March 17, 2022
For the past 40 years, AJC CEO David Harris has been a leading advocate for strengthening Israel’s place in the community of nations, deepening ties with key countries, and advancing Israel’s quest for enduring peace and security. Tune in to hear David discuss why Israel is central to the Jewish people, AJC, and 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 in enables you to engage with AJC's global expertise, content, and advocacy from wherever you are. Today, we're delighted to bring you the third program in AJC's 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 experiences as a lifelong advocate for Israel. A passionate Jewish activist, 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 US history. After we hear from David and Jillian, time permitting, we will take your questions. You may email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org, questions as plural, or you can use the Q&A feature in Zoom. And now Jillian, the floor is yours.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you so much, Claire. And welcome back to our global audience. David, as Claire mentioned, today we're discussing the importance of Israel, which is a topic I know we all are passionate about, but especially you. And we have not a lot of time to get through everything. This topic is especially timely because today, AJC sponsored a plane of Jewish-Ukrainian refugees to Israel. But I'd like to start with your personal connection to Israel. And I think most of this audience has heard your recount of your all-nighter of Exodus, but what else contributed to your connection?
DAVID HARRIS: Thank you for the opportunity, Jillian. Well, lots. There was nothing very specific growing up. It's not that I went to Jewish day school. I did not. It's not that I was part of a Jewish youth group. I was not. I didn't take my first trip to Israel until I was about 21 or 22 years old, but I grew up in a home which was pro Israel. My maternal grandfather had wanted to go to then Palestine when they fled the Soviet Union, but my maternal grandmother did not. And she prevailed in that. So they came to the United States after a decade in France.
But I knew I had family in Israel, a family that had found haven there after the Second World War. My one uncle, my mother's brother, had actually been arrested by the FBI here for helping to smuggle weapons to pre-state Palestine. It's written about in a book called The Pledge by Leonard Slater. So frankly, it was just in the air that Israel was there. Israel was important to us as a family. And more broadly, Israel was significant for the Jewish people.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: And David, just fast forwarding 1973 and the Yom Kippur War, I know the core value of AJC is keeping support for Israel bipartisan. And I think you learned this lesson early on in your life around this time. So could you tell us a little bit about that experience and how it translates today?
DAVID HARRIS: Sure, but I realize I should probably bridge the earlier question with this question, Jillian, because that first trip of mine to Israel, which was 1970 or '71, was really transformative. I went by myself as a backpacking student, and I have to say more than I expected. I mean, even sitting in the window seat as the plane approached Israel and looking down as you crossed the shore of Tel Aviv heading for the airport, I discovered in myself emotions that I didn't know had existed. I mean, I was staring. I was mesmerized. I landed in Israel. I took a bus. I don't even remember where. And I just marveled at everything. I mean, the very fact that there was a Jewish bus, or a Jewish street, or a Jewish soldier or a Jewish policeman, that there was something called Jewish sovereignty, a place where Jews could govern themselves as a majority, rather than living in perpetual fear as a minority.
And then seeing young Israelis, including those in uniform, young men and young women, it just completely bowled me over. And this was a time when in the US, there was so little, what shall I call it? Enthusiasm about public service, identity with the country, during the Vietnam war. And here I saw a whole different mindset and mentality of young people. And I just wanted to become a part of it. It was really, for me, life changing.
So by 1973, I'm sitting in my job at the American Field Service, a very idealistic international organization, non-Jewish, headquartered here in New York. Some of you will know it as AFS. And the Yom Kippur War is underway. And remember, six years earlier, Israel had achieved this lightning victory in what became known as the Six Day War. So I think many of Israel's friends felt pretty confident about Israel's safety and security. But lo and behold, there is this surprise attack and the war extends and people don't know will Israel survive.
And then the question becomes, will Israel get the needed resupplied weapons from its one key ally, the United States? So in all of this, I asked myself, well, what's my role in this? I'm a friend of Israel. And to my own surprise, though I had been an insignificant soldier in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam days, I found myself calling the Israeli constant in New York and volunteering for the IDF. And here I joke that I helped win the war in the end. And the reason I did was because they rejected me for army service. Lord knows what would've happened had they accepted me since I had absolutely no skillset other than my enthusiasm.
