Throughout the first half of my life, I was a three-day-a-year Jew. If you don’t know the phrase, let me explain. There was no question in my mind that I was Jewish. I had a bar mitzvah like all of my Jewish friends and although the world knew Estée Lauder as a brilliant businesswoman, I knew her as a wonderful Jewish mother. Few people know this outside of our family, but Estée Lauder made the best matzah ball soup in New York. I was, in essence, someone who was socially Jewish; just not religiously. I only went to synagogue twice a year, on the High Holidays, and there was, of course, a seder in our home every Passover. Other than that, the Jewish part of my life was non-existent. I didn’t understand the prayers because I didn’t understand Hebrew. The service felt alien to me and if I had a choice, I would easily choose a Saturday morning at the Museum of Modern Art as opposed to the synagogue.
At the same time, I was always very proud of my connection to my faith. I felt a deep commitment to the State of Israel and to the Jewish people. I was constantly amazed by what this small fraction of humanity gave to the entire world, over and over again. I loved to hear the stories and accomplishments of this tiny and amazing country in the Middle East, small in size but huge in its achievement.
I will never forget my first trip to Israel, probably not unlike that of most Jews from the diaspora— I loved walking in the land of our forefathers. I loved seeing the actual places where the bible stories took place. And I loved seeing young Israelis walking with their heads held high.
So there was never any doubt in my mind whatsoever that I was Jewish. I just had many other things on my mind as well. As an adult, my interests in foreign policy led me first to the Pentagon in the Reagan administration, where I worked under Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger on NATO affairs. And then, in 1985, President Reagan appointed me as the United States ambassador to Austria.
This seemed like the perfect posting for my wife, Jo Carole, and myself. We loved Vienna. I had always been fascinated with the city, especially the artistic period around the turn-of-the-twentieth century. Some of the greatest works of expressionist art came from that period, in large part thanks to Jewish sponsors who dominated the artistic scene at the time. That period has always held a special place for me. So we eagerly embraced the new assignment and looked forward to it.
Needless to say, as we headed to Austria, I had no idea that this posting would be a major turning point in my life. It came about in a series of steps, and each one would move me closer to Judaism. The first step was a result of a sheer coincidence of timing. Just as I arrived in Vienna, Austria was thrown into what has become known as the Waldheim Affair. For readers who are too young to remember, Kurt Waldheim was an Austrian diplomat who became Secretary-General of the United Nations in the 1970s. I met Waldheim several times when he was in New York. I remember a tall man with impeccable manners. What I didn’t know—what no one knew—was that he also had a dark past that he lied about and tried to hide. Waldheim served in the German Army during World War II as an intelligence officer, and his unit was involved in some particularly nasty reprisals against partisans in Yugoslavia and Greece. At first, Waldheim said he had no knowledge of these acts. But later, when he admitted that he did know about them, he said, “What could I do? I had to either continue to serve or be executed.” That always seemed to be the standard line that I remembered hearing over the years, the same line that Eichmann used: “I was just following orders.”
It was only after Waldheim had left the United Nations that his past came back to haunt him. Perhaps a wiser man would have gone quietly into retirement. That wasn’t Waldheim’s style. Instead, he doubled down and ran for president of Austria. When more details came out about his wartime past, many revealed by the World Jewish Congress, Waldheim denounced these as malicious lies. The Austrians, for their part, showed their true character by electing Waldheim as their president with full knowledge of who he really was. Some even put the blame on certain New York newspapers for dredging all of this up— one of the classic cases, in my mind, of blaming the victim.
As the newly arrived US ambassador to Austria, one of my first duties was to attend Waldheim’s inauguration. I thought about it, I thought about my responsibility as a representative of the government of the United States, and I realized the message my not attending would send. I decided that I did not want to be there and notified the State Department. There were higher-ups at State who were not happy about my decision and told me I should attend. But there was one person who backed me up and that happened to be our boss, Secretary of State George Shultz. Years later, when asked why he supported me over the advice of others at State, Secretary Shultz answered in his characteristic, no nonsense way: “I thought Ronald Lauder was right.” Period. End of story. The United States was absent for this event, and it was noticed.
