The Meaning of Israel: A Personal View

January 15, 2014

In light of the obsessive, hypocritical focus by several scholarly groups taking aim at Israel, not to mention the permanent chorus of Israel’s detractors both here and abroad, David Harris wants to offer a totally different view of the Jewish state. This is a time to stand up and speak out.

An op-ed by David Harris
Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee
The Jerusalem Post, January 15, 2014

Against the backdrop of recent efforts in some academic circles to vilify and isolate Israel, let me put my cards on the table right up front. I’m not dispassionate when it comes to Israel. Quite the contrary.

The establishment of the state in 1948; the fulfillment of its envisioned role as home and haven for Jews from around the world; its wholehearted embrace of democracy and the rule of law; and its impressive scientific, cultural, and economic achievements are accomplishments beyond my wildest imagination.

For centuries, Jews around the world prayed for a return to Zion. We are the lucky ones who have seen those prayers answered. I am grateful to witness this most extraordinary period in Jewish history and Jewish sovereignty.

And when one adds the key element, namely, that all this took place not in the Middle West but in the Middle East, where Israel’s neighbors determined from day one to destroy it through any means available to them—from full-scale wars to wars of attrition; from diplomatic isolation to international delegitimation; from primary to secondary to even tertiary economic boycotts; from terrorism to the spread of anti-Semitism, often thinly veiled as anti-Zionism—the story of Israel’s first 65 years becomes all the more remarkable.

No other country has faced such a constant challenge to its very right to exist, even though the age-old biblical, spiritual, and physical connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is unique in the annals of history.

Indeed,  that connection is of a totally different character from the basis on which, say, the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or the bulk of Latin American countries were established, that is, by Europeans with no legitimate claim to those lands who decimated indigenous populations and proclaimed their own authority. Or, for that matter, North African countries that were conquered and occupied by Arab-Islamic invaders and totally redefined in their national character.

No other country has faced such overwhelming odds against its very survival, or experienced the same degree of never-ending international demonization by too many nations that throw integrity and morality to the wind, and slavishly follow the will of the energy-rich and more numerous Arab states.

Yet Israelis have never succumbed to a fortress mentality, never abandoned their deep yearning for peace with their neighbors or willingness to take unprecedented risks to achieve that peace, never lost their zest for life, and never flinched from their determination to build a vibrant, democratic state.

This story of nation-building is entirely without precedent.

 Here was a people brought to the brink of utter destruction by the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany and its allies. Here was a people shown to be utterly powerless to influence a largely indifferent world to stop, or even slow down, the Final Solution. And here was a people, numbering barely 600,000, living cheek-by-jowl with often hostile Arab neighbors, under unsympathetic British occupation, on a harsh soil with no significant natural resources other than human capital in then Mandatory Palestine.

That the blue-and-white flag of an independent Israel could be planted on this land, to which the Jewish people had been intimately linked since the time of Abraham, just three years after the Second World War’s end—and with the support of a decisive majority of UN members at the time—truly boggles the mind.

And what’s more, that this tiny community of Jews, including survivors of the Holocaust who had somehow made their way to Mandatory Palestine despite the British blockade, could successfully defend themselves against the onslaught of five Arab standing armies that launched their attack on Israel’s first day of existence, is almost beyond imagination.

To understand the essence of Israel’s meaning, it is enough to ask how the history of the Jewish people might have been different had there been a Jewish state in 1933, in 1938, or even in 1941. If Israel had controlled its borders and the right of entry instead of Britain, if Israel had had embassies and consulates throughout Europe, how many more Jews might have escaped and found sanctuary?

Instead, Jews had to rely on the goodwill of embassies and consulates of other countries and, with woefully few exceptions, they found there neither the “good” nor the “will” to assist.

I witnessed firsthand what Israeli embassies and consulates meant to Jews drawn by the pull of Zion or the push of hatred. I stood in the courtyard of the Israeli embassy in Moscow and saw thousands of Jews seeking a quick exit from a Soviet Union in the throes of cataclysmic change, fearful that the change might be in the direction of renewed chauvinism and anti-Semitism.

Awestruck, I watched up-close as Israel never faltered, not even for a moment, in transporting Soviet Jews to the Jewish homeland, even as Scud missiles launched from Iraq traumatized the nation in 1991. It says a lot about the conditions they were leaving behind that these Jews continued to board planes for Tel Aviv while missiles were exploding in Israeli population centers. In fact, on two occasions I sat in sealed rooms with Soviet Jewish families who had just arrived in Israel during these missile attacks. Not once did any of them question their decision to establish new lives in the Jewish state. And equally, it says a lot about Israel that, amid all the pressing security concerns, it managed to continue to welcome these new immigrants without missing a beat.

And how can I ever forget the surge of pride—Jewish  pride—that  completely enveloped me in July 1976 on hearing the astonishing news of Israel’s daring rescue of the 106 Jewish hostages held by Arab and German terrorists in Entebbe, Uganda, over 2,000 miles from Israel’s borders? The unmistakable message: Jews in danger will never again be alone, without hope, and totally dependent on others for their safety.

Not least, I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, my very first visit to Israel. It was in 1970, and I was not quite 21 years old.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I recall being quite emotional from the moment I boarded the El Al plane to the very first glimpse of the Israeli coastline from the plane’s window. As I disembarked, I surprised myself by wanting to kiss the ground. In the ensuing weeks, I marveled at everything I saw. To me, it was as if every apartment building, factory, school, orange grove, and Egged bus was nothing less than a miracle. A state, a Jewish state, was unfolding before my very eyes.

After centuries of persecutions, pogroms, exiles, ghettos, pales of settlement, inquisitions, blood libels, forced conversions, discriminatory legislation, and immigration restrictions—and, no less, after centuries of prayers, dreams, and yearning—the Jews had come back home and were  the masters of their own fate.

I was overwhelmed by the mix of people, backgrounds, languages, and lifestyles, and by the intensity of life itself. Everyone, it seemed, had a compelling story to tell. There were Holocaust survivors with harrowing tales of their years in the camps. There were Jews from Arab countries, whose stories of persecution in such countries as Iraq, Libya, and Syria were little known at the time. There were the first Jews arriving from the USSR seeking repatriation in the Jewish homeland. There were the sabras—native-born Israelis—many of whose families had lived in Palestine for generations. There were local Arabs, both Christian and Muslim. There were Druze, whose religious practices are kept secret from the outside world. The list goes on and on.

I was moved beyond words by the sight of Jerusalem and the fervor with which Jews of all backgrounds prayed at the Western Wall. Coming from a nation that was at the time deeply divided and demoralized, I found my Israeli peers to be unabashedly proud of their country, eager to serve in the military, and, in many cases, determined to volunteer for the most elite combat units. They felt personally involved in the enterprise of building a Jewish state, more than 1,800 years after the  Romans defeated the Bar Kochba revolt,  the last Jewish attempt at sovereignty on this very land.

To be sure, nation-building is an infinitely complex process. In Israel’s case,  it began against a backdrop of tensions with a local Arab population that laid claim to the very same land, and tragically refused a UN proposal to divide the land into Arab and Jewish states; as the Arab world sought to isolate, demoralize, and ultimately destroy the state; as Israel’s population doubled in the first three years of the country’s existence, putting an unimaginable strain on severely limited resources; as the nation was forced to devote a vast portion of its limited national budget to defense expenditures; and as the country coped with forging a national identity and social consensus among a population that could not have been more geographically, linguistically, socially, and culturally heterogeneous.

Moreover, there is the tricky and underappreciated issue of the potential clash between the messy realities of statehood and, in this case, the ideals and faith of a people. It is one thing for a people to live their religion as a minority; it is quite another to exercise sovereignty as the majority population while remaining true to one’s ethical standards. Inevitably, tension will arise between a people’s spiritual or moral self-definition and the exigencies of statecraft, between our highest concepts of human nature and the daily realities of individuals in decision-making positions wielding power and balancing a variety of competing interests.

Even so, shall we raise the bar so high as to ensure that Israel—forced to function in the often gritty, morally ambiguous world of international relations and politics, especially as a small, still endangered state—will always fall short?

Yet, the notion that Israel would ever become ethically indistinguishable from any other country, reflexively seeking cover behind the convenient justification of realpolitik to explain its behavior, is equally unacceptable.

Israelis, with only 65 years of statehood under their belts, are among the newer practitioners of statecraft. With all its remarkable success, consider the daunting political, social, and economic challenges in the United States 65 or even 165 years after independence, or, for that matter, the challenges it faces today, including stubborn social inequalities. And let’s not forget that the United States, unlike Israel, is a vast country blessed with abundant natural resources, oceans on two-and-a half sides, a gentle neighbor to the north, and a weaker neighbor to the south.

Like any vibrant democracy, America is a permanent work in progress. The same holds true for Israel. Loving Israel as I do, though, doesn’t mean overlooking its shortcomings, including the excessive and unholy intrusion of religion into politics, the marginalization of non-Orthodox Jewish religious streams, the dangers posed by political and religious zealots, and the unfinished, if undeniably complex, task of integrating Israeli Arabs into the mainstream.

But it also doesn’t mean allowing such issues to overshadow Israel’s remarkable achievements, accomplished, as I’ve said, under the most difficult of circumstances.

In just 65 years, Israel has built a thriving democracy, unique in the region, including a Supreme Court prepared, when it deems appropriate, to overrule the prime minister or the military establishment, a feisty parliament that includes every imaginable viewpoint along the political spectrum, a robust civil society, and a vigorous press.

It has built an economy whose per capita GNP exceeds the combined total of its four contiguous sovereign neighbors—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

It has built universities and research centers that have contributed to advancing the world’s frontiers of knowledge in countless ways, and won a slew of Nobel Prizes in the process.

It has built one of the world’s most powerful militaries—always under civilian control, I might add—to ensure its survival in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood. It has shown the world how a tiny nation, no larger than New Jersey or Wales, can, by sheer ingenuity, will, courage, and commitment, defend itself against those who would destroy it through conventional armies or armies of suicide bombers. And it has done all this while striving to adhere to a strict code of military conduct that has few rivals in the democratic world, much less elsewhere—in the face of an enemy prepared to send children to the front lines and seek cover in mosques, schools, and hospitals.

It has built a quality of life that ranks it among the world’s healthiest nations and with a particularly high life expectancy, indeed higher than that of the U.S.

It has built a thriving culture, whose musicians, writers, and artists are admired far beyond Israel’s borders. In doing so, it has lovingly taken an ancient language, Hebrew, the language of the prophets, and rendered it modern to accommodate the vocabulary of the contemporary world.

It has built a climate of respect for other faith groups, including Baha’i, Christianity and Islam, and their places of worship. Can any other nation in the area make the same claim?

It has built an agricultural sector that has had much to teach developing nations about turning an arid soil into fields of fruits, vegetables, cotton, and flowers.

Step back from the twists and turns of the daily information overload coming from the Middle East and consider the sweep of the last 65 years. Look at the light-years traveled since the darkness of the Holocaust, and marvel at the miracle of a decimated people returning to a tiny sliver of land—the land of our ancestors, the land of Zion and Jerusalem—and successfully building a modern, vibrant state against all the odds, on that ancient foundation.

In the final analysis, then, the story of Israel is the wondrous realization of a 3,500-year link among a land, a faith, a language, a people, and a vision. It is an unparalleled story of tenacity and determination, of courage and renewal.

And it is ultimately a metaphor for the triumph of enduring hope over the temptation of despair.

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Anti-Semitism, A Warning Sign for Europe

November 29, 2013

An op-ed by David Harris
Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee
El Pais, November 29, 2013

davidharris

The European Union has had its share of daunting challenges.

From sluggish growth to punishing austerity, from high levels of unemployment to fears of brain drain, and from volatile political environments to relentless migration, there are more than enough issues to keep EU and national leaders focused 24/7. And while some countries are more at risk than others, the ties that bind the 28 member states mean that no one is entirely immune from the gusty winds and storm clouds.

Now, there is another issue to add to the list. Earlier this month, the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) issued a comprehensive study on the experiences of Jews in eight of the 28 nations – Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—whose Jews comprise 90% of the EU’s total Jewish population. Nearly 6,000 respondents took part.

Confirming the findings of earlier surveys done by outside groups and local Jewish communities, it raises serious concern. That concern should not be limited to Jews, since when Europe’s Jews feel at risk, the EU as a whole is endangered in two ways.

First, the EU’s laudable commitment to protecting the human dignity of each of its citizens is jeopardized.

And second, the history of anti-Semitism demonstrates that, ultimately, those who target Jews usually have democracy itself, including the rights of minority groups, in their crosshairs. In other words, bigotry may begin with Jews, but it rarely ends with them.

Here are some of the disturbing findings from the just-published FRA report:

Two-thirds of Jewish respondents consider anti-Semitism to be a problem today in their countries.

Three-fourths believe the problem has gotten worse in the past five years.

One-third fears a physical attack against themselves, as Jews, within the next 12 months.

