AJC CEO reviews first 8 months on the job, citing work in the Gulf, efforts to combat antisemitism
In wide-ranging interview, Deutch describes his organization's efforts to expand the Abraham Accords, constrain Iran's nuclear program
Courtesy/American Jewish Committee
The American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum kicked off in Tel Aviv last night, before a crowd of 1,500 attendees from around the world. On the main stage at Sunday night’s plenary, Israeli President Isaac Herzog sat in conversation with AJC’s CEO. But for the first time in decades, the organization’s head was not David Harris, who stepped down last year, but Ted Deutch, who assumed the global NGO’s top job last fall after more than a decade in Congress. Ahead of the start of Global Forum, eJewishPhilanthropy sat down with Deutch to discuss the transition, AJC’s efforts in the Gulf and the organization’s priorities under Deutch’s leadership.
Melissa Weiss: Let’s start with this trip. You were just in the UAE.
Ted Deutch: It was my first trip to the AJC Abu Dhabi office, which was exciting as not only the first Jewish organization to open an office in the UAE, but I believe one of the only NGOs in the world to have an office in the UAE and I got to see up close the work that we do there, so it was a really gratifying trip. In the eight months [since joining AJC] I’ve come to appreciate in a much deeper way the breadth of our work, and so a lot of that was on display and in the few days that we spent in the UAE, it was the interfaith work that we do and visiting the Abrahamic Family House.
It’s incredible and just [was] a really, really meaningful visit. And knowing the work, the collaboration that we have with leaders at the Abrahamic Family house in and across the religious establishment, not just in the UAE but really across the Arab world, and the work we do with Muslim Jewish Advisory Council, that was really meaningful. So there’s the inter-religious work that we do that I got to see, there’s obviously the diplomatic work that that we do. We had a really meaningful meeting with the foreign minister, [Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan]. My focus when I started was to try to build upon what the Abraham Accords has already represented. And obviously, there have been lots of other things that have come up in the meantime that haven’t really given me the opportunity to stay on that straight line, but we, across the organization, continue to have that as a focus. So to spend time talking about what’s working and where we can focus to do more, and what the opportunities are longer-term, not just in the UAE [and] in the other Abraham Accords countries, but across the region, that was a very important and timely meeting with the foreign minister. Then we followed that up with a meeting with the Israeli ambassador to the UAE, so we had an opportunity to really see it from the two sides that are most intimately involved here in the region. So that was really meaningful.
MW: You were part of the Abraham Accords Caucus in Congress. That’s it’s an interesting perspective then, to go from seeing it from a political standpoint, and now doing it on the organizational side.
TD: Well, not just the caucus, I chaired the Middle East subcommittee and worked on these issues the entire time I was in Congress. To think about even just the difference between my 2015 trip to the UAE, when we met with Jewish community leaders as we did on this trip, which was very powerful. But the conversations that took place at the time were so different, but I specifically remember people telling me that some weren’t comfortable talking about being Jewish or talking about Israel. A number of them were OK with their colleagues knowing that they were Jewish, but they would never talk about Israel publicly. And now, post-Abraham Accords, when there are Israelis everywhere you turn, the interactions between Emiratis and Israelis and Americans, Jews and Muslims – it really is the picture of what coexistence should look like. And so having been involved on the political side and visited and really focused on the politics and the things that needed to happen to try to get to where we are today, and to now see it in place and to be able to think about the role that AJC can play from the outside to really help grow it.
MW: What were your conversations like with the foreign minister?
TD: He shares the same desire that we at AJC feel, that people who care about Israel feel, which is to really capitalize on what we’ve got and on what the Abraham Accords represents, and that means really trying to go full speed ahead and to make sure that there aren’t hurdles that stand in the way, that some of the political discourse that happens on the outside shouldn’t interfere. We were very clear about this, that whatever politics are happening in the region — there always politics in the region — but that shouldn’t interfere with this transformative change that the Abraham Accords represents and that you see firsthand when you’re on the ground in the UAE.
MW: AJC has always been known for its diplomatic work. But how has the Abraham Accords changed how you do what you do in that part of the world?
