David Harris talk to AIJAC

June 14, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The guest speaker at the latest webinar by the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) was David Harris, who has been the Executive Director of AIJAC’s US partner, leading US Jewish organisation the American Jewish Committee (AJC), since 1990. During the webinar, titled, “A conversation on defending Israel and fighting racism”, Harris emphasised that “antisemitism is antisemitism is antisemitism, and those who want to weaponise it for particular political purposes are not doing the struggle any benefit.”

David Harris

He explained that the three main sources of antisemitism are the far right, the far left and Islamists or jihadists, adding, “All three were threatening, all three were existentially important…And those on the right who only wanted to point the finger at the left and those on the left who only wanted to point the finger at the right were doing a disservice to the cause.”

He was also adamant that Palestinian rejectionism is the real question in discussing the Israeli-Palestinian situation, saying debates on settlements and annexation are “not the alpha and omega of the conversation. The real question [is]… ‘Do you simply expect Israel to hold this land in perpetuity until such time as a Palestinian leadership emerges that’s prepared to sit at the table with Israel and compromise on a reasonable basis?’” which “means that both sides, both sides have to compromise on their core narratives.”

He added that Israel has compromised on its core narrative, but the Palestinians have not, instead seemingly hoping that time is on their side and that ultimately Israel “will kind of crumble from within, succumb to the pressures of terrorism or boycotts, or ICC submissions, or that eventually the BDS movement will somehow punish Israel and shove it into a corner.” However, to the contrary, Israel continues to get stronger.  He added that he hears “diplomats and others saying, well, you know, I call it the IOI syndrome – if only Israel syndrome. So if only Israel did A, and then B, and then C, and then D, somehow we would magically have a durable two-state agreement. But unless it comes from both sides, it’s not going to happen.”

On Iran, he pointed out that in October, the arms embargo in the JCPOA nuclear deal ends, meaning Iran could purchase arms without restraint from countries like Russia and China.

He continued, “I find it hard to believe that a Biden Administration if it takes office would simply return to the deal as it was written. It’s too clear that there were too many holes in the deal then,” naming the arms embargo ending, weak language on missile development and regional mischief.

He added that, at the time the deal was being worked on, he sat on the seventh floor of the State Department, where the Secretary of State and his entourage sit, and heard them say on several occasions their belief was the Iran deal would “transform Iranian behaviour.

“They believed…it would strengthen the so-called moderates in Iran at the expense of the extremists, that Iran’s attention would turn increasingly domestic, that all the delayed projects of infrastructure, roads, sewers, hospitals, schools would be the brunt of their attention, and they would lessen their regional mischief. Well it was a nice theory to listen to. In reality, it proved untrue, unfortunately.”

The question, he added, was whether, if those people came back into power, they would be prepared to acknowledge their mistake and adjust accordingly. He described the Iran question as “an existential question for Israel and the Jewish people.”



On the potential Israeli extension of sovereignty in parts of the West Bank, Harris said that the AJC will wait to see what Israel actually does before forming a position. However, he said that whatever the benefit to Israel, there is likely to be a higher cost from the region, beginning with Jordan, and also from the EU and the US Democratic Party.

It is important for Israel to have bipartisan support in the US, so Harris expects Israel to factor in comments from Democratic Party leaders that there is a danger of weakening support in the party if Israel does extend sovereignty.

The AJC, Harris said, has long seen the relationship with the Muslim world as a major challenge. Successes have included the launch of the Muslim/Jewish Advisory Board in the US, which has achieved various legislative changes at Federal and State level, and a Memorandum of Understanding with the Muslim World League, the world’s most influential Sunni Muslim organisation.

The signing of the MoU was reported on by a full media contingent from the Muslim world, and this January, 62 Muslim leaders accompanied the AJC to Auschwitz, a visit covered by much Arab world media and which had a great emotional impact on the visitors. Subsequently one leader gave a sermon in a Warsaw synagogue where he called those who question the Holocaust neo-Nazis, before a shabbat dinner also attended by Polish political and communal leaders.

The AJC also meets with leaders from Arab states, and has regular contact with more than half of the members of the Arab League, including many that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

He said that the great challenge facing US Jewry is that it is fracturing. This polarisation along political lines is especially clear in the reactions to Donald Trump.

In relation to Europe, he said that despite some of the diplomatic attacks on Israel coming from there, it is very important for Israel economically and politically, and Israel has very strong bilateral relations with many European countries, including some such as France which have been more of a challenge in multilateral settings.

On the UN, he said Israel is slowly improving its situation in some areas. The UN Human Rights Council, he noted, is wrongly named, as it does not protect human rights. Its focus on Israel, despite the efforts of countries like the US and Australia, is in contravention of the UN Charter, which speaks of equality of all nations, and its neglect of real victims of human rights transgressions means violators can act with impunity.

Asked about antisemitism within the Black Lives Matter movement, Harris pointed out that the Jewish community has a history of working with the African-American community to fight racism, and that that community is 13% of the US population and has a wide range of organisations, so the AJC works with those with which it shares common ground, and which don’t demonise Israel. Some, for example, admire Israel’s rescue of Ethiopian Jewry, which saw Africans brought out for freedom, not in chains.

Asked if Holocaust education should be compulsory, he said the AJC believes it should be part of everyone’s education, so they appreciate what happened, and the slippery slope it poses to liberal democracy.

He says we must fight against the usurpation of World War II language to describe COVID-19 restrictions, which trivialises the Holocaust, because “without language precision, language has no meaning, and without meaning there is no history, and without history there’s no understanding of not only what happened, but what potentially might happen again, whether to us or to some other targeted people.”

On the effect on the US/Israel relationship if Joe Biden becomes President, he was first at pains to point out that the AJC is completely non-partisan and doesn’t endorse or oppose any parties or candidates. That said, he noted that Joe Biden has travelled often to Israel, is a friend of Israel, understands the importance of the relationship to the US, and like Trump is committed to the relationship.

However, the question is the culture war currently going on in the Democratic Party between the moderate faction and the progressive faction, which has a different view of Israel/US relations, and whose members have called Israel racist, which is unprecedented in the Party. The question is which Democratic Party will emerge. However, he thinks Joe Biden should prevail on this issue, so the relationship should be okay regardless of who wins the Presidential election.

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