So the next question was, well, if I'm not going to go to Israel and fight, then what's my role in the United States? And the answer was, well, Israel desperately needs these additional weapons and resupply. And will the United States agree or not? And who is president at the time? Well, it was someone who was not terribly popular among American Jews, especially young American Jews. And his name was Richard Nixon. And few Jews had voted for him, and even fewer had connections to him. But then I realized there was a clash between two basic ideas. One was the antipathy for Richard Nixon. On the other hand was the realization that without his okay, you could actually lose a war. And, of course, in the case of Israel, losing a war might mean losing Israel, nothing less.
And so the one, my concern for Israel, trumped the other. And that's when I began to understand non-partisanship. That if one is really going to be a genuine advocate for the Jewish people and for the wellbeing of the state of Israel, then one cannot bring party baggage to the conversation. Then, in a way, it's fraudulent. Then what you're really doing is trying to masquerade. You're pushing your Republican Party or your Democratic Party, or your liberal or your conservative views under the guise of being a Jewish activist.
In that moment in time, in 1973, Israel's future was on the line, and the decision to assist Israel lay with the President of the United States who happened to be a Republican. And from that point forward, I understood that if I want to be a genuine effective advocate for Israel's place in the world, that I needed to absorb this lesson. And here we are, what, nearly 50 years later. And I'm proud to say that AJC is and has been and authentically centrist, independent, and non-partisan Jewish organization. And for me, the lesson was learned in October 1973.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely. Thank you, David. And with all of this love and enthusiasm for Israel, did you yourself ever consider making Aliyah?
DAVID HARRIS: Absolutely. By the way, my then-girlfriend and my wife, Giulietta, some of you know her as Jou Jou, we both gave a lot of thought to it when we were in our twenties. For my wife, it was a much simpler issue because two of her sisters had already made Aliyah before, and by the way, are in Israel today with three generations of the family now thriving there. And my wife and I had lots of discussions. There was a huge pull of Israel, of the excitement of being part of this historic project, of watching it unfold, of helping to build a state that was still emerging. And in the end, we didn't. There were times I wonder whether we made the right decision or not. But I joke that the real reason we didn't was actually the advice of an Egged bus driver.
Now, Egged is sort of the bus company. It's like Greyhound in the United States. And one day, I don't know, in the mid-1970s Giulietta and I were, I think, in Jerusalem. And it was on the eve of a holiday. So we were at the Tachana Merkazit, which is the bus station. And if people on this call learn only one Hebrew word or Israeli word, if you will, it's the word "balagan," which basically means a mess or chaos. And it's a word that also exists in Eastern Europe.
And the bus station was a mess because these were the last buses before the holiday, when everything shut down for 24 hours. And Giulietta and I wanted to go to Kibbutz Gebba, where one of her sisters lived, and spend the holiday there. So we're standing on line for the last bus to Kibbutz Gebba. And all of a sudden, I see the bus start to close its doors and back out to leave. And I look around and I don't see Giulietta. And then suddenly, in the bus, I see these arms frantically waving at me. And it's her. Now for those who don't know, my wife is originally from Libya and lived there until she was 16 and a half. And that's germane to the story. And I'm still standing where I was standing before, on this, what I thought was a line, waiting for my turn, but the bus was full and the bus had left.
So the bus backs up about, I don't know, 10, 15 feet, and then stops. The doors open. And the bus driver, like Moses parting the Red Sea, comes down the steps and he comes to me and he says, "Ata David?, "Are you David?" And I said, "Yes." And he says, "Come with me." And he brings me on the bus, and he closes the doors, and he says, "David, I rescued you this time, but I have some advice for you. Do not ever make Aliyah. You will not survive in this country."
So, obviously, there are more serious answers, Jillian, to why we didn't make Aliyah, but in a way, it also captures it. I'm what the Israelis call a "yekke," a kind of German Jew who follows every rule and stands on every line, even when there is no line. And for my wife, the line was not an order, but an opinion. And she got on the bus. And frankly, she would've survived much better in Israel over the years than I would have probably. But in the end though, we did not make Aliyah. We sometimes think about whether we should, and we sometimes wonder whether perhaps our grandchildren might.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely. And I've had similar experiences with lines and buses in Israel, myself, so sounds familiar. But to bring us to the contemporary meaning of Israel and sort of this idea of Israel as a lifeline to many, we just returned from the Polish-Ukrainian border. And we are seeing Israel is literally a lifeline to Ukrainian Jews. You recently wrote an op-ed in The Times of Israel titled “The Meaning of Israel in 2022.” And we can send that in the chat. Before the Ukrainian crisis, the Russian invasion erupted, you wrote about this subject. Why did you write the op-ed then? And what does it mean today on March 17th?
