Ronald Lauder: Biggest challenge facing Jews this year is bad PR

No. 7 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2021: President of the World Jewish Congress Ronald Lauder.

Ronald Lauder (photo credit: NOA GRAYEVSKY)
Ronald Lauder
(photo credit: NOA GRAYEVSKY)

Ronald S. Lauder, who has served as president of the World Jewish Congress since 2007, is a rare voice of moral clarity in today’s world. In a Rosh Hashanah interview with The Jerusalem Post, Lauder bemoans the “negative” relationship that has developed between Israel and the Diaspora, and issues a heartfelt plea for it to be repaired.

As president of the WJC, which represents Jewish communities in 106 countries, Lauder meets regularly with heads of state, prime ministers and government representatives to discuss and advance causes of concern to Jews and Jewish communities internationally. 

How do you see the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jewry?

In a word, negative – and that’s a problem for the Jewish people and the State of Israel longterm. Here’s why: in the Diaspora, over 80% of Jews are Reform-to-Conservative and lead more secular lives, with a fleeting or conditional connection to Israel. The remaining 20% are Orthodox, and live a deep, daily connection to Israel. It is only through rebuilding the connection of the Diaspora to Israel, and Israel to the Diaspora, that both will sustain one another. Rebuilding this relationship is a key focus of mine over the next few years. 

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Israel has also been without a foreign minister for years, which has been detrimental to Israel’s standing and public image throughout the Diaspora – it has been neglected. I am hopeful that Foreign Minister [Yair] Lapid will be an important constructive force in doing the hard work to rebuild Israel in the Diaspora, and make the Diaspora a part of Israel once again.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder met privately with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in New York on 27 June 2021 (credit: SHAHAR AZRAN / WJC)World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder met privately with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in New York on 27 June 2021 (credit: SHAHAR AZRAN / WJC)

What is the biggest challenge facing Israel and the Jewish people in the coming year?

Israel’s public image, and how it reflects on Jews worldwide. We have let our enemies define us in the battlefield of public opinion. For Jews under 40, especially the next generation in colleges and universities, the relationship with Israel has been nearly severed. Younger Jews are turning against Israel and expressing anti-Israel opinions fomented by longstanding opponents who are seeing a return on decades of investment. Jewish students compare Israel to apartheid-era South Africa, with no real effort to convince them otherwise. That’s nothing short of giving permission to Jews to turn against our homeland.

Only real investment in hasbara can salvage this situation. To date, neither Israeli leaders nor Jewish leaders outside of Israel have paid attention to this crisis, to our grave detriment. I intend to change that over the next few years with key investments in hasbara campaigns.

What is your vision for the World Jewish Congress? 

The World Jewish Congress represents 106 communities on six continents. We are a service organization, providing government, policy and political support.

But this year, the WJC is branching out and building on these traditional services.

We are making critical investments in hasbara since Israel suffers from a crisis in public opinion; in education, since access to a Jewish education forms lasting bonds early in life, but also, our education system needs a watchdog, since anti-Israel and antisemitic thought is flourishing in colleges and universities. So, we’ll be holding higher education institutions accountable.

For instance, we will look closely at Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which mandates that if institutions, including education institutions, support hate or discriminatory speech targeting any minority group, including Jews, they lose federal funding. We will also invest in digital and cyber monitoring. We strongly believe that these are investments in a safer, more secure, and sustainable future for the global Jewish community.

To what do you attribute the current spike in global antisemitism, and how can it be best addressed?

Once again, a crisis in leadership has led to permission for our enemies to define us, creating space for antisemitism to flourish unchecked, especially on social media and in political discourse. For example, we have allowed Zionism and Judaism to be conflated, meaning that an opinion about Zionism is given permission to be equated with Judaism. This is a negative.

This should be addressed through diplomacy, accountability, and sustained public opinion work. It will take years and is my top priority.