For someone raised in the 1950s in New York, I have to say that I never encountered any anti-Semitism throughout my childhood. But for the first time in my life, I felt an undercurrent of animosity in Austria. It came out in direct ways and in ways that were more subtle. Throughout the Waldheim election campaign, Austrians made their feelings quite clear. Sometimes you would hear it from doormen and waiters and sometimes just on the street. One day I was enjoying one of my favorite pastimes, just walking in Vienna and admiring the architecture, when I came across something that made no sense to me. On one particular street of beautiful old buildings, there was an ugly garage in the middle that stood out. I know that could not have been the original building and as people walked by, I asked if they could tell me what had been there before. That question seemed to irk people. They either pretended they didn’t know or that they didn’t hear me. This struck me as very strange. Finally, an old man with very clear eyes came up to me when he saw that we were alone. He had heard my questions and had heard the non-answers that I had been receiving. “The most beautiful synagogue in all of Europe once stood here,” he told me. “It was burned down on Kristallnacht.”
There we were again. I was reminding Austrians that they were not “the first victims of Nazism,” the standard line they loved to use after the war. Instead, Austrians were, in too many cases, among the most vicious Nazis of all. Hitler was from Austria. So was Eichmann. When the two countries were united in the Anschluss in 1938, more than two million people came out to greet Hitler in wild celebrations. Almost immediately, Austrians set upon the Jewish community, forcing them into humiliating acts, like cleaning the streets with toothbrushes. Jews were beaten, and their property was soon confiscated. It was as if all of this pent-up hate had been building for years and as soon as there was an outlet, Austrians set upon their Jewish neighbors. They seemed to enjoy heaping abuse on people they had lived with in peace for decades if not centuries.
All of this is the background to one experience that truly and profoundly changed my life. My wife, Jo Carole, and I became friends with the Chabad rabbi in Vienna, Jacob Biderman, and his wife. There was something very special about this couple, and we enjoyed seeing them and going to their home for Shabbat. One day, Mrs. Biderman invited us to see a kindergarten they had started for Jewish children from the Soviet Union. At the time, Soviet Jews, who had not been allowed to practice their faith, were trying to leave for Israel. Many of these brave individuals, known as Refuseniks, were thrown in Soviet prisons, just for asking to be Jewish. But international pressure, especially from the Reagan Administration, was forcing the Soviets to allow some Jews to leave. Even though most wanted to go directly to Israel, the Soviets would not allow this, so they set up a procedure where the Jews who were allowed to leave would first go to Austria for a certain length of time and then from there they could travel to Israel.
I was interested to see this kindergarten and one afternoon, my wife and I went for a visit. As we walked into the school— it was really just a two-room apartment—we were confronted with something I still cannot explain. There were all of these bright, happy, young faces who were excited to see us. They sang Hebrew songs, something they had never been allowed to do in the Soviet Union, the walls were filled with children’s drawings, and I was moved beyond words.
I just couldn’t help thinking of the phrase: “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
I was suddenly flooded with emotions and thoughts. I wondered to myself, how is it that these Jews hungered to be connected to a religion that was denied them and I, who was given the freedom to practice the same religion, just took it for granted? I also wondered what might have happened to me if my grandparents had not left Hungary for the United States. Since I was born in 1944, during one of the most horrific parts of the Holocaust that took place throughout Hungary, I knew the answer to my own question. I would not have survived. Neither would my parents, grandparents, and everyone around me.
That visit changed the focus of my entire life.
I started by buying the apartment and the apartment next to it, so the school could expand into the larger space that it needed to accommodate more children. Eventually, I bought an entire building for this school. But my mind was already moving ahead. I envisioned a much larger plan that would involve not just Vienna but all of Eastern Europe.
When I returned to the United States after my posting in Austria was over, I started a foundation that would build Jewish schools and summer camps in that entire area. Some people involved in the Jewish world told me it was a silly idea. They said there were no Jews left in Eastern Europe—the Nazis had taken care of that forty years earlier, and then the Communists had driven out those who had survived. I ignored the criticism and moved ahead with my plan. One of the reasons was a fortuitous meeting with a Hasidic rabbi named Haskel Besser.