More than one-half claim they personally witnessed an incident where the Holocaust was denied, trivialized, or exaggerated.

Twenty-three percent say they at least occasionally avoid attending Jewish events or visiting Jewish sites because of safety concerns.

And more than 40 percent of those surveyed in Belgium, France, and Hungary indicate they have considered emigrating because of the situation.

Equally troubling, to quote the study, is the following result: “A majority of the victims of anti-Semitic harassment (76%), physical violence or threats (64%), or vandalism of personal property (53%) did not report the most serious incident, namely the one that most affected the respondent, in the past five years to the police or to any other organization.”

In other words, if the majority of victims of anti-Semitic incidents are not even reporting them to the authorities, then they do not have confidence in the system, fear retribution from the perpetrators, are unaware of where to go for help, or have somehow come to accept the bigoted behavior as part of the “price” of being Jewish.

Whatever the explanation, it is unacceptable. Going forward, EU governments should strive mightily to ensure not only a dramatic decline in the number of anti-Semitic incidents, but also that those that do occur are reported to the proper authorities. Citizens of a democratic society should never have to feel helpless or abandoned.

And it should make no difference if the anti-Semitic act comes from extreme-right, extreme-left, radical Islamic, or other sources. Targeting an individual because of his or her specific group identity – in this case, as a Jew – is a potential hate crime, and should be treated as such.

AJC has devoted many years to developing response strategies to bias incidents, whether against Jews, Christians, Muslims, homosexuals, Africans, or others, and certain things are clear.

First, attitudes of tolerance or intolerance, respect or lack of respect, are formed primarily at home and at a young age.

Second, political leadership counts. Either governments act against bigotry, both symbolically and substantively, or, too often, they end up countenancing or rationalizing it. Neutrality is not an option.

Third, education, if utilized properly, can help teach respect and appreciation for difference. Otherwise, it is a lost opportunity.

Fourth, religious leaders can promote interfaith dialogue and friendship or, conversely, religious obscurantism and triumphalism. Which will it be?

And finally, the police and judiciary must understand the specific nature of hate crimes, collect proper data, and treat cases with the seriousness they merit.

The EU’s FRA report is a wake-up call. Sleeping through it, or pretending not to hear it, is not an option.


“How Can You Defend Israel?” Part II

January 2, 2011

An op-ed by David A. Harris
Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee
The Jerusalem Post, Januar 2, 2011

Since writing “How can you defend Israel?” last month, I’ve been deluged by comments. Some have been supportive, others harshly critical. The latter warrant closer examination.

The harsh criticism falls into two basic categories.

One is over the top.

It ranges from denying Israel’s very right to nationhood, to ascribing to Israel responsibility for every global malady, to peddling vague, or not so vague, anti-Semitic tropes.

There’s no point in dwelling at length on card-carrying members of these schools of thought. They’re living on another planet.

Israel is a fact. That fact has been confirmed by the UN, which, in 1947, recommended the creation of a Jewish state. The UN admitted Israel to membership in 1949. The combination of ancient and modern links between Israel and the Jewish people is almost unprecedented in history. And Israel has contributed its share, and then some, to advancing humankind.

If there are those on a legitimacy kick, let them examine the credentials of some others in the region, created by Western mapmakers eager to protect their own interests and ensure friendly leaders in power.

Or let them consider the basis for legitimacy of many countries worldwide created by invasion, occupation, and conquest. Israel’s case beats them by a mile.

And if there are people out there who don’t like all Jews, frankly, it’s their problem, not mine. Are there Jewish scoundrels? You bet. Are there Christian, Muslim, atheist, and agnostic scoundrels? No shortage. But are all members of any such community by definition scoundrels? Only if you’re an out-and-out bigot.

The other group of harsh critics assails Israeli policies, but generally tries to stop short of overt anti-Zionism or anti-Semitism. But many of these relentless critics, at the slightest opportunity, robotically repeat claims about Israel that are not factually correct.

There are a couple of methodological threads that run through their analysis.

The first is called confirmation bias. This is the habit of favoring information that confirms what you believe, whether it’s true or not, and ignoring the rest.

While Israel engages in a full-throttled debate on policies and strategies, rights and wrongs, do Israel’s fiercest critics do the same? Hardly.

Can the chorus of critics admit, for example, that the UN recommended the creation of two states – one Jewish, the other Arab – and that the Jews accepted the proposal, while the Arabs did not and launched a war?

Can they acknowledge that wars inevitably create refugee populations and lead to border adjustments in favor of the (attacked) victors?

Can they recognize that, when the West Bank and Gaza were in Arab hands until 1967, there was no move whatsoever toward Palestinian statehood?

Can they explain why Arafat launched a “second intifada” just as Israel and the U.S. were proposing a path-breaking two-state solution?

Or what the Hamas Charter says about the group’s goals?

Or what armed-to-the-teeth Hezbollah thinks of Israel’s right to exist?

Or how nuclear-weapons-aspiring Iran views Israel’s future?

Or why President Abbas rejected Prime Minister Olmert’s two-state plan, when the Palestinian chief negotiator himself admitted it would have given his side the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank?

Or why Palestinian leaders refuse to recognize the Western Wall or Rachel’s Tomb as Jewish sites, while demanding recognition of Muslim holy sites?

Or why Israel is expected to have an Arab minority, but a state of Palestine is not expected to have any Jewish minority?

Can they admit that, when Arab leaders are prepared to pursue peace with Israel rather than wage war, the results have been treaties, as the experiences of Egypt and Jordan show?

And can they own up to the fact that when it comes to liberal and democratic values in the region, no country comes remotely close to Israel, whatever its flaws, in protecting these rights?

Apropos, how many other countries in the Middle East – or beyond – would have tried and convicted an ex-president? This was the case, just last week, with Moshe Katsav, sending the message that no one is above the law – in a process, it should be noted, presided over by an Israeli Arab justice.

And if the harsh critics can’t acknowledge any of these points, what’s the explanation? Does their antipathy for Israel – and resultant confirmation bias – blind them to anything that might puncture their airtight thinking?

Then there is the other malady. It’s called reverse causality, or switching cause and effect.

Take the case of Gaza.

These critics focus only on Israel’s alleged actions against Gaza, as if they were the cause of the problem. In reality, they are the opposite – the effect.

When Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it gave local residents their first chance in history – I repeat, in history – to govern themselves.

Neighboring Israel had only one concern – security. It wanted to ensure that whatever emerged in Gaza would not endanger Israelis. In fact, the more prosperous, stable, and peaceful Gaza became, the better for everyone. Tragically, Israel’s worst fears were realized. Rather than focus on Gaza’s construction, its leaders – Hamas since 2007 – preferred to contemplate Israel’s destruction. Missiles and mortars came raining down on southern Israel. Israel’s critics, though, were silent. Only when Israel could no longer tolerate the terror did the critics awaken – to focus on Israel’s reaction, not Gaza’s provocative action.

Yet, what would any other nation have done in Israel’s position?

Just imagine terrorists in power in British Columbia – and Washington State’s cities and towns being the regular targets of deadly projectiles. How long would it take for the U.S. to go in and try to put a stop to the terror attacks, and what kind of force would be used?

Or consider the security barrier.

It didn’t exist for nearly 40 years. Then it was built by Israel in response to a wave of deadly attacks originating in the West Bank, with well over 1000 Israeli fatalities (more than 40,000 Americans in proportional terms). Even so, Israel made clear that such barriers cannot only be erected, but also moved and ultimately dismantled.

Yet the outcry of Israel’s critics began not when Israelis were being killed in pizzerias, at Passover Seders, and on buses, but only when the barrier went up.

Another case of reverse causality – ignoring the cause entirely and focusing only on the effect, as if it were a stand-alone issue disconnected from anything else.

So, again, in answer to the question of my erstwhile British colleague, “How can you defend Israel?” I respond: Proudly.

In doing so, I am defending a liberal, democratic, and peace-seeking nation in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood, where liberalism, democracy, and peace are in woefully short supply.

Reprinted with kind permission of The Jerusalem Post.


“How can you defend Israel?”

December 27, 2010

An op-ed by David A. Harris
Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee
The Jerusalem Post, December 27, 2010

I was sitting in a lecture hall at a British university. Bored by the speaker, I began glancing around the hall. I noticed someone who looked quite familiar from an earlier academic incarnation. When the session ended, I introduced myself and wondered if, after years that could be counted in decades, he remembered me.

He said he did, at which point I commented that the years had been good to him. His response: “But you’ve changed a lot.”

“How so?” I asked with a degree of trepidation, knowing that, self-deception aside, being 60 isn’t quite the same as 30.

Looking me straight in the eye, he proclaimed, as others standing nearby listened in, “I read the things you write about Israel. I hate them. How can you defend that country? What happened to the good liberal boy I knew 30 years ago?”

