Advocate, Optimist, Worrier
Class of ’71 | David Harris C’71 is a self-proclaimed “inveterate optimist” and “professional worrier.” As executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), an organization with 33 offices in the United States and 23 overseas, both traits have come in handy.
The AJC, founded in 1906 by a small group of New York City Jews in response to a wave of pogroms in Russia, will celebrate its centennial next year by looking back at its rich history while looking ahead to its role in promoting Jewish causes and reconciliation on a global scale. Over the years, it has been a vital force for Jews around the world.
“The American Jewish Committee is the State Department of the Jewish people, and David Harris is our Secretary of State,” says Marvin Israelow W’69, a member of the AJC’s board of governors. “He is a passionate, forceful, and charming advocate on issues involving Israel and Jews around the world.”
Harris didn’t plan to devote his professional career to Jewish causes when he arrived at Penn in 1966, the 16-year-old son of Holocaust survivors. He’d grown up in a largely secular environment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, attending synagogue on the High Holy Days but having little involvement in Jewish education beyond his bar mitzvah.
At Penn, he never took a Jewish studies course or participated in activities at Hillel. But Harris’ awakening to the issues facing Jews began while serving on the presidential search committee looking for Penn’s 19th chief executive officer.
Among the finalists was Martin Meyerson Hon’70, the Jewish president of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Harris was astonished to learn that a Jew had never been selected president of an Ivy League college.
“It hit me right between the eyes,” the 55-year-old Harris said recently at his home in Chappaqua, New York. “It didn’t seem right. There were lots of Jewish professors, administrators, and students. I wondered if this was some kind of subtle, or not-so-subtle, anti-Semitism.” Meyerson was subsequently chosen, and served as Penn’s president from 1970 through 1981.
A job in Penn’s admissions office his senior year led Harris to his first professional position, and sparked his involvement in Jewish issues. Among the top prospects he interviewed that year were several savvy high-school seniors who’d participated in yearlong international exchange programs with the American Field Service (AFS). After earning a master’s degree in international relations at the London School of Economics, he landed a job at the AFS headquarters in Manhattan, where he was surprised to learn that Israel didn’t participate in the AFS because Arab nations would drop out if the Jewish state were involved.
“This offended me to no end,” said Harris, noting that Israel later joined the exchange program. “Israel had been sacrificed to something called the Arab boycott. I couldn’t imagine the organization would succumb to such political blackmail. I couldn’t imagine it would happen in New York.”
While working at the AFS, Harris also taught English at night to immigrants, including many from Russia. Harris had learned Russian from his mother and had studied it in high school and at Penn. So in 1974, during the heady days of détente between President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, Harris was among six teachers selected for an AFS work-exchange program in Russia.
There he discovered the vibrant underground world of Soviet Jews, then seething with the desire to escape Soviet oppression and immigrate to Israel. They invited him to their homes, brought him to their prayer services, and related their struggles to be free. Then Harris was detained by Soviet authorities and summarily expelled from the country.
“I was on fire,” he said.
After taking stock for a few weeks in Norway, Harris took a train to Rome, where Jewish agencies served as a clearinghouse for Soviet émigrés. For the next four years, Harris interviewed thousands of Russians who’d left the Soviet Union. In Rome, he also met his future wife, Giulietta.
After he was hired by the AJC in 1979, he left for four years to work for the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, but returned in 1984 and was named executive director in 1990. Today, the AJC’s annual budget of $40 million supports 300 employees in 33 offices in the United States and 23 overseas. Its post in Israel, established in 1961, was the first to be created there by an American Jewish group with a fulltime staff.
Along with the refusal by many in the Middle East to accept Israel’s right to exist is another, different concern for Harris: the uncertain future of American Jewry, as it copes with the growing number of mixed marriages and a younger generation losing touch with Judaism’s rich past. With Americans taking a leading role in supporting Jewish causes around the world, a weakened community at home could hurt advocacy abroad, he says.
“I worry that too many American Jews are indifferent to their heritage and traditions,” he says. “As a result, there’s a plateau, or even a gradual diminution in the American Jewish community, and that has consequences for Jews all over the world.”
For Harris, these issues animate a professional life that keeps him on the road for more than 100 days a year, with monthly overseas trips to strengthen the AJC’s role in support of democracy, human rights, free trade, and the well-being of overseas Jewish communities.
This past summer, Harris traveled to Germany to celebrate the AJC’s 25-year partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Institute, which has brought German and Jewish leaders together to talk about common concerns in the wake of the Holocaust. In Berlin, he jogged along a route that traversed the Brandenberg Gate, which was closed for three decades during the Cold War.
Passing through the Gate’s commanding pillars reminded Harris how far the world had come since some of the 20th century’s darkest days. After all, his father, Eric, who had roamed the woods in a nearby park as a child, fled in 1933 to escape the Nazi juggernaut, while Harris himself had been expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974.
“I pinch myself every time I go through the Brandenberg Gate,” says Harris. “There’s no more division of East and West. No more Soviet bloc. Every morning I ran there, I’d want to tell my father that his son’s running in the park and visiting the American Jewish Committee’s office in Berlin.”
David McKay Wilson
©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette