Interview'Kanye's tweets are the lived experience for so many Jews'

After backing Israel in Congress, Ted Deutch ready to do so full-time as AJC chief

Ex-House member looks to lead way in expanding Abraham Accords and highlighting Israel-Palestinian partnership; avoids calling out extremist Israeli party as his group did in past

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

AJC CEO Ted Deutch speaks at the AJC Global Forum in New York City in June 2022. (Courtesy)
AJC CEO Ted Deutch speaks at the AJC Global Forum in New York City in June 2022. (Courtesy)

WASHINGTON — During his 12 years in Congress, Ted Deutch often championed causes at the top of the agenda for Jewish voters.

The seven-term Florida representative advanced legislation to expand gun control, fight climate change and protect voters’ rights — all issues that galvanize American Jews who overwhelmingly vote Democrat.

But what particularly appeared to animate Deutch was combating rising antisemitism and supporting Israel. This was evident through the Democratic representative’s grilling of social media executives on their policies that have allowed the spread of antisemitic content online, as well as his calling out of colleagues who have voiced particularly harsh criticism of the Jewish state.

When Rep. Rashida Tlaib branded Israel an apartheid state during a September 2021 debate on legislation to replenish the Iron Dome missile defense system, Deutch quickly took to the House floor for an impassioned rebuttal.

“I cannot allow one of my colleagues to stand on the floor of the House of Representatives and label the Jewish democratic State of Israel an apartheid state. I reject it,” he said. “To falsely characterize the State of Israel is consistent with those… who advocate for the dismantling of the one Jewish state in the world. And when there is no place on the map for one Jewish state, that’s antisemitism.”

Roughly a year after that speech, Deutch stepped down from Congress in order to take on a new post as CEO of the American Jewish Committee, a global Jewish advocacy organization.

“Being able to focus on these issues exclusively is why I decided to leave Congress to pursue this opportunity, and it’s what I’m most excited about,” Deutch said during an interview with The Times of Israel at his Washington office.

While in Congress, Deutch twice voted to impeach former president Donald Trump and did not shy away from accusing Republicans of obstructionism. However, he said he relished the opportunity to now be involved in “nonpartisan” advocacy work on behalf of the Jewish community.

That mandate is evidently informing how he publicly weighs in on certain controversial issues, as Deutch was careful during the interview not to exclusively blame either party for strains in US-Israeli ties. He also avoided condemning the extremist Israeli Otzma Yehudit party, as AJC has done in the past.

Defending the new approach, Deutch said, “All day long, there are people who are devoting themselves to find ways to divide the community… but when we make up such a tiny percentage of the population… I’m going to work to ensure that we’re staying together and advocating for the entire Jewish community.”

‘Kanye’s tweets are our lived experience’

The agenda at AJC’s offices across the globe is dictated by the needs of each community, but Deutch indicated that combating antisemitism is one that’s relevant across the board.

Accordingly, AJC activists are engaging with government bodies at all levels so they can better understand how Jews are impacted by antisemitism.

“When Kanye tweets something, this is not just a social media story. This is the lived experience of so many Jews right now, especially coming out of the High Holidays when people went through metal detectors and generally walked into synagogues with police cars around them,” Deutch said. “We want our leaders to understand how the community feels.”

To do that, AJC will continue to push local and national officials to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism — a 500-word document that contains a brief explanation of the term followed by 11 examples of how it can manifest, most of which involve speech about Israel.

Kanye West on the “Drink Champs” podcast, October 16, 2022. (YouTube screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The definition has been adopted by dozens of countries and a growing list of organizations and universities to help monitor, teach about and combat antisemitism. But its Israel provisions have also become a flashpoint for debate, and adoption of the definition can signify different things to different groups.

Defenders of the definition say its Israel examples — which include comparing Israel to the Nazis, calling Israel racist and applying a standard to Israel that isn’t applied to other countries — are helpful in identifying where anti-Israel activity veers into antisemitism. Its detractors, however, say that the examples can have the effect of branding all criticism of Israeli policy as antisemitic.

Adopting the IHRA definition is a critical first step that allows leaders to identify antisemitism, an ability that shouldn’t be taken for granted, Deutch said, citing recent AJC polling that indicated one-third of Americans don’t know the word.

Asked whether countries that adopted the IHRA definition have seen a subsequent drop in antisemitic incidents, Deutch responded, “I’m not suggesting that you end antisemitism by adopting a definition. I’m suggesting that we can only really do the work of advocating for the steps necessary to address antisemitism… by… identify[ing] what it is.”

If this is done and governments are able to “understand what contemporary antisemitism looks like, then AJC and its advocates are in a better position to work with [them] to understand that when something happens in their community or on a college campus, that they’re going to be willing to respond to it… to create a safer environment for Jews.”