I replied: “That good liberal boy hasn’t changed his view. Israel is a liberal cause, and I am proud to speak up for it.”

Yes, I’m proud to speak up for Israel. A recent trip once again reminded me why.

Sometimes, it’s the seemingly small things, the things that many may not even notice, or just take for granted, or perhaps deliberately ignore, lest it spoil their airtight thinking.

It’s the driving lesson in Jerusalem, with the student behind the wheel a devout Muslim woman, and the teacher an Israeli with a skullcap. To judge from media reports about endless inter-communal conflict, such a scene should be impossible. Yet, it was so mundane that no one, it seemed, other than me gave it a passing glance. It goes without saying that the same woman would not have had the luxury of driving lessons, much less with an Orthodox Jewish teacher, had she been living in Saudi Arabia.

It’s the two gay men walking hand-in-hand along the Tel Aviv beachfront. No one looked at them, and no one questioned their right to display their affection. Try repeating the same scene in some neighboring countries.

It’s the Friday crowd at a mosque in Jaffa. Muslims are free to enter as they please, to pray, to affirm their faith. The scene is repeated throughout Israel. Meanwhile, Christians in Iraq are targeted for death; Copts in Egypt face daily marginalization; Saudi Arabia bans any public display of Christianity; and Jews have been largely driven out of the Arab Middle East.

It’s the central bus station in Tel Aviv. There’s a free health clinic set up for the thousands of Africans who have entered Israel, some legally, others illegally. They are from Sudan, Eritrea, and elsewhere. They are Christians, Muslims, and animists. Clearly, they know something that Israel’s detractors, who rant and rave about alleged “racism,” don’t. They know that, if they’re lucky, they can make a new start in Israel. That’s why they bypass Arab countries along the way, fearing imprisonment or persecution. And while tiny Israel wonders how many such refugees it can absorb, Israeli medical professionals volunteer their time in the clinic.

It’s Save a Child’s Heart, another Israeli institution that doesn’t make it into the international media all that much, although it deserves a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. Here, children in need of advanced cardiac care come, often below the radar. They arrive from Iraq, the West Bank, Gaza, and other Arab places. They receive world-class treatment. It’s free, offered by doctors and nurses who wish to assert their commitment to coexistence. Yet, these very same individuals know that, in many cases, their work will go unacknowledged. The families are fearful of admitting they sought help in Israel, even as, thanks to Israelis, their children have been given a new lease on life.

It’s the vibrancy of the Israeli debate on just about everything, including, centrally, the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. The story goes that U.S. President Harry Truman met Israeli President Chaim Weizmann shortly after Israel’s establishment in 1948. They got into a discussion about who had the tougher job. Truman said: “With respect, I’m president of 140 million people.” Weizmann retorted: “True, but I’m president of one million presidents.”

Whether it’s the political parties, the Knesset, the media, civil society, or the street, Israelis are assertive, self-critical, and reflective of a wide range of viewpoints.

It’s the Israelis who are now planning the restoration of the Carmel Forest, after a deadly fire killed 44 people and destroyed 8,000 acres of exquisite nature. Israelis took an arid and barren land and, despite the unimaginably harsh conditions, lovingly planted one tree after another, so that Israel can justifiably claim today that it’s one of the few countries with more wooded land than it had a century ago.

It’s the Israelis who, with quiet resolve and courage, are determined to defend their small sliver of land against every conceivable threat – the growing Hamas arsenal in Gaza; the dangerous build-up of missiles by Hezbollah in Lebanon; nuclear-aspiring Iran’s calls for a world without Israel; Syria’s hospitality to Hamas leaders and transshipment of weapons to Hezbollah; and enemies that shamelessly use civilians as human shields. Or the global campaign to challenge Israel’s very legitimacy and right to self-defense; the bizarre anti-Zionist coalition between the radical left and Islamic extremists; the automatic numerical majority at the UN ready to endorse, at a moment’s notice, even the most far-fetched accusations against Israel; and those in the punditocracy unable – or unwilling – to grasp the immense strategic challenges facing Israel.

Yes, it’s those Israelis who, after burying 21 young people murdered by terrorists at a Tel Aviv discotheque, don the uniform of the Israeli armed forces to defend their country, and proclaim, in the next breath, that, “They won’t stop us from dancing, either.”

