel is, perhaps only through the media and we all know that could be a skewed or distorted vision. Her goal was to create Project Interchange as a freestanding operation that would identify and bring delegations of American leaders, non-Jews, but political leaders or religious leaders, other civic leaders to Israel, take them there for a week or 10 days, show them everything, show them soup to nuts and let them form their own opinions. Don't try and propagandize, don't try and brainwash, don't try and prevent them from meeting people who might have critical views, show them everything, in the belief that ultimately Israel will sell itself.
And she was 1000% right. And well into the 90s, the 1990s, Debra called and said, "David, I can't do this as a freelancer forever. We need to find a permanent home. And we, I, Debra Berger, my husband, Paul Berger, and our partners believe that AJC is the right home. You're very Israel focused. You have credibility. You share the outlook of Project Interchange. Would you take it over?" And that led to a very exciting merger in which Project Interchange became an integral part of AJC. And we tried to respect Debra's vision and we've expanded it. It went from a few missions a year to pre-COVID, well into 20-25 missions a year, roughly every two weeks.
The other big strategic change that we made was to add an international dimension so that Project Interchange today has over 6,000 alumni. By the way, they include notable Americans like Pete Buttigieg, Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is now the new U.S. Ambassador to India, Stacey Abrams, the Georgia politician, Gabby Giffords, the Congresswoman from Arizona, the president of Stanford University, the presidents of many other universities, many Latino African-American civic leaders, not to mention a whole slew of ambassadors, foreign ministers from other countries. And most recently, I'm most excited about the first Project Interchange trip from the Arab world that brought leaders from Morocco, Bahrain, and the UAE to Israel, not under the radar, openly and a huge success and more of that to come. Deborah Berger is no longer with us, but her legacy lives on through this extraordinary program that she began called Project Interchange, which is now AJC Project Interchange.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely more to come. And David, in 2006, I know AJC celebrated our 100th anniversary gala. I've heard you discuss this, and you've mentioned it as one of the top highlights of your career. Can you share with us a little bit about why this was so memorable?
DAVID HARRIS: Well, first of all, because it was the centenary, so that in itself was meaningful. But we did at The National Building Museum in Washington. We had nearly 3,000 people in attendance. And I think I can say we assembled in-person, perhaps the most powerful dais that any Jewish organization had ever assembled in U.S. history. We had on the stage, the President of the United States, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Chancellor of Germany. They were all there. It was a great evening, but I'll tell you just one funny side story because my mother raised me to try to be polite to people.
Toward the end of the evening, as the program came to a close, and I said goodbye to those distinguished guests, I went to the exit doors, and I tried to say goodbye to as many of our nearly 3,000 people as I could. And I'm slightly exaggerating, but half the people said to me, "lovely evening, but why did you invite George Bush? I didn't vote for him." And half the people said, "lovely evening, but why did you invite the UN Secretary-General? The UN is hopelessly antisemitic." And I'd say 100% of the people said, "thank you for inviting the German Chancellor."
Now, bearing in mind that this is a Jewish organization and that this was what, 61 years after the Second World War, the fact that Angela Merkel could unite our entire audience while the American President and the UN Secretary-General divided our audience, I think suggested what's possible, which led me to say at some point that if this is doable, then in 25 years, we may be hosting an Iranian leader who actually embraces Jews, recognizes Israel and is friendly with the United States. So stay tuned, everyone. We're not there yet. We have more years to go, but one day there could be an Iranian leader on our stage representing a new and different Iran just as we had a German leader representing a new and different Germany.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Wow. Everyone, you heard it here first. David, we talk a lot about the next generation of Jewish advocates. And AJC offers programming for high school students called our Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT) program. I wanted to ask how this came about and how it's evolved since its inception.
DAVID HARRIS: Well, this is another one of those stories, Jillian, where the credit goes outside the agency and not to the staff. We have a wonderful leader in New York named Corey Berger, who has been very actively involved with our women's leadership group. And the oldest for three children was in high school at the time. And his name was Ryan Berger. And he and his mom asked if they could come see me. And I said, sure. And in the office where I'm sitting right now, Corey prompted Ryan who's was in 10th grade and maybe a little shy, to tell his story. And he told his story very eloquently.
