How an accidental activist became the ‘foreign minister of the Jewish people’
(JTA) — As a newly arrived American exchange teacher at a Moscow public school in 1974, David Harris was discreetly handed a small piece of paper by a young girl passing him in the hallway.
“I clenched it in my fist, and opened it in a stall in the bathroom,” recalled the top executive of the American Jewish Committee, who will be closing out a 32-year tenure as CEO at the end of the month. “The note was in English, and said something like ‘David Harris, I feel that you’re Jewish. My family is refuseniks, would you meet with us?’”
Until that brief, wordless encounter, Harris, who was 25 at the time, had little involvement with the budding Soviet Jewry movement. Growing up in Manhattan as a child of Holocaust survivors in a secular Jewish home, he had attended several rallies for Soviet Jews out of curiosity. But it was only after being chosen as one of six Americans to teach in Russia, via an American Field Service-sponsored program at a moment of detente, that he came to understand the depth of the plight of Jews unable to express their Judaism or leave the USSR — and begin to grapple with his own Jewish identity.
Harris was in a unique position to help. As the only American teaching at Moscow’s Public School 45, he was fluent in Russian. Though he understood that contact with refuseniks was dangerous, he felt (wrongly, it turned out) that his American passport offered protection.
He showed up one night at the girl’s home, met her parents and heard how an application to emigrate to Israel resulted in lost jobs or a reassignment to menial tasks for them and their refusenik friends. “They were stuck and turned to an American as a lifeline,” Harris said, adding that the meeting led to more students reaching out to him and more nights meeting more refuseniks. “I was off to the races.”
Harris’ encounter with Soviet Jewish refuseniks motivated him to embark on what he recently described as “my lifelong mission — to assist Jews in danger worldwide, support Israel’s quest for peace and security, combat antisemitism, and defend democratic values against the radical right and the totalitarian left.”
As he prepared to step down after 32 years, Harris and I spoke recently about the seminal experience that shaped him and other Jewish leaders of his generation — the Soviet Jewry movement — and how the common purpose it represented may no longer be accessible for a polarized Jewish community.
Harris also spoke candidly about how the refusenik era shaped his own Jewish identity, and what he came to learn about himself.
“I was robbed, or robbed myself, of my Jewish heritage,” he said. “I began to discover that we are the heirs and guardians of perhaps the most extraordinary civilization in human history. Why would I walk away? So I embraced it.”
Rep. Ted Deutch, the seven-term Democratic congressman from Florida who will succeed Harris, is inheriting an AJC whose mission and reputation have been fortified and expanded during the three-decade tenure of a leader whose name has in many ways become synonymous with the organization.
At a tribute to Harris held in New York in June at the most recent annual AJC Global Forum, several dignitaries cited Shimon Peres’ description of Harris as “the foreign minister of the Jewish people.” Under Harris, the AJC established strong relations with governments in Europe, South America and Asia as an honest broker, and pioneered quiet engagement in the Arab world long before the Abraham Accords.
Six years ago, the organization expanded its interfaith work by partnering with the Islamic Society of North America to create the Muslim-Jewish Advisory Council, which promotes coalitions countering antisemitic and anti-Muslim fundamentalism. In addition, among Jewish organizations, the AJC prides itself, as Harris has written, as “truly centrist and independent,” despite criticism from both the right and the left for not taking sides.
“Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many policy issues crying out for nuance, only to discover that the very word itself is seen as anathema by many,” Harris wrote in the same essay, written shortly after the November 2016 presidential election.
Much of his own talk at the tribute focused on how his experience in Moscow stirred him to take up the cause of Soviet Jewry.
The Jews he was meeting there wanted to provide him information “about an uncle or cousin or friend” in the free world who might be able to help them leave. They needed blue jeans to sell on the black market, Hebrew language books to study, a Star of David or any Jewish item to wear or display. Most of all, “they wanted the world to know they exist.”
In an interview, Harris vividly recalled the scene he witnessed that fall on Simchat Torah at Moscow’s Great Choral Synagogue. Thousands of people, many of them young, filled the street. They were celebrating a holiday they knew little about other than that it was a connection to Israel and to a history and heritage they longed to be a part of. Defying arrest, some held signs saying “Let Us Go Home, To Israel.”
Harris had never celebrated Simchat Torah, but he was deeply moved. “When I saw their joy,” he said, “I sensed that the Kremlin had failed to quell their Jewish spirit. And I cried. My life changed that day. I became a witness.”
He was becoming a committed activist, too. In December 1974, three months after his arrival in Russia, Harris was detained by authorities one Shabbat. After being held for several days in detention, he was put on a plane and sent to Helsinki. Alone in a cold, unfamiliar setting, Harris grappled with his past, considered his present and future, and came away inspired to change the course of his life.
“I hadn’t gone to Moscow to be an infiltrator or Jewish secret agent,” he explained, noting that he had been on an educational path that would lead to his doctorate from the London School of Economics. He had planned a career in diplomacy, imagining himself someday as U.S. ambassador to Moscow. “But I was on fire. I realized I was one of the few living witnesses to an unfolding cultural genocide of the Jewish people in my lifetime. I asked myself what was it that I needed to learn from those brave refuseniks I had met?”