DAVID HARRIS: Well, first of all, I think to frame this conversation, which is an important one for me, let me quote Winston Churchill, the legendary Winston Churchill, who said, and I quote, "The coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, 2000, or even 3000 years." Churchill, a Zionist, understood the real meaning of Israel, the historic, larger meaning of Israel. And it's been played out as recently as today. Today, March 17th. Just a couple of hours ago, a plane landed in Israel from Poland. It was sponsored by AJC and it brought over 100 new Israelis from Poland, but really from Ukraine. These were refugees who fled Ukraine, were welcomed into Poland. And then, with the help of the Jewish agency and the support of AJC, were brought to Israel.
Now think about this for just a moment. And the piece I wrote in The Times of Israel, just before the Russian invasion, speaks to this moment because I've seen it before. Sadly, for some Jews abroad, including in the United States, Israel has been reduced to a political hobby. On Mondays and Wednesdays they like Israel a little more. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they like it a little less. They react to a particular prime minister or political party in power or a policy statement. But for up to 300,000 Ukrainian Jews, Israel is not a political hobby. And one's mood regarding Israel is not shaped by who's the prime minister or which party is or is not in power. For up to 300,000 Jews imperiled in Ukraine and unsure about their future because of the Russian invasion and Russian war crimes, Israel is the lifeline. That's the fundamental difference.
And sadly, for too many American Jews that I encounter, they don't grasp this. I wish they could have a conversation with Ukrainian Jews on the plane today in order to understand what Israel means in the larger sense, what the return of sovereignty means. Now, for some here, they would argue, "Well, why don't Jews and Arabs all live together as one big happy family in some state called Palestine? Why does Israel have to exist? And why need there be a Jewish majority?" And I'll say this, if that one big happy state, which by the way is an illusory notion, if it ever existed, right now, that state would be debating whether or not to allow Ukrainian Jews to enter. Instead, Ukrainian Jews are entering, and they're entering because they're fleeing danger and because they otherwise don't know what their future might be. The meaning of Israel in a moment like this is that never again will Jews feel isolated, abandoned, or hopeless and homeless.
And again, for those who haven't just studied history or majored in university and colleges, but have lived history, lived history, lived Jewish history, like my family, all of whom, as many of the audience know, are themselves survivors of the Holocaust, asked the question, "What would've happened had Israel existed not in 1948, but rather in 1938?" Because in 1938, Hitler and the Nazi regime were still allowing some Jews to leave. In effect, they were teasing the world. They were telling the world, "You love the Jews? Take them, take them." And how did the world respond? With something called the Évian conference, which is by the way, why every time I see Évian water, I pause for a moment because it also evokes memories of that ill-fated conference attended by, I believe, 32 nations that was meant to address the Jewish refugee problem.
And it didn't. It didn't because most countries in the world did not want address it. They may have wanted to talk about it, but they were not prepared to act on it. How many Jews might have been saved had there been Israeli embassies and consulates across Europe? And instead, Jews like my own family, my mother, my uncle, their parents, and others went from one consulate and one embassy to another only to be turned away or told come back in a couple of months. For Ukrainian Jews, it's a reminder that Israel exists with its doors open and a willingness to welcome, to resettle, and to integrate Jews in danger, just as they're willing to accept and integrate those Jews who wish to simply come because they're drawn by Zionism and the link between a people of faith and the land. That's the real meaning of Israel. And it's on display as we speak right now.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you, David. And since you mentioned that you've seen this play out before with other refugee flows, and I know this is not the first time that you've witnessed Israel playing this role, in the past you've written about Jews from Ethiopia and your experience with Jews from the former Soviet Union. Can you share with us some of your recollections about those two refugee movements and the meaning of Israel in those contexts?
DAVID HARRIS: I first went to Ethiopia in 1984. It's what, 38 years ago. I went on the eve of Operation Moses, which was a rescue effort. And I went to help prepare Ethiopian Jews for what was coming next, a remarkable effort to bring them out of Ethiopia and out of surrounding countries and into a new life in Israel. I saw some of the villages where Ethiopian Jews lived in the Gondar Province. These were villages that, in many cases, had homes that were made of twigs and mud. There were no glass windows. There were no roads. There was no electricity. But these were Jews, remarkably, who had been Jews for a couple thousand years, believed to be since the time of Solomon and Sheba. And they, in many cases, believed they were the only Jews on the planet. But they prayed. They prayed fervently for return to Yerushalayim, Jerusalem, which they did not know even existed on earth. They believed it existed as a spiritual capital until they learned, yes, Yerushalayim exists on earth as well.
