The tenth anniversary celebration of American Jewish Committee’s Transatlantic Institute took place, coincidentally, at a crisis moment. As European ambassadors, members of the European Parliament and Jewish leaders from across the continent gathered for the gala in February in a Brussels hotel ballroom, the situation in Ukraine was deteriorating by the hour.
AJC has steadfastly supported the courageous Ukrainians. We have twice visited Kiev to meet with top leaders, and plan to return again soon. But Ukraine was not the only matter of concern. Over several days in Brussels, during intensive meetings with European officials and parliamentarians, Jewish leaders and policy analysts assessed the Iranian nuclear threat, E.U.-Israel relations and anti-Semitism.
European Parliament elections later this month are also cause for concern, as extreme right-wing parties could win a significant percentage of the 766 seats, posing a challenge to the values of European democratic societies for at least the next five years.
What takes place in Brussels is important because it touches directly on the challenges that confront Jews — and democratic societies — worldwide. Political, religious and civil society leaders committed to democracy, including fair treatment of minorities, will need to act forthrightly to eradicate the hate that threatens not only Jews, but the very fabric of Europe.
How do we as American Jews respond?
More than 80 percent of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel and the United States. But there are also important Jewish communities in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Australia.
Given our numbers and organizational structure, American Jews have a special responsibility to counter adversaries and gather support at the highest levels of governments.
Isolationism is not an option. Indeed, Jews in Philadelphia were among the staunchest leaders of the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s and 1980s. They recognized then that nongovernmental agencies had the power to use organized advocacy to confront a world power.
AJC has developed an unparalleled network of relationships with governments on all continents, as well as partnerships with Jewish communities of all sizes. Meeting with senior government officials in their capitals, and with religious and civil society leaders, is central to AJC’s global advocacy and diplomacy.
Prior to our arrival in Brussels, we visited Rome and had a private audience with Pope Francis. Separately, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state — widely considered the most powerful person in the Holy See hierarchy after the pope — discussed several areas of cooperation. Every Vatican official we met reiterated what the pope himself has declared, that Catholics and Jews are members of the same family and anti-Semitism is a sin.
Two weeks after the anniversary of our Brussels office, a separate AJC diplomatic mission spent two days in th Azerbaijian capitol of Baku, and afterwards continued on to Greece and Cyprus. Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev devoted an extraordinary amount of time, 75 minutes, to our productive meeting. Azerbaijan, a Shiite-majority country bordering Iran and Russia, is strategically important for the U.S. and Israel. Indeed, Azerbaijan provides 40 percent of Israel’s oil imports.
Our hourlong meeting in Athens with the defense minister and joint chiefs of staff covered Greece’s vital role in the Eastern Mediterranean, relations with Israel and with the United States. It was one of several encounters with top Greek officials, including the prime minister and, separately, with the foreign minister. In Nicosia, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades hosted us for dinner at his residence. Cyprus is important to both Israel and the United States as an energy conduit to Europe, and a stabilizing democratic force in a turbulent region.
AJC’s global advocacy will be front and center in our own nation’s capital next week at our annual Global Forum. Several Ukrainian Jewish leaders will be among the representatives of Jewish communities from more than 60 countries who will assess and discuss jointly our common concerns. And, four foreign ministers will travel especially to Washington to address the more than 1,600 attendees during our two-day gathering.
The most recent missions, in which I was privileged to participate, are just a slice of AJC’s ongoing, dynamic global advocacy that keeps Jewish concerns on the agendas of governments and peoples around the world. My bags are packed, and I’m ready for the next opportunity.
Richard Berkman of Philadelphia is chair of the American Jewish Committee’s board of governors.