Friday's guest: American Jewish Commitee executive director David Harris

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David A. Harris has been the executive director of the American Jewish Committee since 1990.

Harris recendtly ended a sabbatical in Geneva, Switzerland, succeeding the late Ambassador Morris B. Abram as chairman of United Nations Watch and also serving as a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy.

Prior to assuming his current position, Harris served as the director of the AJC's Washington-based Office of Government and International Affairs.

From 1975 to 1978, Harris worked in Rome, Italy, and Vienna, Austria, to assist the migration of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. From 1972 to 1974, he worked with international education exchanges for the New York-based American Field Service (AFS).

In the course of his career in Jewish communal work, he has travelled throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America to monitor the condition of Jewish communities, combat anti-Semitism, advance Israel's diplomatic standing, and promote international human rights and interreligious and interethnic understanding.  Harris was centrally involved in the emigration of over one million Jews from the Soviet Union.

Fluent in Russian, Harris first travelled to the USSR in 1974 on a Soviet-American exchange program as a teacher and was detained by the Soviet militia after nearly three months and asked to leave the country for his activities with Jewish refuseniks. Readmitted in 1981, he was again detained, this time by the KGB, for distributing Jewish books to Soviet Jews. And in 1996, five years after the collapse of the USSR, he was refused a Russian entry visa for "his past political activities," prompting a protest from the State Department and a letter to President Yeltsin from 45 Members of Congress. In June 1997, however, he was finally issued an entry visa allowing him to return to Russia.

He was asked by the Jewish community to serve as the national coordinator for the historic Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jewry, the 1987 demonstration in Washington that drew over 250,000 participants.

Harris was also deeply involved in a behind-the-scenes role in the rescue of the Ethiopian Jewish community in the early 1980's, before Operation Moses of 1984-85.

He was a key figure in the successful 16-year struggle to repeal the infamous "Zionism is racism" resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1975, only the second time in UN history a resolution was actually repealed.

Harris is a member of the international negotiating team dealing with the Polish Government to establish a permanent plan for the protection and conservation of the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. He has also been appointed by the Government of Argentina to serve on the international panel examining Argentina's record during and after the Second World War. He serves as a member of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. And he was invited to serve as a member of the U.S. delegation to the intergovernmental Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in January 2000.

In addition, Harris played a major role in organizing the Jewish community's response to the Indochinese refugee crisis; supporting democratic movements in the Soviet bloc in the 1970's and 1980's; raising funds to combat the famine in the mid-1980's ravaging sub-Saharan Africa; speaking out against the attacks on foreigners living in Germany in the early 1990's; rebuilding burned churches in the American South in the mid-1990's; and spearheading, in 1999, a Kosovo relief fund that raised over $1.3 million to assist Kosovar refugees and $800,000 to assist victims of the earthquake in Turkey.

Harris graduated with honors in history from the University of Pennsylvania. He pursued his graduate studies in international relations at the London School of Economics and then spent a year as a Junior Associate Member in Soviet affairs at Oxford University (St. Antony's College). He did additional course work in languages at the University of Marseille (France) and Cornell University. He is a trustee of Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut.

He is the author of two books, The Jewish World and Entering a New Culture, and co-author of The Jokes of Oppression. A collection of his selected speeches and writings, entitled In the Trenches, was published as a book in late 2000.

Harris is married to Giulietta Boukhobza.  They have three sons.