DAVID HARRIS: And I saw at least slice of the lengths to which thousands and thousands of Ethiopian Jews walked, walked. They didn't ride. They walked carrying their children on their backs, carrying the elderly and the disabled on their backs. They walked. They walked in the direction of Yerushalayim. They wanted out of Ethiopia. They wanted an end to the persecution that they had experienced, the sense of vulnerability they had, all the more so under a communist government led by Colonel Mengistu. Thousands of Ethiopian Jews perished on that journey towards Jerusalem. And those that didn't perish landed in a hostile country called Sudan, where they had to pretend that they weren't Jews if they could. They had to hide their identity until such time as Israel, the Mossad, went to extraordinary lengths to help rescue them.
DAVID HARRIS: And I also want to give a shout out to then Reagan administration, in particular to Vice President George H.W. Bush, who assisted in this effort and the role played by Belgium. But the lead was taken by Israel, an effort to bring thousands upon thousands of Ethiopian Jews, isolated, threatened, often emaciated, to bring them out of Sudan and to bring them to Israel for the start of a new life. And though it's not a perfect movie perhaps, people should see The Red Sea Diving Resort as just one ill illustration of the length to which the Mossad went, Israel went, to try and rescue Ethiopian Jews and give them a new start.
DAVID HARRIS: And similarly, Jillian, I recall in January 1991, being in Israel as an expression of solidarity when the scud missiles were fired by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, randomly trying to kill and damage as much as possible in Israel. And AJC was the first group to arrive in Israel as an expression of solidarity. By the way, the only other people in our plane were the comedian, Jackie Mason, and his wife. That was it. Otherwise the plane was empty.
And I saw with my own eyes, at Ben Gurion Airport, as we went again and again, planes arriving from the Soviet Union with Olim, with new arrivals who came down the stairs, were issued gas masks, gas masks as their entry to Israel because no one knew whether those scud missiles had conventional warheads or chemical warheads. But if the latter, the gas masks were needed. I still have my gas mask, by the way, just a few feet from where I'm sitting. And even those missile strikes, and even the gas masks, and the sealed rooms into which we all had to go every time there was an alarm did not stop the Soviet Jews from going to Israel because of fear of what was happening in the USSR. And it did not stop Israel from continuing to welcome those Soviet Jews in the midst of a war, and then taking them to the merkaz klita, to the absorption center, feeding them, housing them, beginning to give them language training while there was a war going on, while scud missiles were being sent to the country, potentially with chemical warheads on them.
Israel did not miss a beat. That's the real meaning of Israel. The real meaning that Ukrainian Jews are experiencing now, as we speak. The experience of Ethiopian Jews, the experience of Soviet Jews, that Israel was there and it fulfilled its mission. And look, I understand, Jillian. Israel is not a perfect country, and I'm not here to defend it as a perfect country. But at the end of the day, there are what I would call small-minded people who focus on what can be the distracting issues, the minutiae, and then there's a larger meaning of what Jewish sovereignty means today, of what a Jewish majority means today, of what, for the first time in 1,900 years we have the privilege of witnessing.
Think about this for a moment. By my rough arithmetic, 1,900 years of lack of sovereignty is roughly 75 generations of Jews. For 75 generations of Jews, the words "L'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim," next year in Jerusalem, said, for example, at the end of the Passover, Seder, were a kind of spiritual, religious, metaphysical yearning. We're the 76th generation. We're the generation for which this is not just a metaphysical, spiritual, religious yearning. We are the blessed generations that get to see the restoration of Jewish sovereignty, which ultimately means the ability of Jews not to be living at the beck and call of the majority society. Not in so many cases to be living in perpetual fear, not to be trying to stay under the radar.
As we all know, Jewish history has not always been to Jewish communities around the world. Israelis have allowed Jews to hold their heads high, to take their own destiny into their hands. And yes, they will make mistakes and not everyone will always be happy with every Israeli decision. But for heaven's sake, shouldn't, we all be capable of sort of rising above and seeing the larger picture? Winston Churchill did. All of us should.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Wow, David, just incredibly powerful stories about your own experiences. It's hard to move on from those scenes, but I know we must. So let's shift to Israel and our own advocacy work here at AJC. You yourself have been an advocate for Israel from more than four decades now. You've written hundreds of articles, met with countless world leaders. So what's your basic message to the public and to diplomats when speaking about Israel? What do you seek to convey?