And what he said essentially was, "David, you guys are focused on university campuses and the challenges that Jewish and pro-Israel kids face on campuses. And I get that, you're right, but I'm here to tell you something else. The problems have trickled down to some high schools, including my own. And we have a situation in my school where we have a chairman of the social studies department, who detests Israel and will not even put any map on the wall that includes Israel. And he is teaching us. And obviously it's an asymmetrical power situation because he's also the one who gives us grades. He's also the one who will write letters of reference or not for us."
So, I said, "Corey, what do we do?" "Teach us what AJC does for a living, which is diplomacy and advocacy and empower us who are still in high school, how to deal with that kind of a situation. And of course, that will also read down to the benefit once we get to college." And again, the truth of the matter, just like with the Belzec, a memorial project in Poland, we were not equipped in our own minds to deal with high school age kids. We were focusing, as he said, largely on college age and post-college, but it was one of those things just like Miles Lerman's request for Belzec where it was impossible to say, no. It was impossible to simply send them off and say, well, it's a wonderful idea, Corey, and we'll give it some thought, but knowing already that it was going to go nowhere, he needed this. As a young Jew, he was asking for this.
And so, once again, I heard myself saying yes, and once they left, wondering oy gevalt, how do we do this? I can barely manage my own three teenage children at the time. What are we going to do with a teenage program? But we experimented. We had some great staff here, Lilli Platt, Seffi Kogen and others who joined in. And we did an experimental year, year one with Corey and a number of his friends from various high schools, about 30. They were terrific group. We learned a lot that year. By year two, we added Chicago. And by now to fast forward, we're in 12 or 13 cities across the country. We've got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of alumni who are not only in high schools, but in colleges. And in some cases, now post college. I'd love to see this expand further. I'd love to see this franchised in places where AJC doesn't have bricks and mortar, but where there may be synagogues or interested parent groups where we do this.
Our kids cannot show up unprepared or blindsided for what may be coming, hopefully not, but may be coming in their high schools or in their colleges. So, I see LFT as absolutely vital. It's not enough, but it's certainly a serious response to how to deal with the challenges that Jewish and pro-Israel kids increasingly are finding in educational settings, whether here in New York or across the country, whether in high school or in college.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Yes. And David, I know one of our other top priorities at AJC is chartering a new path for Muslim-Jewish relations, which brings us to the memorandum of understanding with the Muslim World League, which you alluded to earlier. Can you tell us more about this effort?
DAVID HARRIS: Well, I'm one who believes that the 20th century, Jillian, for AJC was to some substantial degree defined by our attempt to write a new chapter in Christian Jewish relations. And especially in Catholic Jewish relations. And there were some extraordinary people here at AJC on staff who devoted their professional lives to doing exactly that; Zach Schuster, the legendary Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, his successor, who thankfully is still writing books and articles, Rabbi Jim Rudin, all the way up to the present with Rabbi David Rosen, Rabbi Noam Marans, and their colleagues.
But in 1965, there was avertible revolution in Christian Jewish relations. It came. It was called The Second Vatican Council. It produced a document called, Nostra Aetate. And that document revolutionized the relationship between Catholics and Jews after, depending on how you count, nearly 1900 years of Catholic persecution of Jews, Catholic teaching of contempt, Catholic teaching the DSI charge and everything that unfolded there from.
So, from 1965 forward, there was the implementation of The Second Vatican Council revolution, in which AJC was again, profoundly involved across our regional offices around the world, because from the Vatican, it had to trickle down every parish across the United States, throughout Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia. But those alive today, I think would agree, there has been an extraordinary change in Christian Jewish relations. And not just the Catholic church, but the Lutheran church and others have also engaged in self-examination. And AJC was there at every stage of the way. This is one of those sort of ginormous stories that I don't think AJC tells well enough of when asked what distinguishes you as an organization and what are your serious accomplishments. This is huge. And we determined against that backdrop that the 21st century should be a century devoted to trying to help write a new chapter in Muslim Jewish relations.
There are an estimated 1.5 or 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. They are significant majority in over 50 countries and growing minorities, including here in the United States and many other nations. This is the new interreligious frontier, and we have skill, we have experience, we have patience, we have perseverance. And that led, in April of 2019, to a huge step forward globally. And that was the signing of a memorandum of understanding between AJC and the Muslim World League, which I need to point out is headquartered in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, the home of the two holy mosques, and Mecca, the holiest of the holy cities of Islam, a huge breakthrough. This followed on the footsteps of a domestic initiative, which we had launched in 2016 called the Muslim Jewish Advisory Council, which was a U.S. based effort, which then spawned a number of regional efforts feeding into the national effort. But this took it to a whole new global level.
