Getting to Know Harriet Schleifer: A Soulful and Courageous New President for the American Jewish Committee
By Grace Bennett
I knew I was going to like Harriet Schleifer–the newly appointed 66-year-old president of the venerable American Jewish Committee (AJC)–upon noticing a large coffee table book about singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen. She immediately commented on the impact of Cohen’s singing and his songs in her life, “the sensory experiences,” and shared impressions of the current exhibit (‘A Crack in Everything’ at the Jewish Museum in New York City (she loved it). “I discovered him as a teenager,” said Schleifer. “That voice. He was so soulful…”
Schleifer described the AJC mission as vital during this painful period of history in which we are witnessing a surge in antisemitism here and around the globe. From 2017 to 2018, the number of antisemitic incidents was up 74% in France and 16% in the UK. In 2018, 58% of all religious bias hate crimes in the U.S. targeted Jews. AJC Paris worked closely with the French government on developing a plan to combat antisemitism. One outcome was the creation of a senior government position-the Interministerial Delegate to Combat Racism and Antisemitism.
To get a sense of what drives Schleifer, we also delved into her multiple other roles over the years such as a Student Advocacy attorney in Elmsford, her assorted philanthropic efforts and leadership roles, and her ultimate challenges (and rewards, too) as a mom to a special-needs son. More on that, later.
We shared our stories of tragedy… being children of survivors. Schleifer’s parents survived Hasag, a forced labor camp. Her parent’s families were sent to their deaths in Treblinka; many in my own family perished in Auschwitz. The near two-hour interview took place in the living room of Schleifer’s beautiful and spacious home in Chappaqua. Schleifer is an empty nester living with her husband, Len, the love of her life who she met in junior high school, and the co-founder of a Tarrytown-based bio tech company. She speaks lovingly of Len and of her two sons, a 38-year-old federal prosecutor in California, and of a 33-year old son with developmental disabilities.
I asked Schleifer for her interpretation of how the upward spike has happened, what it means here in the States, and where do we go from here.
She noted wistfully that the AJC had tracked a particularly alarming surge in France 17 years ago. “We asked the French government if they were aware. The French are tolerant and don’t like to identify by demographics so whenever any hate crimes or bias crimes they had no stats going back that many years–there are no IDs of perpetrators or victims. There is now an organization, The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, that is focused on antisemitism and has issued ground-breaking surveys of Jews in European countries.
“This is very important information: we’re seeing a spike of acceptance to racist words and actions that we haven’t seen before. It’s becoming more common; people are desensitized. It’s a slippery slope. We need to be vigilant. And definitely define when a hate crime is also antisemitism.”
She emphasized that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism has been adopted by several countries in Europe and in Canada. “We need to understand what antisemitism looks like so we can use that information as a tool to train anyone (such as police or teachers); we each have a civic responsibility to stand up to it.”
Meanwhile, the AJC views itself as “fiercely bi partisan” as they work on “securing the safety and well-being of Jews around the world, the security of Israel, and to enhance and ensure democratic values for all globally.” Schleifer also said the AJC’s work is influenced by Elie Wiesel, who had said, “What hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor but the silence of the bystander.”
Antisemitic Tropes: “Back in Vogue”
I asked Schleifer to define the ‘slippery slope’ she mentioned; in true bipartisan fashion, she brought up antisemitic offenses across the political spectrum. She suggested that both extremes have employed the antisemitic trope that raises the specter of Jews as possessed of great power and controlling institutions. “It is back in vogue,” she said, whether it was being used in the language of the ‘Unite the Right’ marchers in Charlottesville or in other arenas.
“Jews will not replace us” is a fascist Nazi trope, and there were many who chanted it,” said Schleifer.
The use of terms like ‘Benjamins’–even though it came from a hip-hop song–it still recalls an old trope…There is a lack of education. But words are important. You may also not realize that you are using a term that is offensive to another culture. So, let’s sit down and learn from each other!… And that includes people of all stripes!”
New Black/Jewish Caucus — AJC’s Role
From here, Schleifer expressed her pride in the AJC’s instrumental role in aiding and encouraging a Black Jewish caucus in Congress that was launched by four Congressional reps and has already expanded. AJC hopes this will launch into a reconnection to the concerns we shared during the civil rights movement. For whatever reason over time, these ties have dissipated. We want to encourage people coming together to recognize what they have in common.”
