AJC Cleveland celebrated 75 years of nonpartisan leadership, advocacy and bridge-building with a reception and panel discussion May 5 that featured American Jewish Committee CEO David Harris and Ohio’s two U.S. Sens., Sherrod Brown, D-Cleveland, and Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati.
Harris kicked off the discussion with questions about anti-Semitism and building bipartisanship in a deeply divided political landscape. He later took questions from the audience. The senators spoke on the same topics.
“All elected officials have the responsibility to call out anti-Semitism, from the president on down,” Brown said. “He doesn’t always do that.”
Portman said, “I think a lot of it is, frankly, not being driven much by Washington. It’s just our culture, although Washington doesn’t help. I’m not a big fan of what I see online.”
Portman spoke of areas where he and Brown have found common ground to address issues of importance to the AJC: committing federal funding and intelligence to protect synagogues and other religious institutions and pushing back on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which attempts, as he put it, to delegitimize Israel and apply a double standard to it.
Brown said he was one of a number of Democrats who spoke out after U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., made controversial remarks about Israel and its supporters.
Following up, Harris spoke of the lack of political will in the U.S. House to name anti-Semitism.
“I support strong language in condemning that. I do, though, look at the bigger picture of the inability or unwillingness to call the president out – Rob did it – for Charlottesville, the president that still hasn’t acknowledged what he said was wrong,” Brown said. “So, we have to be honest about this, whether it’s a freshman congresswoman who said some pretty awful things and may not be quite ready for the glare of the public spotlight … that’s no excuse.”
“Sen. Portman, is it fair to criticize President Trump for at least partial responsibility for this climate and condition of polarization?” Harris asked.
“I have spoken out, as Sherrod said, when he has said or done something. ... He kind of kicks it off with a tweet and it kind of swirls out there. … Specifically, we all need to tone it down.”
When Harris pressed him to the point, Portman named a strategy.
“Take the Twitter account away from him,” and there was both laughter and applause from the audience.
Harris asked whether the two senators agreed on boycott, divestment and sanctions.
“We’re not entirely in the same place,” Brown said. “We both recognize … that BDS is a threat and the whole BDS movement is too often anti-Semitic and too often aimed at Israel in that way. I have, we all have, civil liberties concerns and free speech concerns of course. … I urged caution a little more on this.”
Portmasn said, “When people somehow view the state of Israel is illegitimate, I mean, I think that goes beyond the pale. That’s where the United States has a role to play, and not just to provide Israel with the economic and military support that they need in order to survive … but also to support Israel around the globe.”
Harris read a question from the audience asking what message the senators would send Israelis on May 5 as 600 rockets were launched from Gaza at Israel in two days, killing four people. (The number increased to more than 700 rockets.)
“Count on Democrats and Republicans alike in Washington and across the country to be for there for Israel,” Brown said. “I will say to them we will continue and tighten sanctions on Hezbollah and on Iran.”
Portman gave a longer answer that drew applause when he finished.
“It’s very concerning,” Portman said, “because it seemed like we were making progress with regard to Gaza with certain concessions made by Israel … and yet over 600 rockets have now been fired in Israel.
“So, I think the United States has to stand with Israel and continue to provide Israel with the assistance they need. The Egyptians have been the go-between. And I think the Egyptians are now realizing, despite having worked on these compromises and concessions, that there are people involved on the Hamas side who really don’t want peace. And what’s amazing is the Hamas, as you know, are Sunni, not Shia, and that the Iranians hate Israel so much they’re willing to work with them and help them get something … and that’s really scary because involving the Iranians with all their money and Hezbollah, and then you’re talking about much more sophisticated guided missiles and so on, and they’re going to be even harder to stop, so we have to stand up and say there will be consequences.”
In his closing remarks, Harris spoke of the historical impact of the AJC, highlighting the U.S. government’s apologies to Japanese Americans for their internment during World War II; its work on the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which made public school segregation illegal; and the Catholic Church’s decision to end the charge of deicide in Vatican II.
He addressed anti-Semitism directly.
“It’s there,” he said. “It waxes. It wanes. It courses between old and new forms, but it hasn’t gone away. And we have seen its re-emergence both from the extreme right and the extreme left and from Jihadists. And I would note that every Jew killed as a Jew in recent years in Europe has been killed by a jihadist. So, to our discussion on stage, we must depoliticize our understanding of anti-Semitism. We must be swivel-headed because it can come from all sides.”
Harris called for those listening to act.
“Children are taught to hate by families, by schools, by religious leaders, now by the internet,” Harris said. “What we saw in New Zealand, what we saw in Sri Lanka, what we saw in Charleston, South Carolina, what we’ve seen in too many places are examples that hatred is very much alive and has gotten a huge boost from social media and the internet. We’re going to need this organization tomorrow and the day after and the day after if we’re going to get through the next 75 years.”
Bart Bookatz, chair of AJC’s development committee, opened the evening with brief remarks. Brad Schlang, chair of the community relations committee of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, spoke on behalf of the Federation. In addition, J. David Heller, Federation board chair, sent a letter praising AJC Cleveland. Rabbi Jonathan Cohen of The Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood gave the invocation.
Rachel Uram, AJC Cleveland president, spoke of AJC’s mission and “staunch commitment to being non-partisan, discreet and consistent.”
In addition to recognizing former presidents and staff, she paid tribute to Bob Gries and Bob Hexter, both past presidents of AJC Cleveland, who have been involved for nearly 65 of its 75 years and have served on the national board of governors for 50 years.
“Quietly and behind the scenes, they pushed envelopes and broke down barriers,” she said.