Daniel Elbaum

Tribute to a Jewish giant: David Harris

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. (courtesy)
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. (courtesy)

Someday I will tell my future grandchildren that I saw Michael Jordan play basketball at the old Chicago stadium, that I heard Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall, and that I watched David Harris speak at the AJC Global Forum.

During the 11 years I worked for David, I often heard him scoff at the “American art of embellishment.” This comes, in large part, from his integrity and his sincere belief that one should say what one means and mean what one says.

And so: MJ. Yo-Yo Ma. David.

During my time at the American Jewish Committee, David empowered the organization’s lay leaders and staff to meet with heads of state and speak truth to power. He reminded us each year that we had more bilateral meetings with world leaders at the annual opening of the UN General Assembly than did the US secretary of state. And he convinced us that constant and patient meetings with a country’s leaders, respectful but direct, could change the course of that country’s foreign policy — and he proved to be right on more than one occasion.

As David prepares to step down from an organization he has led since 1990 and worked at since 1979, I am moved, out of affection and deep respect, to share some of what I admire about this great man.

In an era of memes and 20-second videos, David cares about the lost art of oratory. Whether in a crowded auditorium or on a Zoom call, David does not walk into a room without knowing exactly who his audience is, where they are, and where he wants to move them. David knows intuitively that audiences are impatient and fickle, and that the first 30 seconds of your speech will determine whether you reach them or not. He has the respect for them, and confidence in himself, to make sure that the precious opportunity is not lost.

Yet, for me, it’s not about how David says it, but what he is saying. David’s message, even adapted to meet the audiences and challenges of today, has not changed: Never compromise with antisemitism. Stand with the people of Israel. Do not allow politics to interfere with doing what is right. Never apologize for representing the interests of the Jewish people. These principles are timeless, and as essential today as ever.

There are some who view this consistency as a flaw — a relic of an era of Jewish advocacy whose time has passed. Some, especially among the too-online Twitter mob, insist that the threat posed by the far-right, in the US and abroad, is grounds to smother our concerns about antisemitism from the far-left. To them, antisemitism is a definitionally right-wing phenomenon, and anyone on the left is not only not to be criticized for their antisemitism, but necessarily deserving of Jewish friendship and support.

But hateful accusations of dual-loyalty, of buying elections, and of Jewish blood-thirstiness today seem to come as often from the left as from the right, and a Jewish advocate, while seeking friends in every corner, must not be afraid to criticize any side. History will show that David stood against those forces and fought them with every fiber of his being. That he did all that he could to chart a middle and nonpartisan course in the typhoon of partisanship that has rocked our nation and community. That though he wasn’t infallible, he kept his eyes on the essential principles in which he believed and which have led our community to be the most successful and impactful one in the history of the Diaspora.

But it is not David’s speeches or the high-level meetings in gilded meeting rooms in foreign capitals that I will remember most. Instead, it’s those moments away from the spotlight. I will remember David walking the halls of the sixth floor at AJC and pausing to speak to every single person, remembering what college an intern attended. I will remember his all-too-rare commitment to not allow anything to be published under his name unless he himself had authored those words. And I will remember those dark and uncertain days at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when David announced to AJC’s senior management team that he would not allow a single employee to be let go or furloughed during the crisis and his single-minded focus to ensure the organization’s financial stability.

David, a former athlete, often uses sports analogies, especially from the worlds of rowing and running. He has lately spoken of passing the baton to the next generation of Jewish leaders. Though his leg of the race is coming to a graceful close, David has nevertheless remained focused on ensuring that those who follow will go “mi’chayil el hayil” (from strength to strength), picking up the baton and continuing on.

Yet what an extraordinary run it has been. As David’s hero Winston Churchill, who also had (and still has) his fair share of critics, once wrote “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” For over 30 years, David led AJC through successes and failures. Yet he has always had the courage of his convictions.

And I can’t wait to see what he does next.

About the Author
Dan Elbaum is head of North America at The Jewish Agency for Israel and the president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.
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