Rabbi Besser was one of the most extraordinary human beings I had ever met. He was born in Poland into one of the great Hasidic dynasties. He came to the United States shortly after World War II and lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His knowledge of Judaism and Eastern Europe was tremendous. And his connections to the Jewish world were profound. But he was also someone completely at ease in the larger world around him. He had many friends in the Christian community, and his knowledge of literature, music, and history was formidable.
Rabbi Besser thought my idea had merit, and we began working together, starting schools in cities like Berlin, Budapest, and Warsaw. Eventually, we established Jewish schools throughout Central and Eastern Europe. All of the critics of my plan were silenced just two years later when the Soviet Union came to an end, and all of those countries that had been forced to live under Communism were suddenly free. What we saw almost immediately was that there were many, many more Jews than anyone had realized, and that these Jews soon came out of hiding and wanted to know more about their religion. The reasons were obvious—under the Communists, it was never in anyone’s interest to be openly Jewish. But now they were free to learn.
Here was the problem that we encountered. All of us learn about our religion from our parents. But what happens when parents, because they were not allowed to learn about their religion, know nothing to pass on to their children? It represents a breakdown in the natural order of things. I think we found an answer to the dilemma. By starting Jewish schools in this area, the children learned the meaning of Judaism and then went home and taught their parents, who were eager to learn. Yes, it was a breakdown in the natural order, but it worked.
The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation was founded in 1987 and has been a pioneer in providing Jewish education to Jews in eastern and central Europe ever since. My goal from the start has been to underwrite the future of Jewish life in Europe, both communal and individual, by creating excellent Jewish schools. But what is an excellent Jewish school? I believe it must be one that prepares young Jews to be successful personally and professionally and one that inspires them to participate actively in Jewish life. Today, the Foundation operates or supports thirteen schools in eleven countries—Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine—with a total enrollment of twenty-five hundred students; thirteen kindergartens in nine countries, with a total enrollment of more than seven hundred children; nine youth centers and camps in six countries; as well as the Lauder Business School in Vienna and a Rabbinical Seminary— the Rabbinerseminar zu Berlin.
The foundation has helped build thriving Jewish communities in places where everything Jewish had disappeared. It has been successful beyond my wildest dreams.
I did not stop there. I became more active in the Jewish world.
I took over as head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. I became the president of the Jewish National Fund and helped change its focus from planting trees, which was necessary when it was founded in 1901, to the problem of water today. I also became involved with the Claims Conference and established the Commission for Art Recovery. Then in 2007, when Edgar Bronfman stepped down as the head of the World Jewish Congress, I was asked to take his place. If ever there was a perfect match, I believe it was this organization at that moment.
As I write these words, I’ve been the head of the WJC for almost ten years. We have changed the organization in many ways and, I believe, it is now poised for the many problems that we face as a people. Sadly, the world is a much more dangerous place for Jews today than it was twenty or even ten years ago. In truth, it’s a more dangerous place for all people, but Jews seem to be the targets for a particular hatred—one that we have seen before.
From the Middle East to Europe and around the globe, there is great danger, but there are also great opportunities. So it’s time to ask the question, eyfo anahnu? “Where are we,” and, more importantly, “where we are going?”
There is an old story from December 1899: a Jewish boy is sitting at home and calls out to his mother: “Great news, Mom! The twentieth century is coming next Thursday night!” The boy’s mother looks up, probably over a pot of soup. “Whatever it is,” she calls back, “it probably means more trouble for the Jews.” There you have in a nutshell, the age-old Jewish dilemma. Tremendous optimism tempered by reality. As it turns out, they were both right. The twentieth century saw unbelievable miracles, including the return of the Jewish people to our eternal homeland after two thousand years in exile.
It also gave us Auschwitz.
So, seventy-two years after the liberation of the camps, sixty-nine years after the founding of Israel, and seventeen years into the twenty-first century, which way should we as a people turn: Should we be optimistic or pessimistic?
