Lauder’s half-full cup

The President of the World Jewish Congress sums up six years in office in a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Report

Ronald Lauder521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ronald Lauder521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ronald Lauder is optimistic about the future of European Jewry. “Hope outweighs despair,” says the WJC president, as the organization prepares for its annual congress in Budapest, with a tide of anti-Semitism sweeping through Europe. Lauder takes issue with the assessment that European Jewry faces a slow death. In fact, he says, Jewish cultural life, especially in Eastern Europe, is experiencing a renaissance, and European Jewry has enormous potential, even as the far-right gains ground and the left targets ritual slaughter and circumcision.
The following are excerpts from an interview with Lauder:
 Anti-Zionist demonstrations are to be held when the World Jewish Congress convenes in Budapest on May 5, Hungary’s far-right anti-Semitic Jobbik party’s popularity is surging, and in a recent op-ed in the Süddeutsche Zeitung German daily, you charged Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán with “losing his political compass and pandering to the far-right fringe of Hungarian politics.” What message do you hope to convey by holding the WJC plenary in Budapest?
"A message of solidarity with Hungarian Jews. This is the strongest Jewish community in Central Europe. It has more than 100,000 members. It is quite unique because Hungary is not such a big country. At the same time, the number of anti-Semitic and racist incidents has risen dramatically in Hungary in recent years. This hatred manifests itself on the streets, in parliament, in the media.
The Hungarian government must do more to fight this phenomenon.
“The motto of the World Jewish Congress is ‘kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh’ – all Jews are responsible for one another. Together with the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, we are holding our most important event in Budapest, in the heart of Europe, because we believe that by putting the international spotlight on this problem, we can help raise awareness and make a difference.”
Given the severity of your indictment of Orbán, why has the WJC invited him to speak before the plenary? Does that not send the wrong message?
“We welcome the fact that Prime Minister Orbán is coming to speak at our event. We invited him precisely because we have concerns that we want to raise with him. The World Jewish Congress is in the business of diplomacy. We will make our case to Mr.
Orbán. I am sure he will listen, and we will listen to what he has to say.”
What measures should be taken to combat the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe, and what role does the WJC have to play?
“There are many aspects, and you could discuss this topic endlessly. For me, it is critical that we manage to overcome indifference and that we fight ignorance through education and public debate. You can have as many laws against anti-Semitism and as many police officers on the streets as you want. If no-one speaks out against conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial, etc., if you allow anti-Semitism to become acceptable and enter mainstream debate, huge damage is done.
“So, while certain laws need to be put in place or enforced (the lack of enforcement constitutes a big problem in some countries), society as a whole needs to discuss what is acceptable and what is not. Clear red lines need to be defined, and those who cross them need to be called out and censured.
“In Europe, parties like Golden Dawn in Greece that are clearly neo-Nazi parties ought to be banned, where that is possible.
If mainstream politicians try to pander to their supporters, they will only become more extreme.
“The role of the WJC is to raise awareness, to give advice and to assist the Jewish communities in their efforts against anti- Semitism. But one thing is also clear: It is not the Jews who created anti-Semitism, and therefore it cannot be the Jews who can do away with it. That’s the task of societies as a whole.”
Nowhere in Europe today it seems is free from the rising tide of anti-Semitism; once again, Europe’s Jews are harassed and physically threatened. To quote Robert Wistrich in an essay in The Jerusalem Report (April 22), “The slow death of European Jewry” – Is there a future for European Jewry? Is the answer to be found in combating the scourge, or, is the answer, as Wistrich writes, for Europe’s Jews to escape the wastelands of hatred for the safer shores of the Jewish homeland?
“I disagree with Robert Wistrich’s assessment. What we are witnessing in many European countries since the fall of the Iron Curtain is a strong renaissance of Jewish life, of culture. Many Jews are rediscovering their heritage. People are going back to places like Poland. New synagogues are inaugurated in Germany almost on a weekly basis.
Jewish museums are witnessing a boom.
Jewish schools are oversubscribed.
“The situation in Europe may be worrying but it is not as bad as many outsiders believe. I am rather optimistic about the future. Through the work of my foundation I have been able to support many projects. The results were sometimes impressive.
“Clearly, hope outweighs despair.
European Jewry does have a huge potential, and many governments are doing their best to support the Jewish revival in the countries. And they know that if anti- Semitism is permitted to thrive in their countries it won’t happen in the long run.”
Several European countries have proposed legislation to regulate Jewish ritual slaughter and circumcision. What is the WJC doing to protect the rights of Europe’s Jewish population?
“We work hand-in-hand with the local communities wherever such a problem occurs. Last year, in Germany and in the Netherlands, we raised our concerns with the respective governments and, in the end, we were successful.
“The situation is difficult because the customs of religious minorities are coming under fire from secular corners. There are big organized interests, such as the animal rights movement, that dedicate enormous resources and efforts to attacking shehita.
