During a recent visit to London, World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald Lauder accompanied by the President of his Latin American region, Jack Terpins, called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Saeb Erekat who were also in the city.
I was unable to obtain any meaningful details or justification for the meeting from WJC professionals but executive members informed me that neither the Secretary General Dan Diker nor the chair of the Israeli executive was advised in advance of the meeting. Lauder also rejected pleas from colleagues to consult with Israeli government authorities.
Furthermore, after the meeting the WJC head dismissed entreaties to consult with senior colleagues prior to making public pronouncements. Instead, the WJC released a bizarre press statement maintaining that as diaspora Jews and diaspora (sic) Palestinians lived harmoniously they could promote the peace process. Terpins was also quoted saying that throughout South America, Jews and Palestinians enjoyed a wonderful relationship.
The timing of a meeting between the head of an organization purporting to represent world Jewry and PA Prime Minister Abbas – who refuses to meet with the Israeli Prime Minister – was certainly questionable. But at least one would have expected Lauder to publicly call on Abbas to resume peace negotiations without pre-conditions, demand an end to the venomous anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic incitement being promoted at all levels of Palestinian society under his jurisdiction and challenge his determination to ensure that a future Palestinian State is Judenrein. He might also have protested against the recent State TV broadcast in which the most senior Mufti in the PA (personally appointed by Abbas), called on the faithful to go out and kill Jews in order to expedite the Islamic Resurrection.
It is also utterly incomprehensible how a Jewish spokesman can relate to Palestinian emigrants as a diaspora, implicitly comparing them to Jews who retained their identity for over 2000 years despite enduring persecutions and expulsion from their ancestral homeland. Yet aside from being an utterly bogus analogy, in the context of current demands by Abbas to accept the right of return of millions of Arab refugees and their descendants to Israel, it was simply bizarre.
It was in fact reminiscent of a another previous disastrous meeting some years ago when the WJC orchestrated a get-together with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and then issued ludicrous press releases waxing lyrical that the dictator was opposed to anti-Semitism and had befriended the Jewish people.
I should disclose that in the wake of the financial scandal with the previous WJC administration which culminated with an investigation by the New York Attorney General and the dismissal of the Chairman of the Governing Board, I vigorously supported the candidacy of Lauder for the presidency.
This was because he possessed many of the qualities required to fulfill the role. As one of the wealthiest Jews in America and a generous philanthropist, he was in a position to fund the effectively bankrupt WJC. In addition Ronald Lauder, to his everlasting credit, virtually single-handedly financed a revival of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, most notably in Hungary and Poland. He had also served a term as the US ambassador to Austria. Above all he was a passionate supporter of Israel and for many years had been deeply engaged in massive investments and contributions to Israel.
Prior to the WJC election, he pledged to strictly adhere to governance and operate in a transparent and democratic manner. Initially he sought to rehabilitate the organization recruiting various professionals like Michael Schneider and the Secretary General Dan Diker who initiated a number of projects including global campaigns to exert pressure against Iran and combat efforts to delegitimize Israel.
The greatest handicap of the organization is that its US section – representing the bulk of the diaspora – has totally collapsed and few Americans are even aware of its existence and thus the WJC can hardly purport to speak on behalf of world Jewry. Its principal role has been to serve as an umbrella body enabling smaller Jewish communities in Europe, South America, Canada and Australia to bond together under a common platform and exchange views.
Yet ironically, Lauder’s most important initiative was the insertion of a full page advertisement in the New York Times (April 2010) calling on President Obama to be more evenhanded towards Israel. At a time when many American Jewish leaders were reticent to speak up against their president, his initiative had significant impact.
However, unfortunately everything began to fall apart when Lauder’s long-standing support and intimate relationship with Netanyahu collapsed after a bitter personal fracas with the Prime Minister (and his wife) over the continuous biased and slanderous personal attacks on the Netanyahu family emanating from Israeli TV Channel 10, of which Lauder is a major shareholder.
After a particularly despicable TV attack on Netanyahu, Lauder was pressed to intervene. He was legally unable to do so and allegedly Netanyahu became so enraged that he effectively terminated their relationship, even refusing to address organizations associated with him. At a WJC-sponsored meeting of parliamentarians last June in Jerusalem which Netanyahu was accused of boycotting, Lauder displayed his ire by lashing out against Netanyahu, accusing him of being insufficiently flexible towards the Palestinians and calling on him to be more forthcoming.
His criticisms against Netanyahu subsequently intensified and further poisoned the relationship, resulting in the discomfort of many WJC executive members with his behavior. However, in awe of the $4-$5 million he contributes annually to the WJC, nobody was willing to confront him.
Lauder then discovered that he was being praised and even lionized by former left-wing opponents as well as other elements within the WJC who had previously sought unsuccessfully to distance the organization from Israel. This further emboldened him, leading to a further deterioration over recent months – to such an extent that some of his colleagues even began referring to him as “our unguided political missile”.
It is sad that the WJC is moving in such a direction. Notwithstanding its failings in recent years, the organization carries an extraordinary brand-name and it would be tragic if it degenerated into a plaything for a billionaire to exploit to promote his personal battles and idiosyncrasies.
At the same time, I can testify from personal experience that Lauder is by and large an honorable and well-intentioned person as repeatedly demonstrated by his vast contributions towards the Jewish people. One can only urge him and our Prime Minister to bury the hatchet and renew their former constructive association.
Lauder’s colleagues should also pluck up the courage to remind him that, despite his largesse, the organization cannot be sustained if it operates as a one-man show. Governance requires consultation and approval before major policy initiatives are undertaken.
In this context the WJC stands at a crossroads. Either Lauder charts a constructive program of global Jewish activism in consultation with his colleagues, or the organization will inevitably implode in the process of which it is likely to inflict considerable damage on the Jewish people.
He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom