Never underestimate the power of relationships, says John Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey director.
Noting that in recent years the venerable organization has shifted much of its focus to diplomacy, Mr. Rosen said that New Jersey has been entrusted with developing special ties to diplomats from India, Nepal, Malaysia, Greece, Slovakia, Costa Rica, and Panama.
“It’s all about relationships,” Mr. Rosen said. When you have established relations with a diplomat, “and have met with that person formally and informally, they’ll begin to trust you and value what you do and bring to the table. Those relationships can last for years, and can pay off down the line.”
“This is not the AJC of even five years ago,” he continued. “Eighty percent of our work now is interfacing with world leaders and diplomats. There’s a misconception that somehow there’s this world out there beyond New Jersey’s borders where diplomats huddle together, and that’s where the conversation is taking place. That’s not the case.
“Interactions with these countries happen around the world, often on our own soil, and these conversations are going on all the time. AJC recognized a number of years ago that no Jewish groups were holding these conversations, advocating for Jewish interests.”
While AIPAC focuses on educating Congress about matters involving Israel, “no one was doing this at the global level, so AJC decided to fill that role,” Mr. Rosen said. Unlike AIPAC, however, “our agenda is broader, focusing not just on Israel but on the welfare of the Jewish community around the world. We’re talking to world leaders.” Those conversations are not lobbying — they are diplomacy. “We’re talking to world leaders and diplomats the same way other countries are talking to each other. We’re using the same language and the same etiquette.” And, he said, AJC trains both staff and volunteers to follow this etiquette.
In general, meetings are “formulaic. The team leader — the volunteer assigned to that country — leads the meeting, inviting the diplomat to express what’s on his mind. Then we present the talking points we reviewed with experts on [the AJC] staff.” These may include, for example, anti-Semitism, and how the country in question can play a role in dealing with other countries that face this problem.
On the issue of Israel, “We talk to our diplomatic partners about Israel’s treatment at the U.N. and the bias built into the U.N.” In his experience, “the diplomats have a vested interest in making sure the U.N. works. They’re distraught about the anti-Israel bias. We work with them to raise the issue going forward.” And that, he said, means a better chance of things changing.
By way of example: Some 20 years ago, when Yugoslavia broke apart, “we built up a good relationship with the consul general at the time from Bosnia. We had a close relationship. Now he’s the foreign minister.” When, two years ago, Palestine asked the U.N. Security Council to recognize a Palestinian state, “the swing vote was Bosnia,” Mr. Rosen said. “Because of our relationship, we convinced them to abstain.” Indeed, he said, even the U.S. State Department recognized AJC’s efforts in bringing this about.
Mr. Rosen said that the meetings are helpful to both sides. “We have influence and reach,” he said. “We have offices worldwide and we meet with members of Congress.” At the top of AJC, its executive director, David Harris, meets with leaders, ambassadors, and heads of state, engaging in “continuous dialogue and contact. They know we do that. It’s useful to speak to us.” With international offices in Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Delhi, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, San Paolo, and Jerusalem, “we’re well-placed around the world.”
In between formal meetings, “we engage informally,” Mr. Rosen said. “We’re often most productive when we get to know them better.” For example, the New Jersey team may invite diplomats from their assigned countries to sit with them at the U.N.’s Holocaust commemoration, or they may participate in those countries’ special exhibits.
“At our instigation, the Indian consulate holds a Chanukah party every year,” Mr. Rosen said. “It’s a wonderful celebration. There are two Indian Jews who are part of the diplomatic effort. They both go to this.”
Sometimes, interactions are dictated by circumstance. After the terror attacks in Paris, AJC invited diplomats to a commemoration at the New York office, co-sponsored by the French consulate. “It was a powerful program,” Mr. Rosen said.
Clearly, there’s a lot of diplomatic work to be done. And “if we only used staff, we wouldn’t get very far,” he added. “So we learned we could train volunteers and have them participate.”
One such volunteer, Alain Sanders of River Edge, recently led a meeting in New York with diplomats from Costa Rica. Mr. Sanders, a professor of political science at Saint Peter’s University, explained that, typically, New Jersey diplomatic volunteers meet with the ambassador or consul general of those countries assigned to the state.
“I’m the diplomatic team leader regarding Costa Rica,” he said. Recently, he met with Juan Carlos Mendoza García, Costa Rica’s permanent representative to the U.N.
“We discussed our concerns pertaining to Israel and the Jewish community worldwide,” Mr. Sanders said. “Meetings are off the record so we can become good friends. The purpose is to share AJC’s views on issues because [these diplomats] do communicate back with their home government.
“Diplomats tend to operate in the ‘upper atmosphere,’” he said, noting that meetings such as his are a “reality check. They hear from people on the ground and communicate back.”
In addition, he said, in many foreign countries, the initial entryway into national politics may be a post in the U.N. or an ambassadorship. “Subsequently, they may rise in their home country to become an influential politician. We befriend these officials as they rise and maintain that relationship over a long period of time, including when they get there. It’s a good investment.”
Mr. Sanders said that the AJC’s informal diplomatic team’s typical approach is to “first invite [the diplomat] to tell us the issues and problems of his country and problems and issues vis-à-vis Israel. Then we discuss our positions on some of the same, or different, matters. They often agree with what we say. We let them know we are a resource. We do extensive research and extensive advocacy work. If they give us a call, we’ll try to help.
“Really, this is a mutual relationship. Discussions have been friendly. Even when we disagree, it’s not antagonistic. We’re meant to be supportive of one another.”
Mr. Sanders, who has been engaged in this work for a year — and has attended meetings with diplomatic representatives of Panama, India, and Greece — said such meetings are “very productive.”
Before undertaking their diplomatic assignments, New Jersey volunteers sit with AJC staff experts, meeting with a team that concentrates on a particular geographic area and evaluates the country in question: “Where things stand, what opportunities exist for outreach,” Mr. Sanders said. “In each case, we evaluate what is the best possible approach.”
At the Costa Rica meeting, “every New Jersey volunteer was there and we were at the top of our skills. It was an impressive set of talents at our end.”
After the meetings, volunteers ask permission to take notes for internal use, recording their impressions of the gathering.
“These meetings are valuable because they create relationships and friendships,” Mr. Sanders said. “We can’t forget that there are human beings behind the policies. As long as you maintain dialogue, there’s less chance to escalate into conflict.
“Jews are often maligned around the world; it’s important for leaders to see that we’re like any other people. We have concerns and interests and we share them.”