They do it for the wrong reasons, and they use false arguments, but they know that they have a chance of winning because they are targeting a small community that has very little resources in fighting back.
“So, it is safe to predict that issues like these will come up again in other European countries, and therefore we must remain vigilant and proactive.”
How has recent controversy over the Women of the Wall damaged Israel’s standing among Diaspora Jewry, and do you support the compromise proposed by Jewish Agency chief Natan Sharansky?
“I prefer not to go into this debate. No, it hasn’t damaged Israel’s standing among Jews in the Diaspora, but yes it needs to be resolved. Natan Sharansky is much better placed to give advice than I am.”
Can you tell us about your acquaintance with Pope Francis and your expectations for Jewish-Catholic relations under the new pontiff?
“The first four weeks of Pope Francis’s papacy have been amazing – there is no other word. Never before has there been a Catholic pontiff who reached out to Jews in such a cordial, personal manner. The day after his inauguration, he met with leaders from the WJC and other Jewish groups at the Vatican. He even embraced many of them – I have never seen pictures like that before.
“I met Cardinal Bergoglio in Buenos Aires in 2008. You could tell then that this is a special man. He is greatly admired by many in the Argentine Jewish community, and now everyone can see why.
“We look forward to further strengthening our already good relations with the Catholic Church. There are a couple of issues where we have differences of opinion, but there is a huge field out there where we can cooperate.
Pope Francis has a very refreshing, practical approach. This bodes well for the future.”
Do you agree with assessments by, among others, American political pundit Peter Beinart that there is a declining attachment to Israel among US Jews because of assimilation, a failure in Jewish education, and opposition to Israel’s policies?
“No. I think support of Americans for Israel has never been stronger than it is today, and American Jews are steadfast in their support for the Jewish State. Increasingly, they are joined by non-Jews, and I find this very encouraging. There will always be criticism of Israeli government policies – but that’s a fundamental aspect of our democracy and is not restricted to American Jews.
“On the other hand, I believe there is still room for improvement. We must invest in programs that bring young American Jews closer to Israel.”
You have expressed concern in the past about the state of US-Israel ties or, more specifically, the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, and you have also expressed the opinion that if Israel were to act on Iran without the support of the United States, it would be disastrous. Are you satisfied now that those relations are back on track after the president’s recent visit to Israel and that the two countries are in sync on how to deal with Tehran’s nuclear ambitions?
“By visiting Israel, President Obama did the right thing. This was very, very important for the US-Israel relationship.
“Iran remains a big concern, but I have no doubt that President Obama will take the right action against Tehran. There is no alternative to standing united on this.
Iran is trying to drive a wedge between the Western countries. We must not allow that to happen.”
Do you still believe that a peace agreement in the Middle East would lead to a reduction in manifestations of anti-Semitism and incitement?
“Once a peace deal is signed by Palestinian and Israeli leaders, the hatemongers of this world – and there are many of them – will have a hard time blaming Israel and ‘the Zionists’ for all the woes that affect the Middle East. So yes, on the one hand, a peace agreement would be the most effective political measure against anti-Semitism. But on the other hand, given that there is still anti- Semitism in Europe after the murder of twothirds of European Jewry less than 70 years ago, hatred against Jews won’t disappear.
It is deeply entrenched in many people’s minds, especially in the Arab world.”
The WJC mission statement describes the organization as the diplomatic arm of the Jewish people, advocating Jewish concerns and interests towards governments, international organizations and other faiths. How closely do you work with the Israeli government in defining “Jewish concerns”?
“We cooperate closely with the Israeli government and the various parties represented in the Knesset, both through our Israel branch and the WJC office in Jerusalem, and in the various countries where we are active.
“The World Jewish Congress is an independent international organization that has always pursued its mission independently. Our main objective is to foster Jewish unity in diversity and to lend support to communities when they ask for it. There is no disagreement between the WJC and Israel on the main ‘Jewish concerns’ of today.”
You have been president of the WJC since June 2007. Can you tell us what you believe your achievements to be during this time and what your goals are for the future?
“Over the last couple of years, the WJC focused on fighting the delegitimization of Israel. We exposed the hypocrisy of the BDS movement and spoke out in defense of Israel where necessary. We helped to support Israel’s diplomatic activities where that was requested.
“We put the important issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands back on the international agenda. On Holocaust-era restitution, we have continued to talk to governments and, in several countries, we were able to deliver good results for the survivors.
“In international arenas, we highlighted the threat posed by Iran, and many Western companies have now stopped doing business with Iran. I spoke with a number of top executives, and that has had a positive effect.
“The WJC helped to fight the restrictions on Jewish religious practices in Europe. This battle will continue, as will the fight against anti-Semitism and, in particular, the neo- Nazi parties that are growing in countries such as Greece, Hungary or Ukraine.
“For the next four years, I want us to prove that by being united, we can make a real difference. I want Jewish communities everywhere to realize that the World Jewish Congress is there to support them where they need support from outside.” 