John Shapiro, a former president of UJA-Federation of New York and the Dalton School, is the newly elected president of the global Jewish advocacy organization AJC (formerly known as American Jewish Committee). Shapiro is managing director of Chieftain Capital Management, which he co-founded in 1984. He is also chairman of Lawyers for Children and vice chair of the American Academy in Rome. The Jewish Week caught up with him by phone recently to discuss the issues facing the AJC in a changing communal landscape.
Q: What did you learn as president of UJA-Federation of New York that will help you at the AJC?
A: How to deal with a wide divergence of opinions. I had the good luck of being president during the 2008-9 [economic] meltdown. It forced UJA and other organizations to take a look at our strategic priorities and at allocating money properly. It’s a discipline I bring to every endeavor.
What made you chose the AJC for your next endeavor?
They both are top ranked in what they do – UJA-Federation from a social service and identity standpoint … and the AJC as an advocacy organization.
What are some of the AJC’s accomplishments in that regard?
We engage at the most senior levels with countries around the world, and were very instrumental in campaigning for the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Also David Harris [AJC executive director] was very prescient in recognizing early on that there might be growing tensions with Turkey and he worked hard for us to build relations in Azerbaijan, Greece and Cyprus. They have since become strong supporters of Israel, and Azerbaijan is a Muslim country whose foreign minister has traveled to Israel. We were instrumental in building those relationships.
What are some of the countries you have traveled to with the AJC?
In the last year or so I have been to Moldova, Ukraine, Jordan, Egypt and Sweden.
Given the recent attacks on Jewish institutions in Brussels and Denmark, is the government providing Sweden’s Jewish community with any protection?
We met with the head of the Jewish community and learned that the government was not providing any special security for Jewish day schools. We were told that after [the attacks on Jewish institutions] in Brussels and Denmark that police were posted outside the schools. But the police complained they were sitting ducks and were withdrawn. The schools were then given some money to hire their own security guards — but they are unarmed. … Later, we saw the prime minister sitting alone at a restaurant with no security. So when we argued for stronger protection for day schools, we were going against a deeply entrenched mentality.
What are the main challenges the AJC is facing today?
Certainly the delegitimization of Israel has gone from what might have been people protesting certain policies years ago to anti-Semitism.
What is the AJC doing about anti-Semitism on the Internet?
Combatting anti-Semitism on the Internet is like whack-a-mole. We are trying to get governments and university officials to recognize the danger. We had 500 U.S. and European mayors sign a petition condemning anti-Semitism, and so far 19 governors of U.S. states have signed a petition condemning BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel] and anti-Semitism. The AJC has access to people of influence — whether in government or universities or media — and we need to use those contacts, our credibility and access to get people to understand they can’t sit quietly by and let anti-Israel [rhetoric] morph into anti-Semitism.
Your family’s donations made the AJC’s newest overseas office in Warsaw possible. Why was Poland, a country that still refuses to honor property claims of Holocaust survivors and their heirs, chosen as the site for the group’s central European office?
I recognize there is some controversy, but a lot of us have family coming from that area. We could have located in Hungary, but there are challenges in all … [central European countries]. I think we will find a way to work through some of these things.