TD: Well, in that part of the world, it starts with our office. It’s very powerful, as someone who was involved in the pro-Israel community long before I ran for Congress, proudly served in Congress and in a variety of roles all trying to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship and Israel’s place in the world. It’s very powerful for me to walk into the office of the organization that I’m now privileged to run in the heart of the Arab world, in the Gulf, and to know how welcomed we were when we came to Abu Dhabi to open that office, and how close the relationship is every day in the work that we do there. And that work expands out, to Bahrain and to Morocco. Obviously, it’s our hope that normalization will come with Saudi Arabia in the future. It’s a lot of engagement that we’re all involved in. By opening an office, we’re clearly planting the flag more publicly that we just weren’t able to do for all of those years when these trips had to be quiet, these meetings had to be quiet, and we’re now trying to use that public face that we have to try to advance this more broadly, and the same thing applies throughout the world.
I will tell you, when I started, there weren’t a lot of things that I thought it was important to change because AJC, for more than a century, has been doing remarkable work. It’s a really strong organization. But a lot of people like to refer to AJC as ‘the Jewish community’s best-kept secret.’ I’ve banned that phrase from the lips of anyone who works in our organization or any of our lay leaders. I think we should be really proud of the work that we do. Obviously, we don’t discuss everything that happens in every meeting with every official from around the world. I was just in Warsaw, we had meetings with our Central Europe office, really important meetings with the Polish government. We were in India recently meeting with the foreign minister, the defense minister. We don’t have to talk about everything that happened, because it is important in diplomacy to keep things close when we’re trying to advance the important agenda that we have. That doesn’t mean I don’t want people to know that we’re engaged in that work. So the fact that our office in Abu Dhabi — we have an office and that’s public — is just an example of how I think we should be approaching this work around the world. We have a proud tradition of engaging around the world on behalf of Israel and the Jewish community. Certainly the world leaders that we meet with know that and I certainly want everyone in the broader Jewish world to understand that as well.
MW: As long as I’ve known AJC, which is 20 years now, AIPAC has always kind of cornered the U.S.-Israel relationship, ADL has cornered antisemitism and AJC has kind of done everything. The diplomatic work was always the core of it, at least outwardly. Where does AJC fit into the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations?
TD: I think about it this way. There’s not another organization that gives someone the opportunity to engage on behalf of the Jewish people in all of the areas where that help is needed. So the diplomatic work that we do, whether it’s through our offices around the world, or in embassies in Washington, consulates all around the United States where we’re maintaining really close relationships, the U.N. where we have active engagement by both professionals and lay leadership. That’s one piece of it, advocating for Israel and the Jewish people. And sometimes, there are some issues that relate specifically to Jewish communities and Jewish communal life, and sometimes it’s Israel-related, but that’s the way that we can engage there. But if you’re advocating on behalf of the Jewish people, well, the second-largest community outside of Israel is in the United States, and so the work that we do to enhance the well-being of Jewish people is to both do the work as citizen diplomats, which we do through the consulates and diplomat Seders and all the various programming that we do, the leadership training, but it’s also the work we do to help lift up the Jewish community.
And I would just point to the recent national strategy to combat antisemitism from the White House. It’s something that we’ve been engaged in since well before it existed. Our call to action against antisemitism, which spells out all of the ways that the whole of society needs to come together to fight antisemitism, is in large part included, so much of it is included: dozens of our recommendations in the national strategy. One piece of our call to action was the federal government. So we were proud as the White House was drafting this to bring to the White House special envoys from around the world that we’ve worked with for years that we’ve worked with to help create strategies in their own countries. We brought them to the White House for a three-plus hour meeting, so they could share their own experiences about what works and what doesn’t work so that the plan that came from the White House would actually be based on real experiences. It’s the reason that the second gentlemen and I were together at the U.N. talking about antisemitism and recently in Los Angeles, trying to engage some of the content world in the things that they can do to fight antisemitism. So AJC, our call to action, I’m proud to say, led to a number of the recommendations that are included in the White House strategy. But what we do next is turn that call to action into a strategy to action, and the White House has more than 100 specific actions to be taken by the federal government and more than 100 other specific actions that they call on, like our plan does, they call on others in business, universities, social media companies to take their own action. So just as we’re proud of the leading role we played in the creation of the White House plan, we intend to also lead the way in ensuring that the White House plan and all of the action items in it and the ones that they call for come to fruition. We can’t, we can’t just celebrate the fact that the White House took this dramatic action as dramatic as it was, and they deserve great credit for it. They’ve embraced the IHRA definition, which is important.
MW: Embraced, but not adopted.
TD: Right, which is exactly where the administration has been. Actually, let me talk about that for a second.
MW: Only because I was thinking about it today because Kosovo, a Muslim-majority country just adopted it. It made me think, why can’t we?
