Photo Credit: American Jewish Committee
Ted Deutsch

Ted Deutch represented south Florida in the U.S. Congress for six terms, becoming arguably the most pro-Israel Democrat in the House. He held the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on the Middle East and served as the de-facto Democratic leader of the House’s Bipartisan Task Force for Combating Anti-Semitism.

Earlier this month, Deutch finished his career in Congress and took over as CEO of the American Jewish Committee.

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Just a few days into the job, Deutch sat down with The Jewish Press to discuss a range of issues, from the state of American Jewry, to concerns among his former colleagues about Israeli politics’ hard right, to the Biden administration’s talks with Iran.

 

The Jewish Press: Thanks so much for taking the time to join us. I still reflexively want to call you “Congressman.” This has been a very short transition period for you. How’s it going so far?

Rep. Ted Deutch: It’s going great. And it was a transition that was a long time coming. I’ve so looked forward to the moment of coming in here and being able to work full time on the issues that I’m most passionate about, which is defending the Jewish people in Israel and standing up against antisemitism. Now I get to do that. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

What are your main priorities coming into the job here? What do you want to try to tackle first?

Well, look, the mission of AJC is clear. The American Jewish Committee for more than 100 years has worked to enhance the well-being of the Jewish people in the state of Israel and promote democratic values and human rights. And those are the priorities that we’re going to continue to have. At a time when antisemitism is on the rise, we’re going to speak out boldly against it wherever it comes from, wherever on the political spectrum, wherever in the world, on behalf of the Jewish community to protect the Jewish community.

Likewise, when it comes to Israel, AJC has a really important role to play through our global diplomacy, of working with elected officials and government officials at every level of government – in the United States, and around the world – to really enhance the opportunities for Israel and to build upon the Abraham Accords, and to really become even more so the NGO that everyone understands is really front and center in supporting Israel and Israel’s desire to expand the circle of peace.

You mentioned tackling antisemitism regardless of where it comes on the spectrum. And it’s been, unfortunately, politically expedient many times to criticize antisemitism on the other side of the aisle. You are one of the few exceptions to that case. Can it be done? Can you find a way, no matter where your constituency stands on the political spectrum, to tackle it?

There’s not a choice there. Of course, the answer is, we have to. We can’t ever allow ourselves to get to the point where we only care about threats to the Jewish community, verbal or physical, that arise from just one part of the political spectrum, that arise from just one group. We have to be able to confront it wherever it is. That also means working to make sure that we’re building resilient Jewish young people who are proud Jews, who are able to stand up and defend themselves and the Jewish people, wherever they are. And that’s a really big priority of mine, as well.

So getting to the young people then, because it’s been a long-standing priority of AJC that will continue under you. There has always been this sort of balance that American Jewish groups seem to want to strike between being “rah rah” Israel all the time, and having what they call “honest conversations” about the conflict with the Palestinians, about other problems within Israeli society. Where does AJC under your leadership fall along that line?

Well, it’s my first week, and I don’t want to overstate this. But I think it’s possible to be “rah, rah” for Israel, and also have honest conversations, especially with young people who ask questions. Israel is a big, thriving democracy. This is the point that I made to my colleagues when I served in Congress, who also had questions. And we tried to take them there and introduce them to the broad cross section of Israeli democracy, so that it wasn’t just talking about shared values, it was seeing it in practice and seeing the differences of opinion. It was recognizing the importance of this democracy in this one Jewish state in the world that exists in a neighborhood that, at least until relatively recently, has been really tough. It’s still incredibly tough with the security challenges, but now with this growing circle of peace that will help confront the security challenges, and build out Israel’s innovation economy for the benefit of the world.

How can AJC and pro-Israel groups in America help expand that circle of peace, because it seems to be stuck in neutral right now?

Well, it took a long time for us to get to this moment. And I know that the Biden administration, like the Trump administration, remains committed to working with Israel to expand it. There are ongoing efforts through the Negev Forum to really ensure that at a government-to-government level, the relationships continue to grow. But the American Jewish community, and American Jewish Committee in particular, can play the role of using the diplomatic tools that we have, working with governments around the world, working with governments in Europe, working with governments in the region, the Middle East, in Asia, to help them understand the benefits to them of interacting with Israel, of benefiting from all that Israel has to offer the world – from innovation and agriculture and energy, all of the cyber, all of the things that we know about.

