There are many things that trouble World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder, but on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day, the prominent Jewish leader is optimistic about the fate of his people.
In a broad-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post, he weighs in on anti-Semitism in Europe, the dimming connection between Israel and young American Jews, the upcoming US presidential elections and the future of world Jewry.
Below is an excerpt of an interview which will run in full in the Post’s Diplomatic Conference magazine. Lauder will serve as president of the conference, scheduled for May 22 in New York City.
This is the 68th Independence Day for the State of Israel. What was the biggest challenge Israel faced when it was established?
The biggest challenge Israel faced in 1948, of course, was war. After its remarkable victory, the next challenge was how to build an economically vibrant homeland for the Jewish people. There was no infrastructure, and Israel, as a fledgling nation, took in hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Europe shortly thereafter from the Arab countries that expelled them.
The challenge was not only to build a Jewish state from the ashes of the Holocaust, but to establish this state as a democracy in a sea of intolerance, and to maintain security as a young state surrounded by neighbors who were trying to destroy it.
What do you wish the Jewish people on Independence Day?
I wish the Jewish people many more years of a democratic, diverse, and thriving Israel. I hope that Jews around the world celebrate today knowing they will always have a homeland to call their own, and that they feel secure enough in their communities to be open in their celebration.
It’s important for Jews to be mindful on this day of the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, unprecedented since the 1920s and 1930s, and the alarming apathy toward Israel among some in the United States. In this global climate, Israel as a Jewish state holds increased significance.
I hope that Jews celebrate the strength and resilience of Israel, but take the time to recognize those who fought throughout history to secure its safety, and to reflect on how they can ensure its future.
How do you see the American Jewish community voting in the upcoming US elections?
Are American Jews voting less and less with Israel as a major consideration for them? The Jewish community in the US is diverse – it’s spread across all 50 states and does not vote as a monolithic bloc, so it is impossible to discuss it in those terms. What I do know is this: The security and prosperity of the State of Israel is of paramount importance to the Jewish community in the US, and the community carefully and substantively evaluates where candidates stand on the issue. This has been true in every election in my lifetime, and I believe will continue to be. No candidate weak on Israel or the Israeli peace process is a serious contender for the American presidency.
American voters, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, know that even beyond the deeply held value of a Jewish state, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East that broadly supports Western values, and that a safe, thriving Israel is essential to a peaceful Middle East.
Related to that, do you see American and Israeli Jews drifting apart as a generation of American Jewish leaders who have not experienced watershed moments like the Six Day War come into adulthood?
I do, and it is unfortunate.
Many younger Americans have witnessed the intifadas, and a steady stream of attacks on Israel itself by her neighbors, as well as rising anti-Semitism around the world and a spike in troubling anti-Israel activity at the United Nations. But, yes: I believe that there is a lack of unity around the issue of Israel as a whole among the younger generations. I agree that while nearly all Americans were instantly mobilized by events such as the Six Day War, there is a lack of unity, awareness and cohesion of thought today. The reality is that the situation in Israel continues to be beyond precarious.
It is up to Jewish and non-Jewish leaders to work together across all boundaries to engage the next generation and ensure that the United States remains an unwavering ally. American support for Israel cannot be allowed to erode; American safety and that of Israel depend on it.
How well do you think Europe is handling the issue of rising anti-Semitism, and what can it do better?
The rise of anti-Semitism across Europe is unprecedented since the 1920s and 1930s.
There is no question that we are witnessing a surge in hatred that brings us back to darker times that we thought were behind us. Jews around the world are being harassed, assaulted and even killed. We are facing not just one discrete enemy, but rather a number of groups, movements and leaders that are spewing anti-Semitic hatred. Let’s be clear: the wave of hate does not only come from fringe groups, but from mainstream governments, such as Hungary’s, and major government parties in the mainstream of their country’s political leadership.
That is why we demand that European leaders stand up and take decisive action against those who are attacking Jews across Europe and around the world, and the United States should support leaders who do so. This zero-tolerance approach must be identical to our approach to institutionally racist or sexist regimes.
How important an issue is the BDS movement for you?
Do you agree with those who say taking it on full throttle only succeeds in raising its prominence? Is it better to let it simmer on a low flame? BDS is far out of the mainstream and does not deserve recognition. I agree that it is counterproductive when the Israeli government draws undue attention to minor BDS statements, because doing so has the unintended consequence of raising BDS’s profile. But, at the same time, I am concerned that BDS is gaining traction outside of its base on certain college campuses. Jewish leaders and elected officials across the world must be clear that BDS is anti-Semitic. No question.
Click here to register for the Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York.