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Our View: Watchdog for human rights

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  • | 4:00 a.m. April 3, 2013
  • Longboat Key
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“Iran. Iran. Iran. Wake up, world. Wake up, world.”

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, is describing how he has spent the past 15 years circling the globe; sitting face to face, looking eye to eye with the world’s most powerful heads of state; delivering the message incessantly and emphatically: Iran cannot have WMDs.

“This is numero uno,” Harris said last week after addressing a luncheon of AJC’s West Coast Florida chapter at the Sarasota Yacht Club. “Imagine Bin Laden with a dirty bomb. We would have been in a totally different world then. The marriage of radical Islam and WMDs — that’s the world we cannot let materialize.”

From the United States to Great Britain and Canada; from China to Russia, India, Germany and France; from Japan to Brazil, Saudia Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, you name it, the heads of state in the highest offices know the name and know the man: David Harris.

He is arguably the world’s most influential advocate for the world’s Jews and the state of Israel and for worldwide human rights. He is a modern-day missionary who, like early prophets, tirelessly and courageously spreads the word. Harris and AJC, he says, “cannot remain silent in the face of injustice. We need to stand up and defend democracy. We are heirs of prophetic tradition, a link in a chain that goes back thousands of years.”

For Sarasota-Manatee’s Jewish residents, hosting Harris is almost akin to hosting a secretary of state. AJC is a powerful diplomatic force. It has 26 U.S. offices and 41 international posts and affiliates. When a threat, injustice or attack affects Jews, the state of Israel or persecuted innocents around the world, Harris quickly hopscotches the world, imploring world leaders to right wrongs. When the Palestinians sought statehood from the United Nations in 2011, Harris and his AJC associates held 350 meetings in 100 nations, advocating defeat of the move.

Harris and his associates are able to do this in large part because of the more than $30 million a year that comes from worldwide donors, many of them in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Two weeks ago, for instance, the Benderson family contributed $100,000 to AJC in honor of its current regional president, Ann Virag.

So when Harris visits Sarasota, he draws the faithful. They are always eager to hear his take on the future of Israel and world order.

Reasons for optimism
Harris couched his remarks last week in a framework of optimism.

“Why am I an optimist?” he asked. “Because I have witnessed in my lifetime Jewish renewal, redemption and renaissance … On the 65th anniversary of the re-establishment of the state of Israel, it’s a cause for unadulterated joy.

“Here’s the good news,” he said:

• “No threat — not from Iran, not from Hezbollah — is going to defeat the state of Israel.
• “Israel will continue to be a global leader in entrepreneurship.
• “Israel is on the verge of energy independence.
• “Israel may one day become an alternate to the Suez Canal to get to the Red Sea.”

One more: “This country (the United States) is also on the verge of achieving energy independence.”

For Harris and AJC, the latter would be a historic achievement. Ever since the Arab-oil embargo of the 1970s, AJC has made energy independence in the United States and Israel a top priority.

“What does energy independence have to do with Jews?” Harris said. “This has been our biggest Achilles heel.”

For 40 years, western petrol dollars have financed the Islamic jihad. It’s shameful, Harris says, how U.S. politicians in that time have been unable to merge in common purpose to achieve domestically produced energy independence. “Forty years later, we are finally starting to see.” As he puts it: “The more we devalue Arab oil, the more we can change the balance of power.”

Roots of passion: persecution
Born in California, Harris attributes his passion for AJC’s mission to his parents and wife, all persecuted Jews.

His mother, Nelly, and her family were among the last Jewish families to leave Russia legally in 1929, escaping Stalin. The family traded its Moscow apartment for passports to go to Paris. For the next decade, they encountered anti-Jewish and anti-Russian sentiment in France.

And then in 1941, after a year of hiding from the Nazis, Harris’ mother’s family obtained visas from a Pennsylvania congressman to come to the United States. “They arrived with nothing,” Harris says. “For them, the meaning of the Statue of Liberty and America is something far deeper and profound than for those who are born here.”