I'm looking at the MoU on my wall, just opposite, where I'm sitting right now. The first of the provisions was that together we would travel to Auschwitz to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. And indeed, in January of 2020, a delegation of over 60 Muslim leaders from some 20 countries led by Dr. Mohammed al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and the AJC delegation traveled together, marched under the entrance with the infamous words, arbeit macht frei, spent five hours or more in Auschwitz and Birkenau. Time permitting, I can tell you some very powerful stories about the impact of that visit on all of the most participants who were seeing this for the first time, but I will simply say that one of those memories etched forever came at the very end.
We were in Birkenau, which was the killing fields of the Jews. We were near the remnants of the crematoria. It was the end of a long day. And our Muslim partners took out prayer rugs, out in the open, 20 feet, 30 feet from the remnants of the crematoria, and they offered a memorial service in memory of the 6 million who were killed.
If there are moments that sort of tell you this is all worth it, our lives can make a difference, we could see change, history can move forward, that was one of those moments. And thankfully it wasn't just us who saw it, but the New York Times, the BBC, Al Arabiya and just about every other major media outlet captured it and reported it. It's there in the history books. And it's only the beginning, Jillian, only the beginning.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely. David we've discussed some of the major public highlights and the architecture of AJC, but I'd also like to go behind the scenes and maybe ask you some questions that I would guess many on this call would like to know as well, if you'll allow me.
DAVID HARRIS: Let's see.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: You've met with countless world leaders over the past four decades. And out of all the world leaders that you've met with, who would you say is the single most interesting political leader you've ever met?
DAVID HARRIS: Wow. Well, I'll offer two. I think the most charismatic, the most impressively intelligent politician that I met has to be Bill Clinton as President. And again, those of you who know me know this is not a partisan statement, but when Bill Clinton walked into a room, there was an electricity. I remember sitting at a table with him in The White House to discuss the Iran issue. For an hour and a half, he spoke as knowledgeably as anyone I've ever met without notes, without a need to rely on staff. And he was able to weave between being this extraordinarily thoughtful, intelligent, informed person, and also having fantastic people skills, which allowed him to go back and forth and make people feel comfortable in his presence.
The other person that really stands out for me is Joschka Fischer, who for many years was the foreign minister of Germany. And the reason I mention him is mostly because of the improbable background. As I recall, Joschka Fisher never finished high school. He was essentially self-taught. And for his young years, he was a radical. If one looks him up, you'll see that through that tumultuous period of 1968, for example, he was out in the streets and he was confronting the police and he was challenging German doctrine, but he evolved, he matured into this extremely respected, very knowledgeable foreign minister. And what especially impressed me as a Jew was that Joschka Fisher who had been associated with radicals in Germany, who were hostile to Israel, turned around because of Entebbe.
Some people may forget that the terrorist assault that led to Entebbe was both Palestinian and German. And when Joschka Fisher, as he said, saw the German terrorists, creating a selection line between the Jewish and non-Jewish passengers on the plane, he realized he said that the terrorists were recreating the Nazis, even though they thought they were quite the opposite. And he became one of Israel's best friends in the world. He became close to the Jewish community. He became a great friend of AJC. And I think he's another standout. Time permitting, there are lots more, but I'll stop there.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you, David. I also want to get into some of the tougher conversations you've had while conducting AJC advocacy. I know you've mentioned your conversations with French president, Jacques Chirac, and you're also known for your diplomatic composure. I wanted to ask, have you ever lost that composure in a meeting?
DAVID HARRIS: The Jacques Chirac conversation was particularly memorable. First of all, I have to say that he was President of France, and he did something which no previous French leader had done since the war, and that was acknowledged that Vichy was France. Vichy was not some foreign body that implanted itself in France during the war and collaborated with Germany. Vichy was French. And for both my parents who had lived in France, my mother from 1929 on, and my father from 1938 on, that was a huge admission and step forward for which I had great respect.