That’s the country I’m proud to stand up for. No, I’d never say Israel is perfect. It has its flaws and foibles. It’s made its share of mistakes. But, then again, so has every democratic, liberal and peace-seeking country I know, though few of them have faced existential challenges every day since their birth.

The perfect is the enemy of the good, it’s said. Israel is a good country. And seeing it up close, rather than through the filter of the BBC or the Guardian, never fails to remind me why.

Reprinted with kind permission of The Jerusalem Post.


Endgame with Iran? / Endspiel mit Iran?

November 15, 2010

Der Tagesspiegel, one of Germany’s leading newspapers, asked our beloved friend David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, to write the following op-ed in German: Endspiel mit Iran? English translation is below.

Endgame with Iran?

by David Harris
November 15, 2010

Iran's Nuclear Facilities

Iran's Nuclear Facilities

Another round of talks of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany on the Iranian nuclear program is expected shortly. Or is it?

Iran’s contradictory statements make it difficult to predict. One moment, Iranian leaders indicate openness to renewed negotiations. Next, they assert there is nothing to talk about.

There is much to talk about. Iran is in violation of multiple Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear program. The issue has nothing to do with Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy. It has to do with Iran’s aim to acquire nuclear-weapons capability, a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which it signed.

There are those who believe a nuclear-armed Iran is manageable. They assert that containment can work.

But can it? During the Cold War, Moscow and Washington understood the concept of mutual assured destruction. Though the world came close during the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear weapons were never used. Iran may be a different story. It is driven by a theology which believes in hastening the coming of the so-called Hidden Imam. If unleashing war would help, it cannot be ruled out.

Even if Iran had weapons it did not use, the world would be a more dangerous place.

First, it would trigger a nuclear arms race in the region. Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia would likely seek their own weapons. If so, the risks of nuclear war, accidents, theft of nuclear material, and technology sharing grow exponentially.

Second, if Turkey followed suit, what would that mean for Greece and Cyprus, two EU members long embroiled in tense relations with Ankara? One Greek official told us that Greece might have to respond by starting its own program.

Third, what about Iran’s neighbors who do not have the capacity to keep up? Would they fall under the Iranian sphere of influence, their foreign policies neutered as Finland’s was during the Cold War?

And fourth, Israel would be forced to live with a frightening new reality—a regime that not only calls for wiping Israel off the map, but then also has the tools to do it. The situation would be made still worse by the fact that three of Israel’s neighbors – Syria, Hamas-run Gaza, and Hezbollah’s state-within-a state in Lebanon – are already within Iran’s orbit.

In other words, an Iranian nuclear capacity is a global game-changer.

Will negotiations stop the Iranian march to the goal line? The record to date is discouraging. The EU began talks with Iran in 2003 and was outwitted in the ensuing years, as Iran bought time to install more centrifuges and enrich more uranium. Some believed the absence of the U.S. from those talks during the Bush era prevented progress. Yet President Obama’s extended hand has been spurned more than once by Iran.

There is nothing inherently wrong with more talks, as long as they do not merely allow Tehran to buy time. To increase the likelihood of success, Iran must understand that when Europe and the U.S. say that it will not be allowed to produce and possess nuclear weapons, they mean it.

That requires enforcing existing sanctions, pressing other countries to do the same, and monitoring those nations helping Iran bypass the measures. It also means that Europe’s trade with Iran cannot go up, as it has this year for many countries, including Germany.

Lastly, there is the question of the military option. The best way to avoid it is by making clear that it is on the table in all dealings with Iran. Only if Iran’s leaders grasp that the world is truly serious about preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons can we hope for a diplomatic solution.


David Harris 20th Anniversary

October 19, 2010

Dear Friends,

This year, David Harris celebrates his 20th anniversary as American Jewish Committee Executive Director – marking two decades of his passionate and devoted service to the Jewish people, American society and the global community.

As president of AJC, I’m asking you to make a gift to commemorate this milestone. Please click here to contribute.

No single professional has epitomized AJC’s values, vision, activism, humanitarianism and achievement more than David Harris. David has been hailed as one of the Jewish people’s foremost advocates and most distinguished and eloquent spokesmen.

In fact, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon recently said, “David Harris is the consummate Jewish diplomat of our time.”

