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Ted Deutch on one year with the AJC: ‘I couldn’t be happier to be in this position’

The former congressman joined JI’s podcast to discuss his new role, campus antisemitism and Middle East politics

Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) advocating for the passage of the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act or the PACT Act at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

In early 2022, then-Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) surprised Congress when he announced that he would not be seeking reelection, instead opting to take over as CEO of the American Jewish Committee. As his first anniversary in the new role nears, Deutch joined co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein on this week’s episode of JI’s podcast to discuss his work at AJC, incidents at the University of Pennsylvania and CUNY, Iran and Saudi-Israel normalization.

Below are excerpts of the conversation. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On the recent Palestine Writes Literature Festival at UPenn: “The response from the [UPenn] President [Elizabeth Magill about the conference] had a lot that showed her commitment to the Jewish community. Obviously, we want to understand first and foremost, how is it that decisions are made at universities, how is it decisions were made here that a conference comes to a campus that includes people who are — frankly at this point, Roger Waters is more famous for being an antisemite than he is for his work with Pink Floyd. And how is it that someone like that is invited in the first place? Her response, the president’s response, vows to get to the bottom of that, that’s helpful; adopts the IHRA definition, which is very helpful, something AJC has advocated for, for a very long time; stands with the students and providing security and making sure that there is no requirement — one of the things that came up earlier was a concern that students will be required to actually attend this horrific conference, that’s not the case — vowing to do a whole slew of other actions focused on fighting antisemitism on campus. All of that is very positive and I applaud her for taking that action; it still leaves open the question that we’re going to get answers to what happened.”

On antisemitism at CUNY: “I think it’s important for us to not link every episode [of antisemitism]on every college campus. We have been highly critical of CUNY’s inadequate response to antisemitism and their recent hiring of [former CNN commentator] Marc Lamont Hill after being fired [from CNN] for his antisemitism. Our director of academic affairs has been in communication with the chancellor over the past year. There’s antisemitism at several of the CUNY schools obviously, and, look, that they made a decision to recruit Marc Lamont Hill to a professorship in the Graduate School speaks to this same problem as the faculty voting in favor of passing a BDS resolution and the faculty that endorsed the Law Student Association when it passed the BDS resolution. They seem to be doubling down on their tendency to stack the deck at their university with anti-Zionist faculty members, and none of the chancellor’s communications to us, I don’t think, at all have addressed these problems, which are serious and they’re systemic. Yes, it’s about antisemitism and protecting the Jewish community and thinking about what it was like to sit in the audience during that antisemitic tirade that doubled as a [CUNY Law School] graduation speech, but for a university, this lack of intellectual diversity among their faculty, the outbursts that we’ve now seen two years in a row and anti-Zionist statements during that law school commencement — if the chancellor is is really committed to confronting and pushing back against antisemitism at CUNY, then we’ve got to address these deeper issues and the culture that’s been created there. It’s not just through trying to show allyship, it’s through actually addressing the fundamental problem that exists.”

On his first year with the AJC: “I couldn’t be happier to be in this position with the opportunity to lead an organization that, for well more than a century now, has as its mission the fundamental issues that I care most deeply about: enhancing the well-being of the Jewish people and Israel and advancing democratic values. In my first year, that’s meant really leaving Congress, which is, I think we can all acknowledge,  probably the most partisan place there is these days, and coming to an organization that has this unparalleled global structure across six continents, advocating for the Jewish communities in those continents and the closer relationships with Israel, and doing it in a nonpartisan and centrist way with clear values and clear principles leading the way. That allows me to lean in really with my heart and passion every day. So these are the issues I care about.

On the recent prisoner exchange with Iran: “This one’s personal for me. I represented Bob Levinson, the longest-held American in history. And the challenge that Bob’s family had led us in getting access to people in the government who cared about them, who would listen to them, led to the creation of the Robert Levinson Hostage Taking Accountability Act — one of the things I’m frankly most proud of having done in Congress. I spent a lot of time with the families of Americans wrongfully detained and held hostage, and I am glad that they’re home. That said, and we can argue over whether the price was high, but the one thing we have to work on together now is to ensure that this money, which has very tight strings attached, yes, money is fungible, we all acknowledge that, but we at least have to make sure, as we’ve been doing in our meetings here this week, that both the United States and countries around the world, that the money that goes through Qatar, is only going to go for humanitarian purposes.”

On Saudi-Israel normalization: “I believe, if it’s going to happen, then it’s going to happen soon, I think… Given the political realities of Washington, if there’s going to be a deal, first, it’s got to be a deal that benefits the United States. One that enhances, not just Israel’s place in the world with the opportunity to really move forward on looking toward an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but that ensures Israel’s security. And, obviously, the Saudis have a list of things that they’re looking for. It’s got to be in everyone’s interest. It’s got to happen before we get too far into the political season. If it works for Israel, then the prime minister of Israel is going to have a key role to play here. I think the fact that there’s an opportunity through this deal to really push back on China’s aggression and China’s attempt to play a larger role in the region, I think that will matter on Capitol Hill… Certainly if we get to the point where there’s a deal that really could transform the region, Israel’s place in the region and the world, and the way the world views the Middle East, I’ll look forward to engaging with my former colleagues and friends — my former colleagues in the House and my friends in the Senate — to make clear how we’re viewing it. The fact is, there is an enormous opportunity here, it does not come along very often. We cannot do anything unless it serves the interests of the United States and protects Israel’s security. If it’s possible to do all that however, this could be a historic, historic agreement.”

Bonus lightning round: Favorite Yiddish word or phrase? “I often find myself — this has been a problem throughout my political career as well — I find myself getting verklempt, so I’m gonna go with verklempt.” Favorite Jewish food? “I don’t know that I reach for them together, but I do thoroughly enjoy a good garlicky, half-sour pickle, and a knish, fried, not baked.” Favorite secretary of state? “After all of my years working so hard to avoid partisanship, I’m not going to invite that conversation now. I will say this though, as much as I have traveled this past year as the CEO of American Jewish Committee, it pales in comparison to what all of our secretaries of state do. I have enormous respect for the contributions they make and their dedication to the country.”

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