Ronald Lauder stands with his hands behind his back, staring out at Jerusalem’s Old City. “Take a look at this view,” he enthuses. “You can see everything from here.”
I am visiting the billionaire philanthropist, former ambassador and president of the World Jewish Congress in his suite at the King David Hotel. Fresh from a tour of the Negev in his capacity as chairman of the board of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund, Lauder does not appear at all like a man who just made a trek through the desert. His suit’s lines are sharp, his shirt starched and his conservative tie at odds with Israel’s typically laid-back fashion sensibilities.
“I find that people pay more attention when you wear a suit,” he notes when asked about his reasons for wearing business attire to the desert.
Lauder, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, gushes about the development of the Negev and the Arava, which he believes will be the “future of Israel.” However, despite his avidity for David Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom, it is not about internal Israeli matters that he wished to speak, but rather, how Israel affects Jewish communities abroad and how they, in turn, affect Israel.
“I represent 100 Jewish communities around the world,” Lauder said, and “whatever happens to Israel has an enormous effect on all the Jewish communities.”
While the media loves to report on communal conflicts, he asserted that apart from obvious outliers on the far Right and Left, “you have the whole middle pretty much united behind Israel. They get what’s happening, and they get the danger, and they get what they need to do.”
One of the issues that the World Jewish Congress is currently examining is that of pro-Israel advocacy, known in Hebrew as hasbara.
“I believe there should be a ministry of hasbara,” Lauder asserted. “The government of Israel should centralize it.
Right now it’s five different ministries doing it. We need one ministry and it should report directly to the prime minister.” Meanwhile, “we at the WJC are developing our own group that will help in developing hasbara, and will work closely with Israel on it.”
Lauder also joined with other Jewish leaders in calling the issue of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns against Israel one of the most pressing concerns of the Jewish community. Jewish leaders believe that such campaigns, and related anti-Israel propaganda, can be used to make Jewish communities abroad feel vulnerable and stir up anti-Semitic sentiments.
“Anti-Semitism is learned at the dinner table,” Lauder said. “When you turn the television on and you see pictures of Palestinian poor people and you see the wealthy Israelis, what used to be the positive they turned into a negative. What the Arabs have been able to do is turn the David and Goliath [narrative] upside down and suddenly David becomes Goliath and Goliath becomes David.
“We must change that,” Lauder insisted, adding that “Israel is reaching out to [Jewish leaders abroad] in the right ways.”
While he agreed with Finance Minister Yair Lapid’s recent statement to the executive board of the European Jewish Congress, a WJC affiliate, that Israel must do more to collaborate with Diaspora leaders in combating BDS, Lauder added that in his opinion, hasbara is not the best answer to boycott campaigns.
Acknowledging that “Israel needs better hasbara,” Lauder said that “the interesting thing is, you are much more effective on a legal basis than on an emotional or a hasbara basis.”
Despite his critiques on the issue of hasbara, Lauder praised Israel for its policies regarding Diaspora Jewry.
Lauder commended the Netanyahu administration for its relationship with Diaspora leaders, as well as for the government’s new World Jewry Joint Initiative, which, if approved, will more than double Israel’s spending on Jewish identity programs abroad.
“I’ve never seen someone who is more popular in the Diaspora than PM Netanyahu, and rightfully so, because he understands the Diaspora better than anyone does.
The fact is that you have Lapid, you have Bennett [and] you have Liberman understanding [the Diaspora].”
Recalling a recent WJC conference on BDS attended by himself and Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, at which he gathered more than 100 lawyers representing Jewish communities worldwide, Lauder said that one of the discoveries that the legal experts made was that there are many laws on the books in various nations that are seldom enforced and which could be useful in combating boycotts.
While he joked that it cost an arm and a leg on an hourly basis to convene so many attorneys, he said that just getting the lawyers together, generated many new approaches to combat BDS by utilizing existing laws, regulations and statutes.
“The way to defeat boycotts is legally, and we looked at this and we realized that many countries have laws against boycotts, and these lawyers came up with very interesting solutions, and this is a way to defeat them.”
According to Lauder, boycotting Israel is akin to the Nazi campaign to boycott Jewish stores in Germany.
“You look at boycotts against Israel and the question is, it’s not a boycott against Israel, it’s a boycott against Jews,” he said. “Israel is Jewish, and you may disagree with policies, but there is no difference between that and boycotting stores because they are Jewish.”
BDS supporters, he pointed out, do not boycott Iran or Syria.
Moreover, he added, boycotts of settlement goods, no matter what one’s views are on the 1967 territories, are beyond the pale.
“A boycott is a boycott,” Lauder believes.
One of the issues of special concern to the WJC is the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. From the increasing electoral returns experienced by right-wing nationalist factions such as Hungary’s Jobbik to bans on circumcision and ritual slaughter enacted for ostensibly progressive and liberal reasons, many Jews are beginning to feel uncomfortable on the continent.
Last year, Lauder, speaking at the WJC’s plenum in Budapest, called on Brussels to ban neo-Nazi parties.
Many of the parties to which Lauder objects will be running for seats in the European Parliament next month, worrying local Jewish communities.
According to Lauder, much of the support for the extreme Right comes as a protest vote against weak governments and as a reaction to economic problems. The far Right, he said, provides scapegoats, including Jews and other minority groups, and some of their leaders are attracting the disaffected by “reading the handbook of Hitler.”
In Hungary, for example, the Jobbik party won 20 percent of the vote, and while most of the party’s voters are probably not hardcore anti-Semites, they will be exposed to years of party propaganda that can potentially radicalize them, Lauder said.
“European governments sometimes need [these groups] for a coalition to get things through, and almost fear them,” he added. “These groups, unless checked, are going to get stronger and stronger. This is not a thing that is going away.”
The problem so far, he said, is that not all national leaders are willing to face up to anti-Semitism with the necessary action. Hungarians, for instance, have not taken the requisite action against Jobbik and the dissemination of hate, despite talking a good game.
“Basically, they haven’t taken action,” Lauder averred.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, he said, can give a good speech on the topic but “it’s a speech he gives in English,” and like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, or Yasser Arafat before him, it differs from what he may say in his native tongue for internal consumption.
“The EU itself, I think, will reach a point when they will start passing laws” against neo-Nazi parties, he said, just as Greece has begun cracking down on the Golden Dawn, its own fascist faction. The upcoming elections will likely provide the catalyst for consideration of such a crackdown, but the question in Brussels remains “will they have the strength and the leadership to do it,” he said.
“But there is no question that in Brussels there is a strong feeling that they must do something, and I’m confident with the right set of circumstances they will do it,” Lauder proclaimed.