American Jewish Committee Cuts Israel Staff Amid Tensions

Jerusalem Chief Axed In Shake Up — No Explanation Offered

Change Agent: AJC executive director David Harris was reportedly unhappy with the performance of the Jerusalem office.
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Change Agent: AJC executive director David Harris was reportedly unhappy with the performance of the Jerusalem office.

By Nathan Guttman

Published April 12, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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The American Jewish Committee, which proclaims advocacy for Israel as the core of its mission, has quietly sacked some of its Israel staff, without offering any explanation.

The decision to lay off the Jerusalem office director and three other staff members, made by AJC headquarters in New York, has thrust the office, based in Jerusalem’s Beit Moses building, into a state of confusion. It effectively shut down the group’s core activity in Israel, although AJC officials have made clear that they intend to continue operations and could possibly hire new staff to replace the laid-off workers.

Though the recent actions came as a surprise, there is a long history of tension between AJC’s Jerusalem office and the New York headquarters.

The termination process began in late January, after the AJC’s board of governors’ annual mission to Israel and neighboring countries. The top leadership’s otherwise successful five-nation tour ended on a sour note for the employees staffing the AJC’s Jerusalem office. They were left with letters summoning them to a hearing in advance of termination, a procedure required by Israeli labor laws before firing an employee.

The AJC has positioned itself as the “State Department of the Jewish people,” a self-proclaimed foreign affairs arm of the Jewish community, focused on global Jewish advocacy. As such, the Jerusalem office was viewed as the organization’s frontline in dealing with the Israeli government and, at times, as the base for back-channel talks with neighboring Arab countries. Reasons for firing the entire staff working on these issues were not provided to the employees or to the media.

Following the hearings, three women staff members, each working for the AJC for more than a decade, were sent home. A final decision regarding the future of the office director, Edward Rettig, has yet to be announced, as sources with the AJC have said that the organization’s executive director, David Harris, was dissatisfied with his performance. The decision guts the AJC Jerusalem office of all its professional staff who were tasked with representing the organization to Israeli society and government and maintaining contacts with the international diplomatic community based in Israel.

Two of the other programs run by the AJC’s Jerusalem office will continue to operate: Project Interchange, a key AJC program that brings foreign politicians and civil society leaders to visit Israel, and the group’s inter-religious program, which is responsible for ties with other faith groups across the world.

The AJC declined to respond to specific questions presented by the Forward regarding the layoffs in the Jerusalem office, citing a “long-standing policy not to discuss personnel matters the media.” In a statement, Harris said: “We are immensely proud to have been the first American Jewish agency to establish a full-time office in Israel over a half-century ago. Our commitment to a robust presence there, housed in Beit Moses, our headquarter building in Jerusalem, continues to grow and flourish.”


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