Let’s begin with some numbers. We are just over fourteen million Jews worldwide. That’s less than fifteen million in a world of over two billion Christians, 1.5 billion Muslims, and one billion Hindus. Fourteen million is not a lot. It’s tiny. We’re fewer than we were in 1933 when Hitler came to power. That’s not exactly growth. In the United States, when I was born, Jews made up over 4 percent of the population. Today, we are less than half that— 1.8 percent of all Americans are Jewish, and our numbers are decreasing. Except for the Orthodox, and the Jews in Israel, our birthrate is below the replacement level in North America and Europe. In the United States, the intermarriage rate remains stuck at 50 percent. We are decreasing in number, not increasing. Not enough Jewish children are being born, and too many of those who are born have no Jewish identity.
Although our demographics are deeply troubling, the challenges hardly stop there. Over the last twenty years, and for the first time since the Holocaust, anti-Semitism is out in the open again. It’s become acceptable. Just after World War II, nobody said the kind of things we hear today in public because no sane person wanted to be associated with Nazis. But seventy-two years and three generations later, educated and sophisticated people, who should know better, say outrageous things about Jews. They say and write these things in newspapers, on television, and on the internet—things they would never dare say about other groups. Much of this hate speech comes from old sources like Europe and the Middle East. But unlike the anti-Semitism of the past, today it comes not just from the far right, but increasingly it comes from the so-called progressive left.
The new target for this hatred is not the “international Jew” as Henry Ford called us. Today it is the Jewish State of Israel, which is constantly vilified throughout the media, on the internet, at the United Nations, and on almost every college campus. Call it BDS— Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions— or Justice for Palestine, or other hateful rhetoric one hears from major elements of the British Labour Party— it’s still the same old hatred of Jews. Anti-Semites are not a very creative lot. They still blame all of the world’s problems on us. Only now it’s Israel that is behind everything from the 9/11 attacks to the Charlie Hebdo attack. Just like the old blood libels, they now make up preposterous lies, such as accusing Israel of killing children for body parts. Whatever is wrong in the world, according to today’s anti-Semites, Israel is at fault. These are no longer just the ravings of a fringe element of society. Journalists, government officials, professors— even celebrities—blame Israel, and only Israel.
And, please, let’s get one thing out of the way right now. When someone says he or she is not anti-Jewish, only anti-Israel, that is a lie. Because when you hold the only Jewish nation to a different standard, when you lie about the only Jewish nation, when you want the one Jewish nation to disappear from the face of the earth—that makes you an anti-Semite.
The threats hardly stop there. The much-heralded Iran deal of 2015 did not make the world safer. It only made Iran richer, stronger, and even more belligerent. In less than a decade Iran is likely to have nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. Iran has not stopped calling for, and working toward, the destruction of the State of Israel. With the change in the US role in the Middle East, the entire region has become a much more dangerous place today. And Israel cannot count on any support from the United Nations. The world’s only global body, the UN is a hotbed of anti-Israel anger and rhetoric, which is one of the world’s great ironies. The UN was founded seventy-two years ago out of the carnage of World War II. It was founded on the broken bones of the Jewish people. It was founded on the belief that the human destruction forced on our people would never happen again. So it is completely unacceptable that the UN, of all places, would single out the only Jewish nation with lie, after lie, after lie.
Western democracies have been outnumbered by dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the UN for a long, long time. Not too long ago, when Israeli civilians were randomly stabbed by Palestinians, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested it was human nature to react this way to occupation. This type of attitude doesn’t stop terrorism; it only encourages terrorism. North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Sudan, and Syria, where five hundred thousand people have been slaughtered, are mostly overlooked, but Israel is condemned at the UN more than any other nation.
It is no coincidence that a Jewish boy wearing a yarmulke cannot walk safely down the streets of Paris, London, or Berlin. Jews have become the targets of terror throughout Europe. It has even been suggested, once again, that Jews should leave Europe. I can tell you this for sure: if every Jew left Europe today, this might be sad for Jews, but it would be a disaster for Europe. Jews create jobs, they heal disease, they educate, and they create. The biggest loser of a European Jewish exodus would be Europe.