Schleifer said she will be rooting for the Caucus. “The announcement was made at our AJC Global Forum in June in DC. We take great pride in being there at the outset. It’s very important to me. Our Atlanta office is taking the lead, with their wonderful history of Black-Jewish relationships.”
On Bridge Building
Another AJC initiative bringing people together, said Schleifer, is a Muslim Jewish Advisory Council launched in 2016. “It is a semi-autonomous group comprised of very impressive business, civil and religious leaders who have seen their efforts result in the passage of anti-hate legislation. But we work very closely to support and facilitate it.”
The AJC, contends Schleifer, is all about “inter-religious bridge building, not only domestically, but also internationally.” She said that the AJC is not only bi partisan, but non-partisan. “We work both sides of the aisle. There’s no room for partisanship. We work toward values that everyone should be on board with. We write Amicus briefs. We submitted one against political gerrymandering and another, in favor of immigration reform.”
It was time to ask: Who is Harriet Schleifer? Over the interview’s course, her intense connection to her Jewish roots were visible–from both the lovely Judaica art in her home and the Magen David pendant she says she has worn proudly in nearly the 35 countries she has traveled to representing the AJC.
We began with a conversation about the Holocaust, and frankly, we both held back tears as we exchanged information.
“I was made aware from the time I had any receptive language, during my toddler years, what my parents went through. My father worked very long hours doing jobs he had to teach himself. In his later years, he spoke to my sister and me. My mother never held back. I learned that she had a fiancé who got killed, then a husband who got killed, and then she married my dad. I learned most of my mother’s family was sent to Treblinka save for one brother. The last time she saw her mother, they squeezed hands on the selection line and went in different directions…
“These are very traumatic things to hear as a baby. My father was the sole survivor of his family. His two-year older brother and father were all on a line together; they sent his father and brother in the other direction.”
Growing up with this history, first in the Bronx and then in Rego Park, Queens, Schleifer gradually gained a sense of responsibility that she would need to tell this story to future generations. “Why should all those people have died in vain? They cannot. It is up to us. If you feel the responsibility, you must also act on it. Everything I do is with an eye to Jewish values and culture and history.”
Her advocacy and activism within the AJC, in the meantime, requires patience, persistence and considerable courage to reach far across political positions and world views. In ‘Project Interchange,’ for example, AJC brings non-Jews in academia, media, religious, civic and diplomatic life to authentically experience reality on the ground. Delegates meet with Israeli Arabs and usually travel to Ramallah to meet with PA representatives and other key Palestinians in the West Bank.
The Emerging Leader
Schleifer’s advocacy for Jewish communities gradually grew and then surged after moving to Chappaqua in 1988. She joined Bet Torah Synagogue and ultimately became its President. Her ascent to the AJC presidency followed active involvement with the Jewish organizations ORT, UJA, and, also, the Westchester Jewish Council. “One day, a Chappaqua resident and then another asked me if I knew anything about AJC. I’d never hear of it. A couple years went by and I was asked to help sponsor a Jewish Film Festival at the Jacob Burns Film Center. “That appealed to me, and it’s now in its 17th year!” AJC was, fortuitously for Schleifer, a co-sponsor.
At the time, Schleifer was working as an attorney for Student Advocacy. “A lot of my clients were Latino, and so I got involved in the interfaith work of AJC–Hispanic Heritage Day–and other committees. This led to becoming president of the Westchester office in White Plains, and then joining its national board of governors, bringing Schleifer eventually to her present position. AJC, headquartered in NYC, has 22 regional offices in the U.S., 12 international posts and 37 international partnerships with Jewish communities around the world, and hundreds of thousands of supporters and followers globally.
Her earlier volunteerism with ORT and UJA came more naturally, as her “heart was pulled toward human services.” Schleifer’s father’s brother was trained by ORT in Poland. “Those personal relationships speak to me. Then, after that, I had a child born with significant special needs, who at 33 happily resides at the Chapel Haven Schleifer Center community in New Haven.
“I don’t think it was coincidental. I always had an eye for those who needed a voice or who needed to be brought in–and then I had my child. My natural bent has been to help.” Eventually, however, something felt ‘missing.’ The introduction to AJC offered new horizons for Schleifer “that continue to excite me every single day.”
“I still appreciate and contribute to the human service organizations, that will never go away, but the thrust of my energy now is on bridge building. I feel that’s where I can be most effective… and on “moving the needle to changing hearts and minds.”
Schleifer is certainly well educated for the task. She is a Cornell University graduate, holds two graduate degrees in higher education from the University of Virginia and a law degree from St. John’s University in New York City. And, she is clear that she has solid support at home.