Looking to the future, David will continue to advocate for the issues most important to the Jewish people, including:

  • Supporting a democratic Israel in its quest for peace and security
  • Speaking out against Iran’s mission to build nuclear weapons
  • Building mutual respect between different religious and ethnic groups, leading to a more tolerant world
  • Moving America towards energy independence – critical for both our national security and our environment
  • Seeking a world in which all people are afforded human rights, human dignity and human freedom

Of course, David’s vision has always relied upon an informed, motivated and active young generation prepared to take on the responsibilities and challenges of Jewish communal leadership. As such, he continues to champion our ACCESS program, which focuses on developing young Jewish leaders.

Your participation will be deeply meaningful and greatly appreciated by David and everyone at AJC. Your special gift will go a long way to support the vital work and global outreach that have become AJC trademarks.

Please click here to contribute to David’s 20th Anniversary celebration today. Please give as generously as you can – any amount would be appreciated.

Sincerely,
Robert Elman
President, American Jewish Committee (AJC)


Poland’s Tragedy is Our Tragedy

April 12, 2010

An op-ed by David Harris
Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee
Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 12, 2010

When the plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and dozens of other officials crashed in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia on Saturday, this immense disaster was also a personal tragedy.

I lost friends in the crash that killed key leaders from the Polish government, economy, and military.

These friends represented democratic Poland, the country that emerged after a decade of struggle led by Solidarity and KOR activists. And of all places for Polish leaders to meet their maker, why did it have to be Katyn, Poles ask, the site of the 1940 Soviet massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers?

Let me share brief recollections of three of them.

I first met Lech Kaczynski when he was Warsaw’s mayor. He was eager for the renewal of Jewish life in Poland. He felt a kinship to Jews, whom he saw as an integral part of Poland’s fabric. He said it was impossible to understand Poland without comprehending the Jewish role in its life. That’s why he was supportive of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, and why he was instrumental in launching it.

I later met him many times as president, most recently in February. A man of passion and principle, he seldom minced words. He knew where he stood and he didn’t try to mask his views from others.

President Kaczynski was a friend of the United States. He wasn’t always so certain, however, that the friendship was reciprocated. Indeed, he feared that at times Poland’s loyalty was taken for granted. But he saw the United States as the only real guarantor of global security — if, he said, Washington wouldn’t succumb to Russia’s siren song or Europe’s equivocation.

The president was a friend of Israel. He liked and understood it. He instinctively grasped its security predicaments because he could personally relate to a vulnerable country in a tough neighborhood. And he chastised those quick to judge Israel in order to curry favor with others, again seeing a parallel with Poland, whose own interests were sacrificed more than once on the altar of global power politics.

Rejecting Iran’s nuclear ambitions was a no-brainer for President Kaczynski. Like many Poles, he and his family had witnessed man’s capacity for evil. In our meetings, he’d get right to the point: Isn’t it obvious what Iran is doing? Iran’s leaders can’t be trusted with a bomb. The world needs to get tougher with Tehran.

Mariusz Handzlik was another friend on the plane. A diplomat whom I first met in Washington years ago, he was serving as undersecretary of state in the office of Poland’s president.

Mariusz and I shared a deep admiration for Jan Karski, the Polish wartime hero who later joined the faculty of Georgetown University. While serving in the United States, Mariusz befriended Karski, becoming his regular chess partner. They were playing chess when Karski suddenly felt ill and died shortly afterward. Together, Mariusz and I cried for this man who, at repeated risk to his own life, had tried to alert a largely deaf world to the Nazi’s Final Solution.

And when Mariusz was assigned to the Polish Mission to the United Nations, he proudly told me that now he would be in a position, together with his colleagues, to help Israel in the world body. He wanted the Israelis to know they had friends at the United Nations, which largely was seen as hostile territory for Israel.

Andrzej Przewoźnik was secretary-general of the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites.

I first met him when the Polish government and the American Jewish Committee joined together to demarcate, protect, and memorialize the site of the Nazi death camp in Belzec, located in southeastern Poland. In less than a year, more than 500,000 Jews were killed in an area barely the size of a few football fields. Only two Jews survived.

In June 2004, after years of planning and construction, the site was inaugurated. As the late Miles Lerman said at that solemn ceremony, “No place of martyrdom anywhere is today as well protected and memorialized as Belzec.”

That could not have occurred without Andrzej’s pivotal role. He helped make it happen, overcoming the multiple hurdles along the way. By doing so, he ensured that what took place at Belzec, long neglected by the Communists, would never be forgotten.

May the memories of Lech Kaczynski, Mariusz Handzlik, Andrzej Przewoźnik — and their fellow passengers — forever be for a blessing, as those of us privileged to have known them were ourselves blessed.