‘State Department for Jews’ Hits 100

In a meeting room with gold silk curtains and tiled walls, a delegation from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) takes their seats at a long, glass-topped table facing Tunisia’s foreign minister and his aides.

Soon the questions begin: When will Tunisia resume official relations with Israel? What is the country’s stance on Iran?

These questions are de rigeur for the AJC, which is sometimes called “the State Department of the Jewish people,” because of its frequent meetings with leaders of foreign countries.

AJC board members and activists traveled to Tunisia last month as part of a multicountry tour marking its 100th anniversary. The diplomatic mission included stops in five European capitals, Morocco and Israel, meeting with presidents, government ministers, NATO officials and the pope.

The group is also planning a forum in Washington, D.C., beginning May 1, that will feature political and intellectual notables from around the world.

“It’s unbelievable access,” said Stephanie Pulver, an AJC member from New York, who was among those in Tunisia. “It allows us to try to bring up issues that are important to the community and learn about the country and the problems they are having.”

The AJC was founded in 1906 by American Jewish elites, mainly of German Jewish background, who were alarmed by the Kishinev pogroms in czarist Russia and wanted to protect and strengthen Jewish communities around the world by promoting democracy and pluralism. Today, it has 33 chapters in the United States and a presence in 20 countries, advocating for Israel and human rights and against anti-Semitism and terror.

The group faced a crisis during the 1940s, when its president, Joseph Proskauer, opposed Zionism. As a result, the AJC left the American Jewish Conference, an umbrella organization, in the 1940s because it opposed Zionism, according to Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna.

“Many people thought the organization would not survive,” Sarna said.

However, after World War II, the AJC began to recognize the importance of the State of Israel, and it soon rebounded in importance. In the postwar era, it worked successfully for the inclusion of a human rights provision in the U.N. Charter and was integral in convincing the Vatican to issue in 1965 the Nostra Aetate, which absolved Jews of the collective responsibility for Jesus’ death.

Among its recent achievements are helping to persuade the U.S. government to ban the Hezbollah television station, Al-Manar, and working with the Polish government to build a memorial at Belzec, the previously neglected site of the Nazi death camp where 500,000 Jews were killed.

The AJC is known for its “deep research” of issues, Sarna said, and for working behind the scenes in establishing contacts with high-level international leaders. It came as little surprise when in 2004, the AJC opened its Transatlantic Institute in Brussels, the home of the European Union.

“The ability of the committee to re-invent itself to change as American and world Jewish conditions change is quite extraordinary,” Sarna said. “Not all Jewish organizations can do that.”

Now, the AJC’s longtime executive director, David Harris, said the organization has its work cut out for itself in the future.

“The threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, radical Islam and the potential marriage of extremists and weapons of mass destruction” are among the main issues the organization will attempt to address at a time when the United States will no longer be the sole superpower, Harris said, speaking during the Tunisia trip.

In Israel, the entire delegation of approximately 200 people gathered for the centerpiece of the mission, meeting with senior government ministers, army officials and academics.

Harris said he envisions the AJC continuing two tracks of involvement, one involving Israel-Diaspora relations, the other promoting relations between Israel and other countries.

In Germany, the delegation heard Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier pledge not to back down on demands on Hamas; they heard Stephan Kramer, secretary-general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, proudly describe Germany’s growing Jewish population of 120,000 as the third-largest in Europe.

“This is a very hopeful place at a time when in the last five days we have not seen a lot of hope,” said Kara Newmark of St. Louis at a gala dinner at Berlin’s Adlon Hotel, referring to the previous visit to Israel.

Said Harris: “If you said to the AJC folks in 1946, ‘Folks, put on your calendar for 2006, a gala dinner in Germany,’ people would have declared me certifiably mad and retired me to the farm. But maybe the 160th anniversary of AJC will be celebrated at dinners in Tehran, Damascus.”

AJC is paying special attention to the Arab world, said Jason Isaacson, director of the group’s office of government and international affairs.

“Part of the issue is Jewish concerns and communities, but it is also about there being only a billion Muslims in the world,” he said. “We obviously need to be talking to them.”

In Tunisia, the visiting delegation heard from officials who touted the recent visit of Silvan Shalom, Israel’s foreign minister at the time of his visit. The Tunisian-born Shalom was given a festive homecoming by Tunisian government officials in a visit that some suggested indicated warming ties between the two countries.

Still, those same government officials were reticent about when Tunisia might reassess its relationship with Israel. Tunisia broke off formal diplomatic ties after the start of the second intifada in 2000.

“We have to see how things are resolved on the ground,” Tunisia Foreign Minister Abdelwahab Abdallah told the AJC delegation. “Our feeling is that the situation has stalled and even deteriorated. We have to be patient.”

These discussions are normal for the AJC, which often talks with foreign diplomats and officials — especially during the United Nations’ General Assembly every September. The nations that sit with them often are seeking Jewish clout in their dealings with the U.S. government.

For its part, the AJC wants to drum up global support for Israel and protect vulnerable Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora.

Connecting with the local Jewish community was an integral part of the AJC visit. In Tunis, the delegation also met with Mohamed Lejmi, the country’s solicitor-general and director of judicial services, who spoke of laws that protect minority rights in Tunisia, including those of the country’s small Jewish minority of approximately 1,800, including 200-300 in Tunis.

In April 2002, a suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with explosives outside of the Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia that is home to a vibrant Jewish community of about 1,500. The blast killed 21 people, most of them German tourists. It is suspected that the perpetrators had links to Al Qaeda.

The AJC delegation traveled to Djerba as part of the visit, stopping at Ghriba Synagogue to take part in Shabbat services. The synagogue, built on the ruins of an earlier synagogue and believed to be among the oldest synagogues in Africa, has been guarded by Tunisian police since the attack.

JTA Foreign Editor Peter Ephross in New York and correspondent Toby Axlerod in Berlin contributed to this report.