DAVID HARRIS: I mean, the overall message, again, mindful that it's going to be customized in every meeting and has evolved over time, but it's really important, I believe, to emphasize that there is no nation on earth, I believe, that yearns for peace, true peace, enduring peace, more than the nation of Israel. And why do I say that? I say that first because peace, it's not just a slogan that we picked up along the way thanks to Madison Avenue or Mad Men. Peace has been central to the Jewish journey from time immemorial. "Lo yisa goy el goy cherev lo yil'medu od milchamah," the words of the Jewish prophet, Isaiah, "The nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor should they learn war anymore." The countless synagogues that are called Rodef Shalom, pursuer of peace. Throughout our tradition throughout our literature, throughout the Bible, the word peace is central. That's the journey that we seek.
DAVID HARRIS: Number two, Jews did not rebuild the new state of Israel in order to find themselves in perpetual war. To the contrary, it was an effort to achieve peace. Who are the basic population building blocks of the Jews of Israel? Essentially there are three. First, the Holocaust survivors and their descendants. They know the consequences of war. Second, the Jews who fled Arab countries, the forgotten refugees, the ones that the world doesn't want to talk about, or even think about, the roughly 750,000 or 800,000 Jews from you name it, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen. And let me add Iran into the mix. They know something also about discrimination and persecution and the effect of war. And the third group are people who fled communism, the Jews who fled the Soviet Union and the Soviet satellite states.
Those are the three building blocks of the Jewish population of Israel. They know something about human behavior. They know something about meaningless words and meaningless pledges and meaningless promises. But the yearning, the yearning is for peace, for true peace, for enduring peace. And that's, it seems to me, incredibly important to convey to the world. It's also incredibly important to talk about legitimacy because too often people call into question the very legitimacy of the state of Israel. And I think it's critical for us to establish that legitimacy, even though it shouldn't be necessary after, what, 74 years of the rebirth of the state.
And thirdly, our message, which is increasingly important to our agenda is in the 21st century, with a world that is confronted by endless numbers of challenges that we now know and some we can't even foresee yet, whether it's availability of water, whether it's food security, whether it's public health, whether it's medicine, whether it's cyber security, whether it's national resilience, whether it's climate change and environmental destruction, our message is that Israel is among the top four or five countries in the world, in the world, that will help address and solve these issues, both because of the record to date and because of the mindset in Israel, the startup nation, the entrepreneurial nation, the nation that's unafraid to take on new challenges. And so these are our three central messages. And obviously, if you take me over the 40 years, and we don't have the time, some successes and some difficult meetings.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: So, David, specifically, what about the people who say to you, "Israel doesn't pursue peace?" What's your response to that? And I guess more broadly, you've coined the term “If only Israel” syndrome, IOI syndrome. Can you walk us through that? Why it's so misguided and how we can all handle these comments?
DAVID HARRIS: The IOI syndrome, the “If only Israel” syndrome, was really a way of sort of challenging the world which too often says, "If only Israel," and then fill in the blank. If only Israel did this and this and this and this and this, then we might achieve Immanuel Kant's vision of perpetual peace. And what I'm saying is obviously Israel has a role to play in achieving peace. Of course, it does. But to put all the onus and responsibility on Israel is totally misguided and completely unfair. Israel has not only yearned for peace and not only prayed for peace, but Israel has made any number of efforts to achieve tangible, lasting, enduring peace.
And again, time permitting, one can go back to 1947, for example, even 1937, the Peel Commission. But take 1947, again, a date that too many in the world want to ignore or dismiss. The United Nations studied this issue. They established a special group called UNSCOP, the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine. And their goal was to study the situation on the ground in then British mandatory Palestine to see what solution they could come up with because they recognized that there were two peoples there.
There were what were then called Arabs, and there were Jews, and each had national aspirations. So what could they do in light of this stark fact? And they came up with what they call the partition plan, which became resolution 181 of the UN General Assembly. And that was an attempt to divide the land. It's a small land. And if you look at the proposed map, each state would've been even smaller. And some of the boundaries were kind of oddly drawn. But nonetheless, the point was that in recognizing that there were two peoples, neither of whom was going anywhere, there were two national aspirations, the only possible strategy was what became known as a two state strategy or what the UN called the partition plan.