Harris’ father, Eric, was a science prodigy. His parents sent him from Berlin to Vienna in 1933 for safety. When he was 16, one of his projects was working on the synthesis of the heavy hydrogen atom — a precursor to the hydrogen bomb. One day in 1938, after the Nazis took over Austria, they expelled Harris’ father from his university. They detained him until 4 a.m. He spent the night and early morning hours forced to shine the boots of Nazi officers.

Harris’ father made it to France, and in 1940 volunteered for the French army. He ended up in the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, later to be held three years in a Vichy labor camp, mining coal. Harris says his father eventually escaped and hooked up briefly with the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA.

Harris’ wife, Giulietta, is an Arab Jew born in Libya. He calls her one of the “Forgotten Jews” of North Africa. During the Six-Day War in 1967, Arabs in Libya turned their aggression on the Jews there. But an Arab man hid for six days 10 Jews, including Harris’ wife’s family. To this day, Harris says, the man who saved his wife’s family cloaks his identity for fear of reprisal.

While the stories of Harris’ family members continue to motivate him, his passion also comes from his own experience in the mid-1970s.

As one of six Americans teaching in secondary schools in Moscow and Leningrad, Harris was walking between classes when a female student slipped a piece of paper into his hand, a clandestine hand-off. He walked into a stall in a men’s room.

“David Harris … I feel you are Jewish,” said the note. “My family is Refuseniks.” (Soviet Jews denied emigration.)

While in Moscow, Harris visited synagogues and made Jewish acquaintances to learn about Jewish life. When he asked the girl why she thought he was Jewish, she told him no parents would ever dare name their son “David” — unless they were Jewish.

Not long after, two uniformed soldiers nabbed Harris on the street and put him under hotel arrest for three days and two nights. The Russians expelled him to Helsinki, and as he left, they told him don’t try to return.
“I was on fire,” Harris recalls. “Very inspired. I felt I had become a lifeline.”

Harris joined the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in Rome and worked four years helping Jews leave the Soviet Union legally. In 1979, he joined AJC. He wanted to influence world policy.

Tolerance or terrorism?
In spite of his message of optimism to his Sarasota audience, in a post-lunch interview, Harris framed the state of the world as “much messier” than when he became AJC’s executive director in 1990.

Then, he says, the world was “uni-polar,” no longer the bi-polar Cold War world of the two super powers. In the past 10 years, however, the world has become increasingly “multi-polar,” Harris says.

While the United States is still the super power, “its strength is declining,” especially economically, Harris says. Power is more distributed. China continues to emerge. “Venezuela has been punching above its weight, and Iran thinks it can win in the boxing ring with the U.S. because it has energy.” And then you have the European Union and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). “They all can create their own blocs,” Harris says.

Add to that wars are now asymmetrical — no longer two uniformed enemies easy to identify. “The terrorists are always probing at your weak points,” Harris says. “They don’t have to go into the boxing ring.”

Asked what he sees arising in this global, asymmetrical cauldron, Harris says the future is unfolding now in the Islamic-Muslim states.

“Samuel Huntington wrote ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.’ The real clash is within civilizations,” Harris says.

Who will emerge to define Islam? Will its Muslim leaders permit tolerant and pluralistic societies? Or will it be the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah or the next Bin Laden?

“Christians have enormous challenges in these countries,” Harris says. “The Jews are gone. The real litmus test of Islam is how it treats its Christian minorities.”

And we’re seeing it: Coptic Christians persecuted in Egypt. Chaldean Christians leaving Iraq. An American Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran. Harris ticks off other countries where Christian minorities are increasingly pressured or tormented — Algeria, Nigeria, Lebanon, Pakistan.

“For all of us, these stakes are huge,” he says.

What should the United States do?

“If I were running for office, I would say America needs to restore its strength and confidence,” Harris says. “We have to get beyond the zero-sum games too many politicians are fighting, and there needs to be a spirit of common purpose and compromise. Those are not dirty words.

“We’re not a red and blue country,” he says. “We’re a red, white and blue country.”

Americans, Harris says, need to convince the world that, on the pressing issues it faces, “we have the national strength and the national will.” — Matt Walsh


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