Becoming the linchpin of Israeli-Arab partnership

Beyond antisemitism, Deutch said Israel advocacy is at the top of his agenda, adding that AJC is uniquely situated to become the “leading NGO that helps to further facilitate the deepening and expanding of the Abraham Accords.”

Speaking to the opportunities posed by Israel’s recent normalization agreements with several Arab neighbors, Deutch said, “I want to be sure that we’re taking advantage of it.”

He suggested that AJC can help connect those in the region interested in Israeli technology and innovation with business and government leaders in the Jewish state.

File: US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Sept. 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

He pledged to work in order to ensure that Abraham Accords countries “aren’t just viewed as one-offs,” but rather as a “growing bloc of countries that represents peaceful coexistence and opportunity.”

Asked whether the promotion of the Abraham Accords is instead of efforts to advance the Palestinian issue, Deutch argued that the two need not be mutually exclusive.

While he recognized that his ability to work toward mitigating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is limited now that he is outside of government, he pointed to his efforts in creating the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act in Congress, which earmarked $250 million in US funds over five years for Israeli and Palestinian dialogue programs and Palestinian business development.

“I know from my work in Congress how extensive the connections are in people-to-people programs in bringing together Israelis and Palestinians who are working to create conditions for lasting peace,” he said, arguing that these initiatives are often ignored by Israel’s critics.

“Just as AJC is going to play a central role in building out the Abraham Accords, it can play a critical role in highlighting the work that’s being done to lay the foundation for peace between Israel and Palestinians,” he added.

Ben Gvir, then and now

Taking place just weeks ahead of Israel’s latest Knesset election, the interview presented an opportunity for the new AJC CEO to comment on the rise of the Otzma Yehudit party, but he declined to do so explicitly.

Otzma Yehudit is expected to receive a massive boost and even play a critical role in the formation of the government if Benjamin Netanyahu returns to the premiership. Weeks before the April 2019 election, AJC issued a statement calling the views of Otzma Yehudit “reprehensible” and not reflective of the “core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”

The party’s leader Itamar Ben Gvir is a self-described disciple of late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in both Israel and the US. Like Kahane, Ben Gvir has been convicted on terror charges, though he insists he has moderated in recent years and does not hold to the same beliefs as the Kach founder. Unlike Kahane, Ben Gvir says he doesn’t support expelling all Arabs from Israel, but only “terrorists” or those he deems “disloyal.”

Analysts have pointed out, though, that he regularly refers to many Arab public figures with no history of terror-related activities, including elected lawmakers and party leaders, as “terrorists.”

MK Itamar Ben Gvir of the far right Otzma Yehudit party tours the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on July 22, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While progressives in the US have long warned against normalizing the extremist faction, which is running on a joint slate with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism, those calls have been echoed in recent weeks by two of Israel’s closest allies in the moderate wing of the Democratic party — Sen. Robert Menendez and Rep. Brad Sherman.

Asked whether he agreed with his former colleagues’ concern regarding Ben Gvir, Deutch dodged.

“The one thing that I know for sure is that the values of AJC reflect the values of the US and Israel, which is the shared commitment to democracy and inclusion. That’s not going to change,” he said.

Pressed on the matter several more times, Deutch insisted that AJC would not “inject itself into the middle of the Israeli elections” — something it had been willing to do in 2019. In that election, though, Otzma Yehudit failed to cross the electoral threshold, whereas it is expected to win as many as 14 seats on November 1 alongside Religious Zionism, according to the latest polling.

US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks as, from left, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley listen during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, July 15, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Bipartisan and nonpartisan

As for the implications of the Democratic Party’s expanding progressive wing on US-Israel relations, Deutch was similarly diplomatic.

“There is now and there will continue to be a strong and broad, bipartisan effort to support Israel in Congress, and that includes the Republican Party and the Democratic Party,” he said.

Deutch clarified that he would continue calling out Democrats who are not supportive of Israel along with Republicans who “espouse conspiracy theories that are also founded on antisemitic tropes.”

Elaborating on that second category, the former congressman noted that “so much of QAnon is antisemitic” — referring to the right-wing conspiracy group that is made up of hardcore Trump supporters. Many of the radicals who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, claiming the US election had been stolen, were QAnon followers.

Insurrectionists loyal to then-US president Donald Trump breach the Capitol in Washington, January 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

But Deutch did not rule out working with lawmakers who voted against certifying the 2020 election results, saying he’s “focused on ensuring that we are building broad bipartisan support for Israel and that we’re confronting antisemitism, wherever we see it.”

He dismissed the notion that he is holding back some of his previous positions in order to take on the new role, but did argue that AJC’s success is in its ability to advocate for the entire Jewish community, across the entire political spectrum.

“Partisanship, which is often these days vitriolic, poses so many challenges to getting things done,” Deutch said. “There’s nobody who understands that better than the person who just left the United States House of Representatives.”

“That’s why I’m [so] excited about this nonpartisan work here for the benefit of the Jewish community as a whole.”

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