Now, the Jews, led by David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, were not happy. This gave them much less than they believed they deserved. They deserved politically and they deserved biblically and historically, but they were pragmatists. They understood at the end of the day that a half a loaf was far better than no loaf of bread at all. And they accepted it. And that's a matter of public record. That's not an AJC talking point. And the Arab world rejected the plan. They insisted that the Jews were outsiders. They were colonialists. They were crusaders, whatever the term was, and that they would not accept the half a loaf. They wanted all or nothing. So not only did they reject the plan, but on May 14th, 1948, they formally declared war on the newly reborn state of Israel, and five Arab armies sought to extinguish that state.
These are facts. These are not personal views. And when the war was over and Israel was still standing, and had even gained some territory, which the winners do in war, by the way, the fact of the matter was that Gaza, the West Bank, the Eastern half of Jerusalem were all in Arab hands. So those people who even today say, "Well, why is there no two state solution?" They need to begin by asking why was the original proposal rejected by the Arab world? And then for 19 years, until 1967, why was no Palestinian state created again? When the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and the Eastern half of Jerusalem were all in Arab hands, Israel had no say over the future of those territories. But there was no effort made in the Arab world to create the Palestinian state.
And I can keep going through other efforts, including the efforts of President Bill Clinton, joined by the Israelis to try and achieve peace, the efforts of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to try and achieve peace, the efforts during the Obama administration to try and achieve peace. And the same pattern has emerged. And the pattern essentially is that Palestinian leadership has failed the Palestinian people, and has continued to allow the Palestinian people to believe that one day, one day, all of this will be theirs.
Now this is also why, Jillian, let me just add a note. In 1993, I was invited by the White House to attend the signing ceremony for the Oslo Accords, with Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, and Yasser Arafat as the featured speakers, of course, together with President Bill Clinton. And I went, but I have to say, I sat toward the back by choice. It's not that I didn't welcome the possibility of peace. Believe me. It's that I didn't believe that Yasser Arafat was serious about peace.
And that was proven to me within months in 1994, when Arafat was at a mosque in Johannesburg, South Africa. This was after signing the Oslo Accords in the presence of the United States as the broker. And he didn't realize that he was being recorded by someone in that mosque. And he admitted, he admitted that this was all a tactical ploy. The goal remained unchanged, all of Israel. So again, we can point to Israeli mistakes along the way. I'm not here to pretend that Israel itself has not been made mistakes, but fundamentally, from start until today, Israel has had a yearning for peace. The notion that every Israeli has to serve in the army, men and women has to serve in reserve duty, has to fear terrorist bombings on buses or in pizzerias, or at Seders, the fear that Iran will one day try to implement its goal of destroying the State of Israel.
Does anyone seriously believe that this is the way Israel wants to live its life, that Israel wouldn't prefer to live its life like Denmark or Canada as normal of countries at peace with daily challenges, but nothing more? And most importantly of all, of course, living in peace with its neighbors. And that's why I think we have to note that when neighbors came along who expressed a desire for peace, and there have now been six, in each and every case, Israel rushed to embrace them, in some cases was even willing to give up land in territory or territorial aspirations perhaps in order to achieve the peace. Peace took priority over land. And now we have peace, real peace with Egypt, with Jordan, with Bahrain, with United Arab Emirates, with Morocco, and we hope soon with Sudan, which has taken one step in that direction. So does Israel want peace? You bet. When there's a partner, Israel extends a hand. But Israel cannot afford to pursue a false peace. Jewish history reminds us why.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Absolutely. And, David, just staying on that last point of successful peace, can you share with us some of the success stories regarding Israel that have been enduring for you and for all of us that maybe we haven't heard of?
DAVID HARRIS: Well, one way I may measure is really foreign policy success, it may come as a surprise to some on this call, every time I go to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I spend a few moments looking at the arrivals and departures board. So that's my very analytical, scholarly way of assessing Israel's situation. Years ago, Jillian, 40 years ago, 35 years ago, that board was filled with New York, London, Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, a few other places. Today, look at that board. It's quite stunning. And that board includes major cities throughout Asia, major cities throughout the former Soviet Union, a number of cities in Africa. Go down the list. And of course, you can now fly to Cairo and Amman and Dubai and Abu Dhabi and Manama. And now most recently, to Casablanca and to Marrakesh. That's one way.
And alongside that, look at the number of countries with which Israel had diplomatic relations 40 years ago, and look at the number today. Israel today has diplomatic relations, I believe, with over 160 of the 193 member states of the UN. And by the way, I would add, maybe teasingly, that even with some of the states that it doesn't have full diplomatic relations, there are links. So it's not all or nothing. And by the way, that group that I'm talking about includes several countries within the Arab world. Again, not on my list of six, but they're alongside. There are no embassies yet. There's no White House signing ceremony yet. But relations exist.