Schleifer met her husband when they were in junior high school. “We started dating when I was 16 and he was 17. I followed him to Cornell. She described Len as “simpatico. Over the years, having a special needs son introduced stress, and it was hard.
But we are like minded and we support our son in every which way.” Their immense partnership and bond, she said, makes her activism possible.
Adoption of IHRA
At this point, the conversation turned back to AJC’s distinct role “as the number one global Jewish advocacy organization. One goal today is its work to see the IHRA definition of antisemitism adopted around the world. She said the US State Department has adopted and used the definition. “There’s bipartisan acceptance. It can get complicated responding to antisemitic speech given first amendment rights of free speech, at least outside of special environments such as the classroom or the workplace. And another question: How far can you go before speech tilts to incitement of violence? You have the right to criticize Israel but there comes a point where anti-Zionism masks anti-Semitism and that calls for a response to ensure that this form of antisemitism does not become normal.
“We see that in the BDS movement… If you bar an Israeli academic from coming, that is a total subversion of academic freedom. It turns freedom of expression upside down. Many states have passed legislation that prohibits businesses contracting with the state from boycotting Israel. So we already have protections in the commercial sphere.”
Addressing the BDS Movement on College Campuses
“BDS proponents stifling Jewish organizations and programs on campus is absolutely unproductive. AJC’s goal is to build bridges, not tear them down. There’s a lot of miseducation and lack of education that we need to address. A lot of BDS supporters haven’t even been to Israel.”
As for the gains BDS has made on college campuses, Schleifer said “younger people are too removed from what happened in Europe so they’re trying to figure out how to respond to the rise.
“But now we have to wake up… and educate young people. People talk about Israel and the occupation; the word ‘occupation’ is anathema to young people here. I’ve testified in the Knesset regarding the connection between American Jews and Israeli Jews. We are relatives who don’t know each other. Israeli priorities are security and economics. We U.S. Jews are not running into shelters with 15 seconds to take cover before a rocket hits…”
American Jews, living in relative comfort, have trouble relating to the fears Israelis live with, Schleifer explained. “We don’t understand why some Israelis have a hard time giving up settlements–not that I’m in favor, I don’t think they’re helpful at all–but we don’t really have the visceral understanding of fear of giving up land. We don’t know each other’s realities the way we think we do.”
Even among Israel’s most strident critics, Schleifer said, a trip there can profoundly change one’s perspective. “When we take non-Jews to Israel, we not only expose them to their counterparts, we also invite Arab Israelis to meet with them. We go into Ramallah.”
The AJC delegations are intended to be “an authentic look at what’s happening on the street, even if it’s critical of Israel. If you understand the reality on the ground, if you come back after an educated experience, then you can come back and talk. I don’t want to hear voices that are uni-dimensional.”
Key to AJC’s mission too is to make sure Israel is treated as a normal country along with the other 192 countries in the world. AJC regularly addresses some very real bias against Israel at the United Nations, such as with human rights votes that target Israel, and only Israel. They monitor anti-Israel bias in other institutions as well.
“When UNESCO officially refers to various historic sites in Jerusalem with only their Arabic names–that’s a problem. Because that denies the connection of Jews to the land of Israel. The fact that someone would deny the historic continuity of Jews in that part of the world and question the legitimacy of a Jewish state–that is what we advocate against. We want every country to recognize and accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel. And as our only democracy in the region.”
Schleifer cited a successful campaign encouraging U.S. mayors and governors to officially fight against anti-Semitism. The Mayor’s campaign against antisemitism, which drew more than 350 U.S. mayors and municipal leaders from all 50 states and the District of Columbia (plus more than 200 European mayors in 31 countries) signed the agreement. This campaign was entirely an AJC initiative.
The interview began to wind down with Schleifer encouraging my own interest fighting anti-Semitism:
“I have a philosophy: if you’re able, you must… If you have the time, then get involved in something that will make the world better,” she said. “If you’re able to help somebody, just do it. If I can speak out for Jews around the world… I can’t think of a better use of my time.”
After I left, I thought back to our initial discussion of the Cohen songbook. “He was receptive to different religious views,” Schleifer had noted.
In the song Hallelujah, Cohen evokes his Jewish roots.
“What would Cohen be doing if he were alive today about the spike in anti-Semitism?” I had asked.
“He was such a sensitive person. He would be writing about it, of course,” Schleifer said. “It goes to the core of decency.”