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For this Central Illinois native, all roads lead to Jerusalem

Tue. November 25, 2008; Posted: 10:29 AM
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Nov 25, 2008 (Herald & Review - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- CILL | Quote | Chart | News | PowerRating -- Jonathan Calt Harris initially studied history, hoping to teach at the high school level.

But the Moultrie County native's life story has taken many twists and turns, leading instead to a career as a writer, lobbyist and policy analyst. And since June, he has been working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group.

He started his job on the day Sens. Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton spoke to the committee's policy conference in Washington, D.C.

"It was pretty exciting," Harris said in an interview from his office in Washington D.C. "Half of Congress was here. It was pretty great. I got to go to all of it."

The timing was fortuitous.

"Obama had clinched the nomination the day before," Harris recalled. "He had been scheduled to speak for months. It was ton of exposure for the committee. Every network in the country was running our logo below Hillary, Obama and McCain."

Harris, who had studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and worked for two other pro-Israel organizations, was already aware of the committee's standing.

"Getting called up to go to the committee was like getting called up to play in the New York Yankees," he said. "I thought this job was too good for me to get. Then I got it. It has been terrific. I'm basically paid to think, paid to read, to analyze information and come up with policy ideas. It is challenging and really fun."

In ancient times, it was said: "All roads lead to Rome." For Harris, while on the road to explore ancient Rome, he witnessed history being made in modern Israel.

He lived in Jerusalem in 1996 as a history student at the University of Illinois in its study-abroad program.

"I was there as a Roman scholar. Israel has a ton of Roman history and archaeology," Harris said.

It was a tumultuous time, two months after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

On weekdays, Harris rode the bus to classes at Hebrew University. One Sunday, he heard a bus on his line was bombed. The following Sunday, another bus was destroyed, with many passengers killed.

"I was on the scene a half hour later," Harris recalled. "There was a huge cordon of police. The (Jewish volunteers) who pick up the pieces of the bodies were there. The whole top of the bus was bent back. Nothing but twisted metal."

Harris commented to a police officer that it must have been a powerful bomb to destroy the bus. The officer informed him he was looking at the bus behind the one that was bombed.

"The bus that was bombed was gone," Harris recalled. "That was rivetingly powerful. I realized then how much hatred was involved. It was so stunning. You have to hate that much to obliterate a bus full of people."

The history student shifted his focus from the Caesars to the more recent forces that shaped the Holy Land. He spent long sessions in Israel's National Library, reading documents that shaped the nation.

"I came out of this experience with the firm belief that while Israel is not perfect, Israel tries harder than any other country in the region for peace," Harris said. "It has tried to establish democracy, a rule of law, to establish freedom and prosperity for all citizens, including Arab citizens."

Harris, a Christian, said his faith did not play much of a role in his decision to support Israel.

"My pro-Israel stance really came to me in a nonreligious way," Harris said, adding that it was connected more to his feelings as an American. "I was proud to see this country trying so hard to establish democracy in the face of such hardships. That was quite inspiring."

After graduating from the U of I, Harris returned to Israel as a graduate student, landing a job as a writer and researcher for Time magazine's Jerusalem bureau. Harris had little previous journalistic experience but was eventually hired as a full-time reporter for Time magazine in New York.

He found the city an exciting place, but it was fantastically expensive. "You just hemorrhage money," Harris recalled.

So when Time slashed staff, Harris cashed his severance check and headed back to Illinois, where he worked for the Herald & Review for a couple of months, covering Moultrie County.

Harris' journalistic experience served him well as he landed a series of jobs with pro-Israel groups, beginning with Campus Watch, a project dedicated to exposing anti-Israel bias in Middle East studies programs at U.S. universities.

"The sense there was that the Middle East studies programs in America were anti-American academic environments," Harris said, adding he was surprised how prevalent anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments were on American campuses. "What we found was that academics willing to take a political position against Israel and America would be promoted simply for their political position, not for their scholarship. Scholarship had become subservient to politics."

While later working for StandWithUs, a group active on college campuses, Harris spearheaded a successful effort to cause the University of Michigan to terminate its role as a distributor of books by a British publisher of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic literature.

Asaf Romirowsky, 34, worked with Harris at Campus Watch, where they co-authored an article exposing the connection between a U.S. professor and a terrorist group.

"Jonathan is a passionate individual, a caring, devoted individual to this cause," said Romirowsky, a former Israeli Army officer. "He is very talented as a writer. He's not Jewish, but he is a staunch Zionist. He really cares about this topic, the Jewish people."

His parents, Rodney and Lenora Harris, raised Harris at Elim Springs Park, near Sullivan. Lenora Harris said her son, who graduated from Bethany High School, always amazed her, especially his wholehearted dedication to studying subjects that captured his attention.

For example, when he was in the fifth grade, studying the Civil War, he could recite details of numerous battles, including the sizes of weapons and how far they could propel their ammunition.

"He was so phenomenal, his memory," she said. "He can absorb any amount of stuff."

While Harris enjoys participating in high-powered discussions, he said he looks forward to someday enjoying a more ordinary life, hopefully starting a family in Illinois.

"I would have been happy being a high school history teacher," Harris said. "That's what I went to school for."

hfreeman@herald-review.com|421-6985

To see more of Herald & Review, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald-review.com Copyright (c) 2008, Herald & Review, Decatur, Ill. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprints@permissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

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