After a short stay in Helsinki, Harris sought and was given a job at HIAS, the Jewish immigration agency. With his Russian language expertise, he worked for several years in Rome and Vienna with Soviet Jewish emigrants, greeting virtually every group upon their arrival. In 1979, back in America, Harris joined AJC in its Washington office. He says he was drawn to the legacy institution, founded in 1906, for its commitment “to protect Jews everywhere and to protect democratic values for all.”
Over the next 11 years, with the exception of a three-year stint with the National Coalition Supporting Soviet Jewry (1981-’84), he worked at AJC headquarters in New York and in its Washington office, which he headed from 1987 to 1990. The highlight of that period came in 1987, when he worked with Natan Sharansky, the hero and symbol of the Soviet Jewry movement. Freed in 1986 after more than nine years in a Soviet gulag, the most famous refusenik came to the United States and goaded a reluctant American Jewish establishment to hold a major Soviet Jewry rally in Washington, D.C., on the eve of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s scheduled White House meeting with President Ronald Reagan in December 1987.
Sharansky ignored concerns that holding a major outdoor rally in the winter in D.C. would be futile and embarrassing to the cause. Harris, tasked as national coordinator of the mammoth undertaking, said the former refusenik was its “driving force and inspiration. No one could say no to him.”
In the end, an estimated 250,000 protestors gathered near the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 6, a freezing Sunday, for what is believed to be the largest Jewish rally ever held in the United States. Coupled with bipartisan political pressure from Washington, the rally — a highpoint after years of grassroots advocacy — was a key factor in the Kremlin’s widening the door of Jewish emigration. Over the next several years, a million Jews and their families left the Soviet Union. Most immigrated to Israel; many came to America.
Harris was happy with his job in Washington, but a crisis in leadership at the helm of AJC soon rocketed his career.
In the summer of 1990, Ira Silverman, the highly respected 45-year-old executive vice president of AJC, was forced to step down, battling an illness that would take his life a year later. In an interview with The New York Times on leaving his top post after only two years, Silverman said AJC was “struggling for its health and I’m … struggling for mine. That partnership isn’t as strong as what’s needed.”
He was referring to a series of major financial and restructuring problems at AJC, caused in part by six changes at the organization’s helm in the preceding decade.
Eager to find a successor for Silverman who could restore AJC’s reputation as a leader in its field, the board reached out to Harris. Ironically, one of the reasons Harris joined AJC in the first place was because he was so impressed with Silverman, whom he had first met while working at HIAS in Europe. “I wanted to be him,” Harris said.
Though flattered by the New York offer, Harris worried he didn’t have the required skills in high-level internal management, fundraising and budgeting.
“I didn’t believe in myself” for the top AJC job, Harris said.
Steven Bayme, who preceded Harris at AJC and worked closely with him for more than 30 years as director of contemporary Jewish life, recalled that at that time the agency was floundering financially — 60 of its 176 positions had been eliminated that year. And with the highly capable Silverman too ill to lead, morale was low.
When Harris finally was convinced by lay leaders to take the helm in the fall of 1990, set out to make AJC the Jewish global institution it has become, establishing offices on every continent except Antarctica. He also made pro-Israel advocacy a primary goal. Founded by largely German-Jewish grandees concerned about pogroms targeting Jews in Eastern Europe, the AJC was, in fact, a latecomer to the Zionist cause, not in favor of a Jewish state until soon after it became a reality.
“He took us out of the woods,” Bayme said, “from the most assimilationist of Jewish agencies to one that represents the entire Jewish people.”
Looking back, Harris notes that American Jewry is in a very different place than it was in 1990. The community was “sturdier, more connected” then, Harris said, referring to the rallying impact of the Soviet Jewry movement and stronger and wider support for Israel and consensus around U.S.-Israel relations.
“There is no overarching, unifying issue today,” he said. Israel has become a divisive topic, and with increasing assimilation, there are “a disturbingly large number of American Jews who feel disconnected from their Jewish identity,” as he wrote in a 2021 essay.
And while there is shared concern about rising antisemitism in the United States, the political polarization between left and right keeps Jews from agreeing on who is to blame and how to respond, he said.
Still, Harris is optimistic about the future, suggesting that a rebirth is taking place for those Jews who choose to engage. He said that more young Jews identify with Israel than is commonly thought – about 75% of millennials, according to a recent study sponsored by the AJC.
“Unfortunately, they often are not outspoken about their support for Israel, fearful of criticism on campus or on social media,” he said.
At the June tribute, Harris expressed gratitude to his family, his predecessors, staff and lay leaders — and the young Israelis in the Israel Defense Forces.
Then he returned, once again, to the Soviet Jews he met almost a half-century ago.
“They, unlike me growing up in New York, paid a heavy price for wanting to be Jewish,” Harris said.
In a moment of reflection during one of our conversations, Harris revisited the personal crisis he endured as a young man, alone in Helsinki, in the days after he was expelled from the Soviet Union. As the son of two Holocaust survivors, “I had always asked myself what I would do if I was in Europe in World War II,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Ok, David, your test is what do you do now in 1974.’”
Gary Rosenblatt was editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com
This article originally appeared on JTA.org.