TD: I met with the prime minister of Kosovo recently to talk about that, as a matter of fact. I’ll be honest. The White House put out a plan with over 200 specific actions from helping to ensure greater security for the Jewish community to stopping the normalization of antisemitism to ensuring that DEIA now includes antisemitism to making sure that Jews on campus feel safe. In all of these areas, the administration has offered very specific plans that will help fight antisemitism and keeps Jews safe. Not to mention the other 100-plus calls to action across the business, nonprofit, university sectors that will do the same. It’s important to identify what antisemitism is, that’s what the IHRA definition is. That’s why embracing the IHRA definition is so important. And it’s consistent with what has been the policy of the administration. I think it’s important for us to recognize that IHRA is something that we’ve worked hard across the country and across the world, to get counties, cities, states, countries to also embrace is going to continue to be the one that that the administration uses. But once we’ve we’ve recognized that IHRA defines antisemitism, it would really behoove the community to focus on all of the ways that we need to work together, as opposed to the frustration that I have with some who’ve chosen to attack the White House for a plan that has over 200 specific items, which, if we work together. will actually help to keep Jews safe. That’s what we need to work on together. That’s what AJC intends to do. As I said, said we played a leading role in creating this document. We intend to help lead the way in carrying out the action items in the document and the Jewish community as a whole is going to benefit from it, not only from fighting antisemitism but in all of the ways the document specifically talks about understanding better the story of Jews in America and lifting up the stories of Jews in America. That’s why in May we work so hard to get so many companies to acknowledge and celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month so that we’re fighting antisemitism but we’re also recognizing the many contributions that the Jewish community has made to America throughout its history.
MW: Let’s talk a little bit about the transition now that you’ve settled in. It sounds like you’ve been here for many years.
TD: It feels like Congress was like a long time ago.
MW: How’s the transition been?
TD: The transition has been great. This is not a commentary on the good people that I’ve worked with in Congress. And I did. But I’m blessed to have really talented colleagues who are incredibly smart and thoughtful and committed to the work that we do, which I don’t take for granted, and I think it’s a key to our success. But more than that, our lay leaders, the people who choose to get involved with AJC, who recognize the opportunity to actually advocate for Israel. It’s interesting that you’re talking about U.S.-Israel relations. We’ve been taking trips to Israel of local and state officials and other influencers, leaders from other countries. I mentioned the ones from the Abraham Accords countries, other European and Asian countries. We’ve been doing that for years. So people who want to be involved in advocacy for Israel, that way, at the U.N., in capitals around the world, in their local town councils, they get involved….We’re taking a Project Interchange trip to Israel for university presidents and provosts this summer because we want them to understand not just what Israel really is, but to understand why when groups on campus make the decision to try to exclude those who support Israel, what that means for the Jews on campus overall and how it marginalizes them. Our mission is broad, enhancing the well-being of the Jewish people and Israel and advancing democratic values. But because of that broad mission, we have these lay leaders who choose to engage in different ways, but they are they’re so thoughtful in the way that they do it and so passionate about the work. And what they really appreciate — and this is the biggest part of the transition — what they really appreciate is that the organization that I am now in charge of is fiercely nonpartisan.
It’s funny, during the whole interview process, you might imagine, I got the question a lot, ‘When you’re a Democratic member of Congress, how can you come to a nonpartisan organization?’ And my response was always the same: ‘There’s no one in America who better understands the dangers to our community wrought by an overly partisan, heated environment than someone serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.’ And so I’m excited to now be in this place where everybody wants the same thing. Everyone only wants to strengthen the Jewish community, to make sure that Israel is respected and strong, to help us advance the values that we all care about. We’re not a political organization. We don’t get involved in partisan politics. The people who are involved with us, I think, all recognize that while there might be a lot of attention to the extremes, it’s not where most people are. Most people — and this is especially true in the Jewish community — most people want to work together. And it’s what we try to teach our kids when we raise our kids, it’s what we all learn growing up, right? That fundamentally, what has Judaism brought to the world? Well, what’s the inherent value of every person? We’re all created in God’s image. Being able to lead an organization surrounded by people I work with and volunteers and lay leaders who come to join us all with that same commitment to working together and trying to exclude the extremes and recognizing that if we’re fighting antisemitism, wherever it comes from — the far left far right, it doesn’t matter. We have to be comfortable calling it out, because that’s the only way that we can stop the normalization of antisemitism. That’s the biggest part of the transition. And it’s been the most gratifying.
