(JTA) — David Harris, who first made his mark on U.S. Jewish advocacy in the fight for the freedom of Soviet Jews, will step down next year after leading the American Jewish Committee since 1990.
“Every single day, I have been grateful beyond words for the opportunity to pursue my lifelong mission — to assist Jews in danger worldwide, support Israel’s quest for peace and security, combat antisemitism, and defend democratic values against the radical right and the totalitarian left,” Harris, 71, said Thursday in a statement.
Harris first came to the AJC in 1979. The child of Holocaust survivors who raised him in a French-speaking home, he left the AJC briefly in the mid-1980s to join one of the organizations at the time advocating for Soviet Jewry before returning to become its Washington director.
In that capacity, Harris helped steer the 1987 rally on the National Mall that brought out 250,000 Jews from across the country, believed to be the largest ever gathering of American Jews.
Three years later he became CEO and soon was leading what would be a successful effort to get the United Nations General Assembly to reverse its 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution.
Under Harris, the AJC expanded its diplomacy, establishing ties with Arab and Muslim countries long before those same nations normalized ties with Israel.
More recently, the AJC under Harris has been criticized for sustaining unquestioning support of Israel by mainstream Jewish organizations. A year ago, when the Israeli government seemed ready to annex West Bank territory, the AJC said it opposed the move, but also would defend it.
A succession committee will seek candidates for Harris’ post along with an outside executive search group. Harris said he will pass the baton at next year’s AJC Global Forum and then stay on for another year in a consultancy role.
“S/he will have my full support and cooperation to ensure AJC continues to be the preeminent global Jewish advocacy organization,” Harris said of his successor.