From the viewpoint of American Jewish World Service (AJWS), President Donald Trump’s “America First” slogan has the wrong emphasis. Rather than seeking to maximize American interests, AJWS’ goal is to use American resources — specifically, American-Jewish resources — to support human rights and anti-poverty initiatives abroad.
That mission put Robert Bank in a tough spot when, five months into his job as president and CEO of AJWS, Trump was elected on a platform of economic nationalism. Besides its work in the developing world — AJWS distributed more than $40 million in 2016 — the organization lobbies Washington decision-makers for policies and foreign aid to help vulnerable populations, which Trump has promised to cut.
Bank, 58, the grandson of Lithuanian Jews who grew up in South Africa, came to New York in the 1970s as an aspiring musician, earning degrees from the Juilliard School. Later, he earned a law degree and worked in city government and public interest law before joining AJWS as executive vice president in 2009. When longtime CEO Ruth Messinger stepped down in 2016, Bank took charge.
During a visit to Los Angeles on Nov. 15 he spoke with the Journal about the challenges presented by the shifting global landscape.
Jewish Journal: What’s been keeping you busy since you took your current position?
Robert Bank: I became the president and CEO of AJWS in July 2016, and in November there was a huge change in American politics as we have never seen before. We work in the areas of advancing the rights of women, girls and LGBT people all over the world. We work on climate change and climate justice. We also work on civil political rights and response to disasters. The Trump administration has had huge fundamental impacts on those areas.
JJ: Could you give me a specific example of how Trump administration policies have affected a project that AJWS is involved in?
RB: Let’s take women and girls. The Trump administration within its first few weeks instituted what’s called the global gag rule, which gags the potential of women to receive family planning services in organizations funded by the U.S. government. This is huge. It’s going to cause the death of millions of women.
JJ: It seems AJWS’ focus on global citizenship runs counter to the “America First” mentality.
RB: Totally. I don’t think it’s just AJWS that thinks that way, but I like to think that we all understand that we are all interdependent and there’s no way that the world can just live with “America First.” It’s a very Jewish value to believe in sisterhood, brotherhood and partnership, and that we can only be successful together.
JJ: Does it put you in a challenging position as the new director of a nonpartisan organization to challenge the new administration? Are you worried about alienating conservative donors?
RB: Most of AJWS’ donors really stand for the principle of b’tselem Elohim [humanity created in the image of God] — the idea that women should have access to determining their own future; that people should have food to eat; that we should build democracies, not close them. So when President Trump uses rhetoric about hatred and bigotry and meets with dictators and doesn’t criticize their human rights record, we will absolutely speak out against it.
JJ: AJWS is working to forestall cuts to American foreign aid in the upcoming budget cycle. How do you convince lawmakers to spend money on people who can’t vote in the United States, let alone in their districts?
RB: When we’re talking to senators and members of Congress about why you should care about Rohingya Muslims being slaughtered, babies being thrown into fire, women being gang-raped, people living in the most squalid conditions in refugee camps, whether it be in Bangladesh or Uganda — any part of the world — it is not about the near and the far, it is about human dignity. Many politicians understand the importance of America as a leader. And ultimately, we’re not an island. There are enormous risks to our security if there’s political unrest in other parts of the world. So it’s not only about human dignity, it’s about peace and security for the United States.