But as antisemitism reemerged in Europe in 2000, 2001, and we've talked about that, Jillian on another call, the epicenter of that resurgence was France. So it was logical for us to go back to Paris, to meet with French leaders, to talk about the issue and how to try and stem it. And Jacques Chirac was the person we met with on several occasions, including very intimately in his office, around a coffee table, not around a formal conference table. And I still remember, I can still hear his words sort of ringing in my ear. When we said, Mr. President, there is a problem, antisemitism is returning. Jews in France are increasingly nervous. They're looking over their shoulder. They're worried. They're wondering if they have a future in France.
And I won't repeat the French words, though the French words are really stuck here, but he looked at us and he said, I'm translating, "My friends. I know France better than you. There is no antisemitism here in France." And that led to a very difficult discussion and more difficult discussions. And by the way, though they were difficult, Jillian, we came as friends, not enemies of France. We knew we needed to enlist the leadership of France if we were going to successfully together mount a strategy with the French Jewish community, with other people of Goodwill. But looking back on that one, Jacques Chirac missed it early on. I can't speculate. I don't want to be smart alecky, but maybe had he and his colleagues seen it earlier, seen what we saw, seen what French Jews saw and felt, maybe this could have been nipped in the bud earlier. Instead, here we are 21 years later, 22 years later, and grappling with a phenomenon that is very much present.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: David, I've also heard you mention your meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov. I know this was a memorable meeting for you if you'd like to share with the audience as well.
DAVID HARRIS: Yeah, but you also asked about the Austrian foreign minister in between. Did I miss that one?
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Right. I remember you speaking about the Austrian Foreign Minister, and it was a meeting where I think you've lost your composure.
DAVID HARRIS: Yeah. You asked me if I lost my composure. This is probably where I came closest. I still haven't reached a point where I've banged the table and stormed out the door and slammed the door behind me and gone to the press and cursed out a country leader. That's not me, that's not AJC. There were moments when I might have wished I did, but there was a meeting with an Austrian foreign ministry years ago. And I want to stress this was at a time when Austria was still very much, not just annoyingly neutral, but did not see its own responsibility to the state of Israel unlike Germany. Now Austria has changed and maybe we'll get to that story.
But this Foreign Minister, this is probably 20 years or so ago, Jillian, essentially constructed the conversation by saying to us, to me, "David, I've just been to Auschwitz on a visit. Now here's what I need to ask from you in return." And that formulation of an Austrian foreign minister, a few decades after the war, the same Austria that had produced Adolph Hitler and Adolf Eichmann, and many others, essentially saying to me, well, "I've now gone to Auschwitz. So in effect, I've earned political capital, and here's what I want in exchange", was so repugnant that unusually for me, Jillian, I found myself quite speechless. It took me a moment before I was able to say perhaps diplomatically, but I hope as clearly as I possibly could, if this foreign minister went to Auschwitz, it was an obligation of this foreign minister to go to Auschwitz. It was not a favor to AJC or to the Jewish world. It was a confrontation with Austria's history, which was represented in Auschwitz among the perpetrators.
You asked about Yevgeny Primakov who at the time was foreign minister. We were sitting at the Russian mission to the UN on E 67th street, across from Park East Synagogue. And we had regular meetings with the Russians throughout the 90s and the early 2000s, including Primakov. He was tough. He was an old Arabist. He had been in Russian intelligence, Soviet intelligence for many years, but there came a point in the conversation, and he was speaking in Russian. I had the advantage as a Russian speaker of hearing him in Russian and then hearing their interpreter translate into English for the benefit of the other members of our delegation, who did not speak Russian. So, I heard it twice.
I heard him refer to a terrorist attack in Latin America in 1994, which the Russians had picked up wind of in advance and passed along the information. It had not been acted on. He said, "And lo and behold, for those who recall, there were actually two terror attacks in Argentina, 1992, 1994, both involving Iran, both involving Hezbollah. In the first, 29 people killed. In the second, 85 people killed. And in both cases, to this day, fingers pointed, but no one sitting in jail.
I thought this was pretty remarkable that Primakov was telling us that they had had prior intelligence on at least one of these two terror attacks. I took this information and I shared it with our friends in Argentina who were still on and off. That's a whole other story pursuing the investigation. I shared this with our friends in Washington because American authorities were also focused on the investigation. And I shared this with our friends in Israel. Later, the investigating judge in Argentina actually summoned me as a, I don't know what the exact term was then, but as a witness and asked me to fly from New York to Buenos Aires in order to be questioned about this meeting with Primakov. I flew from New York to Buenos Aires to meet the investigating judge and his team who questioned me.
And again, there was limited information because it was this one moment of a couple minutes and then it was over, and they took it all down and then they instructed their ambassador, the Argentine ambassador to Moscow to pursue this and to seek a meeting with Primakov to follow up. And the end of the story, I'm sorry to say, is that Primakov completely denied that said it, the Russian system completely shut down, but he said it, I heard it twice. The other members of our delegation heard it once in English. I heard it twice in English and Russian. And to the very best of my knowledge, despite many efforts by the Argentines, I believe by the Americans and Israelis as well, there was no other intelligence information forthcoming from the Russians on these terror attacks.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Such an incredible story.
DAVID HARRIS: Frustrating. Very frustrating.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Yeah, very frustrating. David, I know we're headed towards the end of the hour and there's still so much that we haven't gotten to.
DAVID HARRIS: Oh, my God. I'm getting warmed up.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: I know. Maybe we'll have to have a part 2 of Highlights and Lessons Learned, because there's still a lot to cover, but can you share with us something from your career that you haven't discussed publicly with us before? And then also maybe if you can add, were there any disappointments or any issues that were particularly hard to deal with in your time as CEO?
DAVID HARRIS: You're opening up a whole other hour-
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: And try and fit it in three minutes or less.
DAVID HARRIS: I see the clock ticking in front of me. I think my biggest disappointment here was the failure. And please note on three separate occasions, to complete a merger with the American Jewish Congress. There were three separate attempts, each one lasting several months. They were all kept very quiet. This is not the place to go into exactly what happened and why they failed. But I think for the good of the Jewish community, it would've made a lot of sense to bring these two organizations together. In the past, there was always confusion, both because of the initials, AJC, because of overlapping missions for many years. I still feel that the opportunity was there. I'm not assigning blame, but nonetheless, I'm saying that I still wish we could have tried even harder to overcome whatever opposition or obstacles there were and make it happen. It would've been good for the Jewish community, and I think ultimately it would've been good for both organizations. We have time for the other?
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Yes, we have time for one more, maybe something you haven't shared publicly with an AJC audience before. I think it was the Ethiopia, something about the Ethiopia mission.
DAVID HARRIS: We played a role in the Exodus of Ethiopian Jews that has largely gone unspoken until now, that takes us back to the early 1980s, my early years at AJC before I took on this job. And it had to do with the fact that there were some people in neighboring countries to Ethiopia that I had come to know over the years through other lives, my academic life in particular, and that helped create a knowledge trail of how to bring out Ethiopian Jews and eventually get them to Israel.
Again, as you see, I still feel somewhat uncomfortable going into more specifics, but the more public work we've done was with the rescue of Soviet Jews, which was for AJC and for me personally, a sacred mission. But there is another story here about the work with Ethiopian Jews in another remarkable story. And I would just end, because this is Passover. We read about, we think about, we try and put ourselves in the shoes of having been slaves in Egypt and the journey from slavery to liberation. But there are also of two modern day Exodus that's that we've experienced that I've lived, that I've seen up close, that should be added, I believe to the liturgy of Passover. And now we're beginning to see a third Exodus of Jews from Ukraine. Again, a reminder of why Israel exists, why it is essential to Jews around the world and why we need to keep this very much in mind when talking about Israel and the meaning of Zionism. And with that, Jillian, we've only skimmed the surface, but it's been fun and thank you.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you, David. As always, it's a privilege to be in conversation with you. It's really not easy to fit a lifetime of Jewish advocacy in one hour, but thank you for being so open about the highlights and lessons learned. Chag Sameach, everyone, and Claire, with that, back to you to close this out.
CLAIRE BAILEY: Thank you, David. And thank you Jillian for sharing your insights. And thank you to our global audience for tuning in today. And don't forget, AJC Global Forum is back and in-person, June 12th to 14th in New York City. Join us at the historic Temple Emanu-El, as we tackle important issues like combating the rise of antisemitism, countering Iranian aggression, strengthening Israel's place in the world and defending our democratic values. To register, please visit AJC.org/GlobalForum. There are limited seats available and you won't want to miss it. Thank you again. Goodbye.