And we see it in AJC diplomacy. In 1991, we sort of inaugurated something here in New York when we approached countries during the UN General Assembly. This was something that had never been done before. I remember in year one, we were very excited because four countries responded positively, and Jason Isaacson, my AJC colleague and I, were thrilled to have those four meetings. In recent years, put aside COVID for a moment, on average, just during in that 10-day period in September, we AJC, have up to 80, even 85 bilateral meetings. And some of the countries that we meet with would not have been conceivable 40 or 30 or even 20 years ago.
So Israel's diplomatic reach has grown dramatically. Take, for example, a country like India. 30 years ago, literally 30 years ago, India and Israel were sort of just beginning to date. Before that, the relations were really very chilly. 30 years later, the relationship between India and Israel is going gangbusters in every field imaginable. It's quite remarkable. And that's illustrative of the point I'm trying to make. Israel's global standing has changed dramatically.
Now there'll be some people on the call who say, "Wait a second, Harris, what about UN voting patterns?" And I will say, you're right. UN voting patterns are probably the last place in the world that this is going to change. And that's because it's a multi-lateral setting rather than a bilateral setting. And it means other issues come into play having nothing to do with Israel, but having everything to do with UN politics and UN power plays and UN elections and regional block politics. So there is more work to be done there, absolutely. But on the bilateral level, wow, in 40 years, Israel's global standing has changed I would say 180 degrees or close to it.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: And related to that, David, about 10 years ago, I believe you said it was time to change the nature of Israel advocacy and to focus on new and different themes in all of our meetings with world leaders and with others. Can you talk us through what was the essence of this transition?
DAVID HARRIS: It was a growing recognition that for many countries in the world, they were more interested in bilateral relations with Israel and what Israel could do for them than in having a focus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And it became very striking that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict sort of kept dropping on the agenda of the countries we dealt with. And we were perfectly prepared to talk about the conflict, also to talk about our vision of peace, and to talk about our own connections with the Palestinian leadership. We've traveled countless times to Ramallah, and before Hamas took over Gaza, to Gaza. But we found that countries wanted less and less to talk about this and more and more to talk about what Israel could do for them.
I'll just give you one illustration of a Central American foreign minister who said to us, "Look, my country has a problem. We have lots of rain and we have a permanent drought. Israel, on the other hand, has no rain and it's now exporting water. How can we learn from Israel? Because the drought conditions are doing such damage to my country." That kind of conversation has now been replicated scores of times, hundreds of times, as more and more countries understand that Israel has something to offer them. And the conversations have shifted in that direction.
And again, it doesn't mean that we're all trying to leave behind the Palestinian challenge. There can be no real peace in the region without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And even though there have been efforts in the past that I mentioned, efforts that failed, I would argue largely because of historic mistakes by Palestinian leaders who were still unwilling at the end to compromise and to agree to an end to the conflict and to all claims. But I understand you cannot leave the Palestinian issue behind, but a lot of diplomats want to downgrade it and talk about what Israel can do for them. That's the change in the agenda.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Great. And David, we have about 10 minutes left and a few more questions to get through. But I want to discuss your views on Israel and the American Jewish community at large for a moment. These are the two largest Jewish centers of the world. I know you've given this a lot of thought. It's on the news a lot. So what's your basic thinking on this relationship? And I'll just add one line to that. Some people say that Israel and American Jewry should have equal voices in determining Israel's future. So do you agree or do you disagree with that statement and why?
DAVID HARRIS: Well, on the first part, I'm very much an idealist, even after all these years. I have not succumbed to cynicism or skepticism. I believe in the notion of "am echad," of one people. And I believe that the ties that bind or should bind these two great centers of world Jewry, Israel and the United States, are essential to both sides, to both sides, and to our sense of collective people-hood and collective destiny. That's my starting point, Jillian.
On the second part of your question, frankly speaking, no, I do not believe that American Jews can insist on an equal voice in determining Israel's security issues. Obviously, obviously, American Jews have a stake in Israel's direction and destiny. And obviously when it comes to issues like access to the space in the photograph behind me, the Kotel, the Western Wall, or discussions about who is a Jew, who is a rabbi, who is accepted as a convert to Judaism, these are issues that directly affect all of us as Jews. And there must be a strong voice, and we should not allow the monopolistic practices of the Rabbinut, of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to somehow delegitimize or disenfranchise or alienate some portion of the Jewish people.
To me, on that, we're loud and clear. We, AJC, and I personally. The absurdity that my oldest son married an Israeli and their wedding was recognized because they had a civil ceremony in Washington DC, but when they had a Jewish ceremony under a chuppah, presided over by a liberal rabbi in Israel, that wedding is not recognized in Israel. That's an absurdity. But security is a totally different matter. And for American Jews who sit in Brookline and Berkeley and Bethesda and Brooklyn to believe that because they've read something or heard something or maybe visited once or twice or three times, that they should have a say in the decisions of the state of Israel, a mature nation of over 9 million people that has both fought wars and pursued peace, to me, is something that I cannot accept. I've been to Israel over 100 times. I have seen perhaps as much as any outsider can see, and I still do not believe that we, AJC, or I personally should have a say in the security decisions that will ultimately determine life and death questions for Israeli citizens or the Israeli state.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: And bottom line, we're at the end of the hour here. And I wanted to ask you, are you optimistic, pessimistic, somewhere in between about Israel's future? And all just add, I know you're always happy to discuss your grandchildren, so I'm giving you the intro to do so here, but focusing not just on institutional, but the personal side of all of this, your grandchildren are Israeli. I know at least two of them are. So what's their future here. And what do you hope for the future?
DAVID HARRIS: Just one more thought on the previous question. There are groups in the United States, in the Jewish community, that purport to be pro-Israel who are on the far right and on the far left and who believe that they have the moral voice to be able to determine the future of Israel. On the far right, they will reject any peace offer. They will not trust any Arab. They want Israel to fight to the last Israeli in a Masada complex. And on the left, the far left, under the rubric of pro peace, they will oppose the Israeli government and the Israeli opposition, united on the issue of Iran. They will do what they can to believe at face value every statement that serves their purpose from the Middle East and ignore every statement that does not. And they believe, I think arrogantly, in both camps, that they know better for Israel, what should be done than Israelis themselves. I reject that.
On the future, in the old Soviet Union, they used to define an optimist to someone who was insufficiently pessimistic. But on the issue of Israel, I want to say here loudly, I am unabashedly optimistic about the future of Israel. This country in 1948, in what was called then the Yishuv, had 650,000 Jews who survived miraculously the onslaught of five standing armies, including the British trained army of Transjordan. The country today has between 9 and 10 million people. The country today is a threat liberal democracy. It is as multiethnic and multicultural a nation as I have seen anywhere. It is an OECD member state. It has now won both Nobel prizes and Olympic gold medals.
It is a state with a very bright future because above all, it is human capital that has developed the state into the startup nation, the entrepreneurial nation. And it's a state that understands at the same time that it will defend itself. “Ein brera”, the Hebrew words, no choice. We have no choice. This is the final stop on the Jewish journey that began nearly 4,000 years ago, a return to Zion. And the words of Hatikvah, "lih-yot am chofshi b’ar-tzeinu." To be a free people in our own land, in the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
So I'm very bullish. Yes, two of my grandchildren are Israeli citizens. They speak fluent Hebrew. They currently live in the US, but they live very bi-culturally. And it's my hope that they will grow up, as my other grandchildren, to understand the blessing, the blessing of being the, what, 77th generation, since the year 70 AD, and a generation that is able to say this year in Jerusalem, and travel back and forth, and speak Hebrew proudly, and understand Israeli culture, and take great pride in the blessing of also being American, and sharing in the journey of these two great democracies and great allies. So at the end of the day, I'm not just hopeful. I'm confident in my optimism.
JILLIAN LASKOWITZ: Thank you, David. A very uplifting way to end this program. And thank you so much for sharing your passion, your experience, and your knowledge with all of us regarding the importance of Israel. With that, Claire, back to you to close us out.
CLAIRE BAILEY: Thank you, David and Jillian for sharing your commitment and hope for Israel with us. And thank you to our global audience for in today. As the people of Ukraine undertake a heroic stand in their fight for freedom, it's up to us to have their backs. If you're able, please consider making a donation to AJC's Stand With Ukraine Emergency Fund to assist Ukrainian refugees and provide humanitarian assistance to Ukraine as a result of Russia's unprovoked invasion. 100% of donations received will be distributed towards efforts to support Ukraine at this critical time. You can make a donation by visiting ajc.org/supportukraine. Thank you again and goodbye.