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.”

The AJC’s Jerusalem outpost had a history of tension with the group’s New York headquarters. In 1993 the group appointed scholar Michael Oren to head the office. Oren, who is now Israel’s ambassador to Washington, was then a young, American-born historian who had already served as an Israeli liaison officer to the U.S. Navy during the First Gulf War. The appointment lasted only a year, and Oren has since dropped any mention of his tenure with the AJC from his official biography.

In 1995 the AJC chose Yossi Alpher, a retired Mossad intelligence officer and a renowned Middle East researcher as well as a contributing editor to the Forward, to fill the position. Alpher served as the AJC’s Jerusalem director for five years. But political disagreements with Harris — Alpher is known for his dovish views on Israel, while Harris is aligned with a more hawkish approach — contributed to Alpher’s resignation. Alpher was also frustrated with what he saw as the AJC’s condescending approach toward secular Israelis. On his way out, Alpher sent a harsh letter to AJC board members, listing his grievances.

In 2001, Eran Lerman was chosen to replace Alpher. Lerman, a retired Israel Defense Forces colonel, brought to the job an extensive background as a Middle East analyst, and, according to colleagues, he held views close to those of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on the Israeli-Arab conflict. Lerman eventually joined the government as a senior member of Netanyahu’s National Security Council, sending the AJC once again in search of a Jerusalem director.

The group ultimately chose Rettig, an American-born ordained rabbi who specialized in relations between Israel and the American Jewish community. Rettig has served in many previous capacities in the organization. But he did not come from the Israeli government or military establishment, and, according to an AJC official, he “did not provide [David] Harris with the public image he was looking for.” The official, who like other AJC members spoke on condition of anonymity because of the organization’s policy, added that Harris and the New York office are seeking to replace Rettig with “a diplomatic or military figure that will look impressive.”

Rettig declined an interview request for this article.

The dramatic layoffs at the AJC’s Jerusalem office come at a time of strained labor relations within the organization. The AJC is now in the midst of new contract negotiations with the union that represents nearly half of its 230 employees, and talks have centered on concerns that the organization management may cut health benefits provided to employees.

In addition, the group is undergoing a reform in which it is cutting back on domestic programs and research in favor of global advocacy with a focus on Israel.

It is not clear how the recent layoffs in the organization’s Jerusalem office relate to this goal. One official speculated that the move reflects a desire to have the organization’s top leadership deal directly with the Israeli government as opposed to staffers on the ground.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman


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