But they need help understanding. That’s how you continue to grow this. And it means, finally, exposing young people in America, especially to all that is happening now as a result of the Abraham Accords: the growing relationships and the way that Israeli innovation and Israeli expertise and Israeli democracy, frankly, have become so important to other countries as well.

You talk about working with other governments. What about working with the Israeli government? We’ve heard this week that Sen. Bob Menendez privately expressed concerns over the possible entrance to the government of a hard-right member of the Knesset, Itamar Ben-Gvir. Your former colleague in Congress, Rep. Brad Sherman, sounded this alarm publicly. Where does AJC stand on this? Do you get involved in those matters?

AJC has, throughout its history, proudly worked to ensure the safety and security of Israel, also having been clear about the importance of the values that the United States and Israel shares, and we’re going to continue to be to be clear about those shared values and looking for ways to ensure that the government in Israel and the government of the United States work together, regardless of what those governments are, to advance those values that matters so deeply to us.

Do you feel it puts you in an awkward position within American Jewry, if you’re working with those types of figures like Ben-Gvir who may face opposition here in the U.S.? Or do you feel you don’t really have a choice in the matter? Is that what you say?

Oh, no. I think it’s important as we have these discussions, again, to make clear what our position is, and at this point, there are elections coming up. And certainly, the AJC has made clear its views on the importance of the reflection of our shared values. And we’re going to continue to do that. I don’t think AJC is ever going to back away from that.

In terms of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he’s obviously a prime contender now to return to the premiership. His former ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, said last year when Netanyahu was in charge, the priority was more about building evangelical Christian support, rather than from American Jewry, which wasn’t viewed as quite as valuable. Should Netanyahu return to power, is there a foundation there to build on a relationship with American Jewry?

I’ve spent lots of time with Ambassador Dermer. And clearly over the years that I traveled to Israel, in an official capacity, representing the United States in meetings with the prime minister, I also had the opportunity to talk to [Netanyahu] personally and to continue to express to him the importance of working to ensure the strongest possible support for Israel from all segments of the United States, and the American Jewish community is critical. The relationship between Israel and the United States is not just a government-to-government relationship.

The relationship between Jewish Americans and Israel is much, much deeper than that. And I think everyone understands that we just have to work to make sure that it’s accurately reflected. That’s going to be the key. And making sure that we’re providing – the American Jewish community in particular – opportunities for Americans to engage with Israel and for governments around the world and leaders around the world to also have the opportunity to see and experience what Israel is. That’s going to be really critical going forward.

But I’m in this job now because of the importance of Israel to me as an American Jew, and people who are involved in AJC, people who are involved in the community feel the same way. That’s not going to change and the former prime minister understands that, and clearly, Israelis understand that we all just need to work together. Ultimately, we’re one people, whether we live in United States or we live in Israel. That’s what’s critical to remember.

There is statistical information and a lot of anecdotal information out there showing that there’s a growing chasm between American Jewry and Israel, for any number of reasons. Do you feel that as someone who works so closely with that issue?

It’s interesting. I don’t know that I would define it as a chasm. I think if you look at the success that we’ve had in helping ensure that young people have the chance to travel to Israel, and so many have and experience Israel firsthand, you can see the impact that has. One of the things that’s so important at AJC is recognizing that by training young people to be advocates, by working through our Leaders for Tomorrow program in high schools, by providing leadership training on college campuses, and then having opportunities for people to serve as young leaders, that’s how you build the next generation, so that we don’t need to have conversations about whether or not there’s a chasm. Because, we’re going to see that leadership group helped galvanize support at all levels of American Jewry.

I want to talk about this organization in particular. [Recently retired CEO] David Harris was in command for a long, long time here. Do you have a longer-term vision for AJC and where you want to take it, and does it differ at all from what it’s been in the past?

I don’t have plans to dramatically change an organization that has worked so well for more than 100 years and, in particular, for David Harris’s 32 years at the helm. There’s an incredibly strong foundation. But some things are different now. The Abraham Accords provides opportunities that until now didn’t exist. They provide those in large part because the AJC was on the ground and has been on the ground for decades in the region, helping to lead up to this moment.