The problems that we face as a people in 2016 are very real; they are not imagined. But there is something absolutely vital that we should remember: today, our destiny is in our own hands. It wasn’t always that way. In the 1930s, the founders of the World Jewish Congress had to appeal to others for help. In 1936 a group of concerned Jewish leaders gathered in Switzerland to confront the growing threat coming from Nazi Germany and the anti-Semitism that prevailed in many European countries at that time. Six years later, in 1942, Gerhart Riegner, the WJC representative in Geneva, alerted the world to the fact that the Nazis had undertaken the annihilation of European Jewry. But that warning fell on mostly deaf ears. Today, the world’s attitude toward us may not have changed enough, but one thing has definitely changed considerably. We have changed. The era of the quiet Jew, the timid Jew, the ghetto Jew, is long over. Those tough leaders of the early Zionist movement and those tough, outspoken Jews who founded the WJC in 1936 buried that quiet, timid, ghetto Jew three generations ago, and he’s not coming back.
So, given everything we face as I write this, I want to tell you how the World Jewish Congress intends to deal with some of these problems. The World Jewish Congress does not have a military armed force to defend the Jewish people. It is not a global economic power like Israel. But the one thing that we do have is tremendous political clout, and we are not afraid to use it. Given our political access to governments and opinion shapers around the world, here is what we propose to do and what we are doing: The World Jewish Congress will continue to stand side-by-side with Jewish communities across the globe, many of which face resurgent anti-Semitism and acts of terrorism. We will also defend Israel, and we will not stop defending Israel. I have visited over forty countries in just the past few years. I have met with world leaders, with popes, and with ordinary citizens. When they have opposed anti-Semitism, I thank them; and when they have not, I confront them publicly. I tell them about all of the great things that Israel has accomplished, and why it is in their interest to side with the Jewish state. I explain what Jerusalem means to every Jew in the world. We use our political clout wisely. There are fifty-four countries in Africa. Many of them would be willing to vote with Israel, but we have to give them a reason. That is exactly what the World Jewish Congress does.
At the same time, we are not afraid to use strong language, as we did in Hungary, to protect the Jewish community there from the growing threat of far-right neo-Nazis. The World Jewish Congress has created a Jewish Diplomatic Corps made up of young people ages twenty-seven to forty-five. We have trained them to act as emissaries for the Jewish people in their home countries. I have worked with these young people, the Jewish Diplomats. They are energetic, committed, and they will change things for the better. God knows, we have smart Jewish lawyers in abundance, and we will work with the brightest of them to fight the BDS movement in court because it is actually illegal in many countries to discriminate against any one people. These lawyers are going after BDS in courts around the world, and they are winning case after case.
We have created a global security department to advise and help protect Jewish communities worldwide. We will not rest until we are certain that governments and police around the world recognize the particular vulnerability of Jewish communities to the growing threats of terror and violence, and commit themselves to protecting our communities and their institutions. We will not rest until these communities are better prepared and equipped to protect and defend themselves against any and every threat.
We also want to expose the anti-Israel rhetoric that has become all too prevalent on many university and college campuses in the United States and in many other countries. Jewish alumni are among the biggest donors to their alma maters. We want to let them know when a professor spouts anti-Semitic views, or when a student group engages in anti-Israel bullying. If university and college administrators would never tolerate racist attacks against any other minority group, why is it acceptable to disparage Jews or Israelis?
I now return to my original question: Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? My answer comes in two photographs.
The first is this iconic photograph from the Holocaust. A frightened boy in short pants with a cap on his head walks out of the Warsaw Ghetto with his hands raised. Nazi storm troopers with automatic weapons stand nearby, smirking. We see this Jewish boy, who represents a million and a half other Jewish children who were murdered, six million Jews altogether. Our hearts break because we cannot help him; we cannot save him; we can do nothing for this frightened boy in short pants. But imagine this for a moment: What if an angel had come down at the moment the photo was taken and told this boy:
“Listen to me. In less than ten years, there will be a Jewish state in the homeland of our forefathers. And there will be a Jewish Army and a Jewish Air Force and a Jewish Navy to defend Jews. Jewish soldiers will fall from the sky and rescue Jews in far-off lands. And this country will open its doors to every Jew on earth who needs help.”
