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‘We Can’t Be Bashful’: American Jewish Committee CEO on Antisemitism, Iran, Ukraine and the Future of American Jewry

avatar by Andrew Bernard

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano (left) welcomes then US Congressman Ted Deutch and his delegation, upon his arrival to the IAEA Headquarters in Vienna, Austria. 5 July 2018. Photo: Dean Calma / IAEA US DELEGATION/Wikimedia Commons.

On Wednesday The Algemeiner sat down for an interview with former Congressman Ted Deutch, who became the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) earlier this month. Founded in 1906, AJC is one of the nation’s oldest and largest Jewish organizations and describes its mission as enhancing the well-being of the Jewish people and Israel, and to advance human rights and democratic values in the United States and around the world.

Deutch represented Florida for 12 years in Congress, where he chaired the bipartisan task force to combat antisemitism and was a staunch advocate of the US-Israel relationship. In this conversation, Deutch discussed his views on issues facing the global Jewish community ranging from Kanye West’s antisemitic social media posts to the Abraham Accords to the war in Ukraine.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Representative Ted Deutch, you’ve just started as head of the American Jewish Committee. You’re taking over from David Harris, who was head of the Committee for 32 years. How do you see that legacy and how do you want to bring it forward? And what are your priorities in the job? 

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There are between 15 and 17 million Jews around the world, depending upon who’s counting. AJC advocates on behalf of all of them, no matter where they live in whatever city or town, anywhere in the world, from Seattle to Washington to Buenos Aires, Paris, and Jerusalem. And that means advocating in local communities, with leaders in local communities, advocating with legal leaders, advocating on campuses, in boardrooms, and with technology companies, and in Washington and in foreign capitals around the world on all of the issues that matter to us. 

Right now, at a time of rising antisemitism, the work that AJC does in helping to push back against that antisemitism, to make sure that communities understand what’s at risk when the Jewish community feels threatened the way that we do now. That’s critically important work. 

We’re having this conversation as the Kanye story continues to move forward. It’s a really important moment. Nearly half of American Jews feel that antisemitism isn’t taken seriously enough. It’s close to 60% of young American Jews. So we have a responsibility to push back against that antisemitism. 

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib a few weeks ago said that you can’t be a progressive and support the State of Israel. Do you think that political criticism of Israel is fostering antisemitism? Or is it the other way around?

The issue for me is how we confront it. It’s one thing to criticize the actions of an ally’s government, that happens all the time. But when advocating for a position that says that Israel – the one, the only Jewish country in the world – doesn’t have a right to defend itself, and, in fact, doesn’t have a right to exist as a Jewish state? Well, you’re entitled to say that, and I’m entitled to tell you that that’s antisemitism. 

We can’t be bashful in the way that we approach this.

When it comes to combating antisemitism as a whole, we need bold steps. And that’s a focus that I now have in this position, making sure that our entire government is focused on this. That the Justice Department and Homeland Security and every part of government has a say in this. We need to see that whole-of-government approach take hold here.

Moving from the domestic sphere to the international, AJC was critical in advocating for many years what eventually became the Abraham Accords, and you’ve just opened an office in Abu Dhabi. What do you see as the future of Arab-Israeli or Arab-Jewish relations relations in the region?

Well, this was a priority for [former AJC CEO] David Harris, and Jason Isaacson, [AJC’s Chief Policy and Political Affairs Officer], has spent years making visits to the region well in advance helping to establish relations. When I was in Congress and I visited the Gulf – I visited the UAE – I turned to AJC then for the kinds of introductions that I wanted to make with the Jewish community living there. So there is a history that helped contribute to this moment. 

This is a unique moment in history.

AJC’s role then is to utilize the contacts that we have in the highest levels of the relationships, that we have at the highest levels of government throughout the world to help other countries take advantage of this moment. To help the Europeans view the Abraham Accords not just as individual relations between those countries and Israel or those countries and the UAE, but to take advantage of what this new bloc of countries means in the world. It means using Project Interchange, which is such an important program that we have to take leaders from other countries to Israel, expose them to Israeli innovation, expose them to everything Israel has to offer, to help foster economic growth and ultimately our hope is more countries joining the Abraham Accords.

On the other side of the Persian Gulf, you mentioned Iran. Although the talks seem to be stalled, the administration is still actively trying to get back to some form of the JCPOA – the nuclear deal that limits Iranian nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. What do you think the prospects of that deal are?

First, I think the conversation hasn’t brought in everything that’s happening now as clearly as I think it should. We’ve spent so much time talking about the JCPOA and the need to address the shortfalls of JCPOA. That it was going to be ‘longer and stronger.’ That that was something that had to happen before we would consider going back into the deal. That conversation has happened. And I’ll get back to that. 

But in addition to [all of Iran’s support for terrorism around the world], there’s a brutal and deadly crackdown on activists [and on women] in Iran now. And we have to ask the question if it’s acceptable to strike a deal that will provide tens, hundreds of billions of dollars to a regime that is currently brutalizing its own people as they seek greater rights and democracy. And also ask the question whether, on balance, it is better to have some greater access to Iran’s nuclear program now, and rolling back the break out period by a few months, and whether there’s enough benefit there to outweigh all of the hundreds of billions of dollars flowing in that Iran could also use to spread terrorism throughout the region and put Israel and other countries at greater risk. 

So at this point, regardless of what happens on the JCPOA, there needs to be a plan, right now, that acknowledges that Iran is enriching uranium to 60%, that the IAEA has made clear that only countries who want nuclear weapons enrich to that level. And what are we going to do, working with our allies in Europe and in the region? If there is a deal, what are we going to do? And in the absence of a deal, what are we going to do? Because the situation right now requires American leadership. And that’s going to be critical if there’s going to be the kind of response to Iran’s dangerous behavior that’s necessary.

You have mentioned Iran providing drones to Russia for their war in Ukraine. AJC has taken a strong position on Ukraine: the banner of your Twitter says “Stand With Ukraine.” How do you see that conflict playing out? What role do you think AJC has in advocating for Ukraine?

Standing up for democratic values is a central part of what AJC does. In large part because, as an organization that’s committed to enhancing the well-being of the Jewish community, the Jewish community has fared best throughout history in countries where democratic values flourish. And we’re seeing exactly the opposite now. The Russian attacks on civilian centers all across Ukraine that have nothing to do with the war, but everything to do with Putin simply lashing out, of course we should condemn those if we’re committed to democratic values. 

I think we have to continue to be clear that we’re standing on the side of the country whose sovereignty was violated and that is so much at risk. At the same time, the American Jewish Committee advocates for the entire global Jewish community, and for the half a million Jews in in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus we also have to constantly focus on ensuring their well-being as well. Those aren’t mutually exclusive approaches. I think we can consistently do that.

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