Now, we can take advantage of the Abraham Accords to provide more opportunities for people to engage with Israel, more opportunities for countries to work side-by-side with Israel. That’s a huge priority. And then as we look ahead, when we talk about the American Jewish community, we sometimes focus on the challenges at the expense of the opportunities, and there are more opportunities for people to be engaged now in a global way. AJC gives people the opportunity to be to be citizen diplomats all around the country and all around the world, the chance to go out and be advocates in their local communities on behalf of the Jewish community, on behalf of Israel. It’s that kind of real experience where they’re making a difference firsthand. That’s the kind of thing AJC has done. We can provide more opportunities for more people to do that going forward.

I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Iran. American Jewish groups have been very, very vocal during the course of negotiations about exactly where they stand, exactly where they feel the Biden administration should be or should not be going on the Iran issue. As of right now, what’s the view of the American Jewish Committee on the Iran negotiations?

Well, I can give you my view, a couple of days in, as I engage with my colleagues here. I start with this: It is critically important for all of us to acknowledge that, even as these negotiations are ongoing, perhaps on hold, whatever the situation, the repressive government in Iran is engaged in a violent, bloody, deadly crackdown on its own citizens advocating for women’s rights and democracy. And as we go forward, we’ve got to be crystal clear about the fact that any sort of deal will mean billions of dollars going to this regime that is engaged in this bloody crackdown. I think that’s not being talked about enough.

And then secondly, I’ve been clear about this – and I know that the AJC has also encouraged the administration to think about it this way – you have to weigh the two challenges, the two competing interests. One is having greater access for some period of time to Iran’s nuclear program, if there were to be a deal reached, and what that access would look like, how long it would last, the fact that there’s no indication that the deal will be longer and stronger. It’s something that AJC, most of the Jewish community and, frankly, those in government, have talked about for now years since this came back up. That’s one. But then you have to weigh that against what it means if you provide billions of dollars to the regime – even as they’re engaged in these human rights violations – to use in attacks against our allies in the region, in increasing the opportunities for Iran to provide deadly weapons to Russia, increasing all of the ways that that Iran tries to expand its influence throughout the region. And providing more dollars immediately to Hamas and to Hezbollah, and to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all of which pose immediate threats to Israel. Unless there’s a good answer to that, then the case hasn’t been made.

And I think that’s the question that has to be asked. And I’ve been asking in my prior life, certainly, the administration that question. They’re going to have to make that case if we get to that point. But let’s not lose sight of what’s happening right now, which is this violent, deadly crackdown by a regime that will benefit greatly. And we have to ask whether providing billions of dollars to that regime at this moment really stands with the Iranian people, as they’re engaged in these protests. And ultimately, whether it benefits Israel in the long term in a deal that would fade away after just a few years.

You and your former colleagues [in Congress] asked and asked and asked. Did you ever get satisfactory answers to your questions on the matter, in terms of why the negotiations are still ongoing, why there wasn’t a longer and stronger deal?

Well, the focus right now is that we need a good answer to that question. But at the same time, we also have to recognize that, at some point, these negotiations, wherever they go, are going to require a plan B. And the American people need to know what that is. Our allies in Israel need to know what that is. Our partners in the region need to know what that is. American leadership is critical in providing that plan B in the event that Iran continues its quest for nuclear weapons. The last thing I’ll say on this is Iran has enriched uranium to 60%. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency made clear that only countries who want nuclear weapons do that. So, what’s the plan with or without a deal? What’s the plan to stop Iran? And that’s something that should matter, not just to the U.S. and Israel, but it should matter to the entire world.

I think we talked a lot about the American-Israeli relationship. But the American Jewish relationship, the family relationship, it’s so diverse, from Reform to Orthodox and all points on the political spectrum as well. It can be a great thing. It can also be a challenge as well, to try to unite everybody around a common cause. What is your approach with American Jewry? There’s never going to be a common opinion, but how do you at least try to keep the family together and talking?

A: Well, it’s the perfect metaphor. It’s the perfect description. Of course, it’s one big family and families come in all different shapes and sizes, and the American Jewish community is no different. There are now more ways for Jews to express themselves in America, to engage in the community, so many amazing opportunities. What binds us together is the fact that we’re one people and one family. There can be disagreements, as in any family. But ultimately, we have to remember everything that that the Jewish community has provided here in this country and to the world for millennia. I think we sometimes lose sight of that. And that’s the way that I’m thinking about this. We can’t be defined entirely by the challenges that we face. We also have to think about the opportunities ahead, and I’m really optimistic about those opportunities for the community to come together to advocate for itself. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh. We really are all responsible one for another. That’s what’s going to guide us as we go forward.

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