Do you think that boy could have possibly believed this angel? Would you have believed this angel at that time?
Here is my point: We must constantly remember what we have and what we have accomplished. Today, we can fly into Tel Aviv on a modern Jewish airline, with a bold, blue Star of David on the side, for the whole world to see. We must never, ever forget how far we have come, what we fought for, and what we have accomplished.
There is another photograph. It is also in black and white and, to my mind, it is the story not just of Israel. It is the story of the Jewish people.
This picture was taken by the great Israeli photographer Micha Bar Am. It was shot in the Kfar Saba refugee camp in 1958. A young female soldier is teaching one of the new immigrants how to count in his new language, Hebrew. Over a million new immigrants streamed into Israel in its first decade: concentration camp survivors, victims of pogroms, and over five hundred thousand Jews who were kicked out of Arab lands, losing all their property. Somehow we never hear about those refugees. That’s because these Jews were not left in refugee camps for the rest of the world to feed and clothe. They were not fed lies and hate. They were not turned into political pawns. Instead, they were made full citizens in their new land. They were educated, taught skills, and welcomed with open arms. When they arrived in the first independent Jewish state in two thousand years, they were all told just one thing: Welcome home! That is what Jews do for other Jews. We help one another. We treat one another with respect. We welcome one another.
These two photographs take us from devastation to strength.
We must never forget that the State of Israel is an amazing achievement of our own making. It came from Jewish sacrifice, hard work, Jewish caring for one another, and our belief in God.
I saw a fascinating poll just a few weeks ago. No other nation has had to defend itself every minute of every day since its birth. But it turns out that Israelis are among the happiest and most satisfied people on earth. How can this be? I believe it comes from three things: a tremendous belief in freedom, an overabundance of courage, and from caring for one another. We see it every single day. When a lone soldier fell in the 2014 Gaza conflict, more than ten thousand Israelis who had never even met him came to his funeral. Ten thousand! This lone soldier did not die alone.
That is what you see in a Jewish nation: freedom, courage, and a deep, deep caring for one another. We have faced darker times before, even within my lifetime. But today we face them with a Jewish state called Israel. We face them with tremendous resources around the world. And we must also remember that we have so much to be proud of. We belong to a people that disproportionally advanced civilization. Jews gave the world monotheism, Jews save lives—all lives. Jews make the world better with their ingenuity, their music, and their literature. We make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population, yet we have won 20 percent of all the Nobel prizes. We may be only a little more than fourteen million people, but we have an incredible arsenal in those fourteen million. We have thousands of years of tradition. I would happily take our fourteen million creative minds over the billions elsewhere.
I have presented a long list of challenges that we face.
I have told you what I intend to do about those challenges.
But here’s what I want you to remember: the Jewish people are not going to disappear. We have come too far, for too long, to just disappear. That is not part of God’s plan. But we can’t leave it completely in His hands. He expects us to do the work, but He has also amply supplied us with the means. And we will use that Jewish brilliance and Jewish creativity to solve our problems.
There is an old Hasidic tradition that inside every Jew there burns a flame. Sometimes that flame is obscured, and the person can’t see it. But it is always there, it is always burning. All you have to do is dust off your heart and you will find it.
Thirty years ago, when I served as the US ambassador to Austria and I saw that group of Jewish children from the Soviet Union in a nursery school, something happened to me. Those children moved me in a way that I had never been moved before. Those children helped find the flame inside my heart. They helped me rediscover my Jewishness!
And this is the job before us now. We have to help our children and our grandchildren dust off their hearts. We have to help them rediscover that Jewish flame inside them. This isn’t just important for Jews. It’s important for everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, because for over five thousand years, that flame has been lighting the entire world. We must never let that flame go out. We’ve come too far, and the stakes are too high. And that is the ultimate purpose of the World Jewish Congress—to make sure that flame continues to light the entire world.