More than 2,500 delegates from throughout the United States and 70 countries came to Washington, D.C., to participate in the annual American Jewish Committee (AJC) Global Forum. They spent three days in early June reviewing international outreach and discussing plans for future programming. The 111-year-old organization has 22 U.S. regional offices, 10 overseas posts and 34 “agreements” with international Jewish communities.
The AJC has no official government sanction, yet its “diplomats” are received by domestic and foreign government officials at the highest levels. The organization works to influence positive policy on behalf of the Jewish people—a sort of community state department, sometimes able to override politics with an application of reality. On this, the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the organization stated that it seeks “to make a difference for the Jewish people and the state of Israel.”
The AJC’s 2017 annual Global Forum was titled “The Power to Act.” The meeting was characterized as an “inspiring, thought-provoking and energizing experience” by AJC chief executive David Harris. Its agenda included policy addresses by senior American and foreign government officials, Israeli journalists’ interpretation of the country’s outlook, and analysis by politicians and policymakers. There were ample opportunities for one-on-one interaction during small group sessions, and some 200 advocacy encounters with members of Congress followed the forum.
The initial plenary presented Japanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs Kentaro Sonoura, who delivered a message from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, sharing perspectives on regional and global challenges. The AJC has been active in Japan since 1988, and developed the Asia Pacific Institute (API), chaired by Jeffrey Stone and directed by Shira Loewenberg. Harris called Japan a “powerhouse in Asia, an essential ally and partner of the United States.”
U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, recently returned from Israel, and Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano participated in the opening plenary session, which included a discussion on Jewish perspectives and global trends with American political analyst Bill Kristol, French “public intellectual” Bernard-Henri Lévy, and Israeli MK (member of Knesset) and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Tziporah “Tzipi” Livni.
A highlight of the Monday afternoon plenary was the remarks by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer. New York State’s senior senator began his comments with a story about his first day as a senator, when his grandmother repeatedly asked Sen. Patrick “Tip” O’Neill to “take care of Chuckinue.” Called to the senior senator’s office, the newbie began his senatorial career by explaining the affectionate diminutive Yiddish term.
Schumer’s remarks turned serious. “The global community faces global threats,” he said, stressing the importance of the United States’ standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel. He discussed the need for awareness of rising anti-Semitism in Europe, calling it “an outrage that ought to be condemned by leaders of the world from every faith and nationality.”
Anti-Semitism in the United States, said the senator, has been much more troubling in recent months. He called on the governors of all 50 states to “call BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] what it is: anti-Semitism.” He applauded New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his strong anti-BDS position. (Cuomo has stated that “if you boycott Israel, New York State will boycott you.”) “Every governor of every state,” said Schumer, “should pass the same legislation….Let’s be clear: Many of the BDS supporters have the same goal as the Arab armies had in 1948—to annihilate the Jewish state.”
In a discussion of attitudes at the United Nations, the senator said, “Anti-Semitism lurks in the halls of the U.N., especially in the Human Rights Council.” He praised new Secretary General António Guterres—who has proclaimed that Israel must be treated as any other nation—and applauded Israel’s permanent representative to the U.N., Amb. Danny Danon, on his recent election as vice president of the 72nd General Assembly.
“At the United Nations, Israel can never let its guard down,” said Schumer. “I hope Israel will be treated normally. We can’t be silent when the U.N. singles out Israel.”
The senator stated that the United States should work to reverse Resolution 2334, which concerns the Israeli settlements in “Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem.” Historically, he noted, “the state of Israel and the Jewish people are judged by a double standard. Continuation of this policy is counterproductive to achieving a peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
Stressing the need for American leadership, Schumer said, “If America does not live up to its commitments, the world suffers. America must be a beacon for freedom and tolerance….The best thing for Israel and the world over is a strong, engaged United States.” Schumer complimented the American Jewish Committee on its understanding that “global engagement is the only way.”
Schumer’s concerns were mirrored in the statements of former Ambassador Wendy Sherman during the AJC Global Forum “Great Debate.” Sherman, of the Albright Stonebridge Group, was undersecretary of state for Political Affairs in the Obama administration. She debated conservative strategist Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute, who served as a senior director in the National Security Council under President George W. Bush. Their debate elicited applause, boos and not a small amount of laughter from an audience usually notable for its decorum.