MW: Now you’re close to a year in, what is your vision for the first five years, for the five years after that? What is your longer-term vision for AJC?
TD: Well, number one, we talked about the Abraham Accords. In the near term, I can tell you the immediate focus is the Abraham Accords — and this is this will be a focus of our global forum — is that the advocacy we do for Israel, focusing especially on the Abraham Accords, and what we can do from our Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi offices to help strengthen them, the Project Interchange trips… finding more ways to give more people the opportunity to engage with Israel and the Abraham Accords countries as one. That’s the medium term. Also, medium term is that, again, is really playing a leading role in helping to ensure that the White House’s strategy has enacted every one of the 100 action items in for the government and as many of the 100-plus actions urged by outside parties, again, consistent with taking our call to action, turning it into a strategy to action. We’re moving forward full speed ahead. I think we can help lead there. And then the global advocacy we do. One of the things we’ll be talking about here, again this is near term, is we haven’t talked about Iran at all. And yet, we sit here as Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon than ever. There’s a lot that we can do through our global advocacy, two things in particular: One, the IRGC needs to be designated as a terrorist organization. Our European offices will all be engaged in that, but our European offices especially, given the given Iran’s involvement with Russia, the fact that Iranian drugs are being used to kill Europeans, we think should really make the Europeans sit up and call out the IRGC for what it is. And then the second piece on Iran again through our global diplomacy is the fact that the IAEA has to take action, given what Iran has done.
MW: So not closing the investigations, like they did this week.
TD: Yeah, it’s the same thing every single time. The IAEA talks about the problem. They’re about to take action, Iran offers to do something or something else. And then that prevents anything from happening, until the next time. And given the massive amounts of uranium that they’ve enriched, and the fact they’ve enriched beyond 60%, the IAEA needs to act. We led the effort to get the Human Rights Council to hold a special session on human rights violations in Iran. We’re going to really push ahead with an effort to get the IAEA to take action against Iran and its illicit nuclear program. Those are the three immediate things.
Longer term, what am I most excited about? Most people, from what I’ve come to learn, most people don’t know how much we do with and for young people. Our Leaders For Tomorrow program is a program that we started. It was actually started by a high school student, the son of one of our lay leaders, because of challenges that were ahead in college. Because the thinking was you can’t wait until someone gets to college to help prepare them to be advocates for the Jewish community. We have this thoughtful, strong approach to advocacy. We wanted to train high school kids. What we’ve learned is it’s not just college anymore, we’re dealing with it in high schools. And so our LFT program is now in 13 communities. We have a LFT program in about half of our communities, where we’re training high school kids to be strong, knowledgeable, resilient advocates in their high schools and when they get to college. Then in college, our campus leadership board gives them the opportunity to engage with us. I want more LFT opportunities around the country, because I think every high school kid ought to be able to have the opportunity to get the kind of advocacy training that we provide and then I want to provide more leadership training in college, not just on our own, but I want to make sure that we’re helping these students find places with the other great Jewish organizations that are doing programming on college campuses, creating this pipeline that they can take advantage of. And then when they finish our Access program, and the opportunities it provides the young people, again, to engage in meaningful ways as citizen diplomats on behalf of Jewish people, that’s unique. When I was a young lawyer, I had the opportunity to go to a meeting at the consulate. It was a lunch with the consul general of France in Miami. I still think about how impactful that was for me. Those kinds of programs that [AJC] Access provides are really important. So I would like to grow everything we do for our young people, not separate from everything else that exists, but we want to provide the advocacy training as I said in college, we want to give them the opportunities to participate with us and others and then in Access to really get to know the community in all the ways that we do.
And finally, I mentioned earlier the program that we did with Hillel for college presidents. I don’t think anyone has a corner on anything within the Jewish community. I think it’s what lay leaders and volunteers and just people in the Jewish community who are thinking about our small numbers and our large challenges. Everyone recognizes that some greater collaboration among Jewish organizations would be in everyone’s best interest. And so I’m looking for opportunities to do that. I’m in regular conversation with other Jewish organizations; I encourage organizations to reach out to us. A lot of what we do is absolutely unique. The ability to do all that in one place is totally unique. But there are other organizations we ought to be able to partner with where our efforts are complementary. And I’ve come to learn that that’s not that common in the organized Jewish community. But I think it’s really important and I look forward to finding more ways to do that.