“I believe that President Trump is leading in retreat, a dangerous position,” said Sherman. She characterized the “America First” concept as similar to the 1939 antiwar and anti–international–involvement movement led by Charles Lindbergh. It, too, she noted, was called “America First.” This attitude, according to Sherman, “should concern Americans, and especially Jews.”
Doran contended, “President Obama believed if you got the nuclear deal out of the way temporarily, he would come up with an accommodation with Iran over the region: Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. And Iran would moderate. It’s failed right before our eyes and the consequences have been catastrophic.” Throughout, Doran expressed approval of the Trump administration’s approach.
Another highlight of the Global Forum 2017 program was the two presentations by Dr. Tal Becker, a senior fellow at the Hartman Institute and former legal adviser to then-Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. His topics covered philosophical challenges and practical applications.
“The case for Israel” focused on “an idea that says simply, ‘Not making the case for Israel is the best case for Israel,’” said Becker. He called the ongoing debate about Israeli religious and political attitudes “a return to the normal state of Jewish thinking,” noting that “Zionism is an ongoing experiment of different opinions. The essence of Jewishness is to argue about what is its essence…resulting in a life that is relevant.”
Becker launched a discussion of the peace process, which he cautioned “always repeats the mistakes we least remember making.” He said that the “convergence of interests” between Israel and the Sunni countries, while not a new idea, offers “an opening that can be pursued.” However, he warned that success is far from assured.
Though his podium was at a Jewish organization’s forum, Becker said that a distinction must be drawn between Jewish organizations and Israel. “Israel does not have the luxury of being completely principled all the time. Ours is a tough neighborhood; precisely because of that, we must stand for the things as we view them.” He underscored the important difference between stagecraft and statecraft, defining “stage” as “if you announce your intentions it’s too in your face….The future of a community is determined by the way it determines its outcome. It is important to the Jewish community to determine who we are.”
Addressing the concept of Zionism, Becker defined Zionist philosophy as “the rejection of victimhood….The guiding mantra is ‘never again.’” He stated that the Holocaust “still casts long shadows—even on young American Jews who have no direct contact.” Current political arguments directly affect the Jewish dialogue, especially on university campuses, noted Becker. There is an active “loss of the search for truth and knowledge.” He explored the concept of “intersectionality…now a litmus test applied solely to Israeli issues” as an example. “Most liberal movements,” he said, “demand opposition to Israel” as a condition of participation.
With regard to the term “occupation,” Becker suggested the need for an alternative term. There is “a big difference between the popular conception and the legal term,” he explained. “‘Occupation’ is conceptually seen as an illegitimate foreign presence.” By international law, however, the same term describes “a state of affairs when territory is captured in an armed conflict,” and is thus a legal geopolitical designation.
A consequence of Israel’s “occupation” has been the emergence of the BDS movement. “Those drawn to BDS circles are not necessarily against peace,” said Becker. “They may think BDS is a way to get to peace. However, hardcore proponents are simply about undermining the legitimacy of Israel and include neo-Nazis driven by hate.” Others, he said “see themselves as sympathetic to ‘victims’”; still others actually see BDS as “an influencer of Israel policy.”
One of the Global Forum’s most warmly received dialogues was the conversation between Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer and AJC Director Harris, which focused on managing the relationship with the Trump administration and a deeply politically divided American Jewish community. The ambassador greeted colleagues and fraternity brothers and talked about Israel’s continuing status as a strong, valuable American ally through both the Obama and Trump administrations. He noted the importance of maintaining bipartisan U.S. support.
Acknowledging that the controversy over the “Iran Deal” had caused “a split,” he assured the audience that, on other issues, Israel maintains “friends on both sides of the aisle.”
Dermer noted the administration’s acknowledgment of the “fatal flaw”—the “sunset clause,” which would allow development of a nuclear infrastructure that could support nuclear weaponry at the conclusion of the Iran Deal.
“If those restrictions didn’t have an expiration date, then we could have a debate,” he said. “The view of the new administration is that this deal is not in the interest of the U.S. I think you can expect a very real push back [against Iran]. They have to be smart about it and get their ducks lined in a row….I think you’ll see this play out over the next couple of years.”