The World Jewish Congress held its fourteenth plenary assembly in Budapest in May 2013, with six hundred delegates and guests in attendance, just a few days after I was confirmed as chief executive officer and executive vice president of the organization. Holding the plenary in that location for the first time was an extraordinary sign of Jewish strength in a country where right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism were on the rise; it was made all the more extraordinary by Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s important declaration that anti-Semitism was never acceptable. Despite Orban’s declaration, and against his government’s orders, around seven hundred activists from the neo-Nazi Jobbik party staged a rally nearby, protesting against the WJC meeting.
Witnessing the grace and determination with which WJC President Ronald S. Lauder and the Executive Committee, management, staff, and delegates handled themselves during that week in Budapest filled me with a sense of nascent pride for the organization that I now would have the privilege of leading in a professional capacity. I knew that I had come to the right place.
I was no stranger to the Jewish world or its challenges. Before joining the WJC, I served for fourteen years as Director General and CEO of World ORT, the largest and oldest Jewish educational organization in the world. Prior to that, I spent twelve years in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, instrumental in bringing more than a million Soviet Jews to Israel, and coordinating the activities of the Israeli government on these issues in North America.
With this experience, it was already immensely clear to me when I entered the position of WJC CEO that the Jewish people were facing difficult times and that there were still significantly more challenges ahead. Anti-Semitism was on the rise across Europe, global terrorism and the threat of a nuclear Iran had left Jewish communities feeling increasingly vulnerable, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and efforts to delegitimize the State of Israel within the United Nations and other international institutions were growing stronger every day.
It was also evident that the World Jewish Congress was not yet equipped to deal with these challenges, having only just begun its recovery following the difficult decade that had rocked the organization. Ronald S. Lauder has consistently shown incredible strength of character and resolve since being elected WJC president in 2007. He was undeterred by the challenge of rejuvenating the WJC and restoring its rightful title of most influential global Jewish advocacy organization.
Professionally, the groundwork for my tenure was laid out for me by Michael Schneider, a giant in the world of Jewish community work, who had served as WJC secretary-general in the years that followed the organization’s inner turmoil, and who had executed admirable damage control in lifting the WJC back on its feet and straightening out the disarray that had been left for him. It is to all of our benefit that Michael agreed to return to the WJC as special adviser.
As a native of western Ukraine, I grew up with a strong sense of Jewish identity in a Communist world fraught with anti-Semitic overtures. It was clear to me from a young age that the only way to sustain a Jewish future for myself was by immigrating to Israel, which my family and I did when I was fifteen. In those days behind the Iron Curtain, our resources were scarce and our networks grass root. In today’s world of mostly free and open borders, Jews no longer need to rely on underground efforts to embrace their identity.
Thanks to organizations like the World Jewish Congress, small communities even in difficult environments are able to send their children to Jewish camps and schools, to celebrate holidays and festivities, and to teach their young ones Hebrew, Jewish values, and Jewish history. They know that someone is advocating on their behalf. Thanks to organizations like the World Jewish Congress, the centralized organizations of communities of all sizes are represented on governmental levels and in the international playing field. Today, the sky is the limit for the Jewish world.
What do we expect of a World Jewish Congress? We answer: “No miracles.” The World Jewish Congress will not solve all, or most, or even many of the unsolved problems of the Jewish people. But a World Jewish Congress may perform these functions:
- Bring Jews together of many different lands and many different views who do not meet together in any other way;
- Bring Jews together on a new plane, not that of giving and receiving, but for an interchange of views touching every manner of Jewish problems with a view to their solution;
- Jews of one land will face the problems of Jews of other lands, invite their counsel, and invoke their experience.
These insightful words were spoken by World Jewish Congress co-founder Rabbi Stephen S. Wise in 1936 at the first plenary assembly in Geneva, and they ring true even today.
While many Jewish organizations convene every few years to redefine their mission, the WJC has always remained true to its original purpose: to deal with the core issues facing the Jewish people; to represent Jews in the international arena; to protect our communities against anti-Semitism and violence; to defend the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state; and to advocate the Jewish values of truth and justice.
When I took office as WJC CEO in 2013, I knew that the World Jewish Congress had to focus its priorities to maintain and promote itself as the preeminent global advocacy body for the Jewish people. To do so, the organization needed to consider its messaging and programming and to expand its connections to governments and international bodies around the world. Ambassador Lauder and Michael Schneider had already rescued the reputation of the World Jewish Congress. My job now was to put the WJC back on the map and get to work fulfilling our mandate. As such, a major priority when I joined the WJC was to instate a strong program department and completely restructure significant aspects of the organization’s professional structure. I handpicked Sonia Gomes de Mesquita, my inimitable chief operating officer from World ORT, to run the program department, and the results have been astounding. In three years, working closely with Ambassador Lauder, we have reintegrated and greatly expanded the WJC’s flagship Jewish Diplomatic Corps, established a successful International Yiddish Center in Vilnius, and reinvigorated the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians. In Jerusalem, our Israel Council on Foreign Relations has become a critical center of dialogue, hosting some of the most important statesmen of our day. It was also our firm belief that the WJC could play a critical role in Jewish and international discourse by developing compelling original content for conventional and social media and providing a platform for academic experts—both tasks we have diligently and successfully taken upon ourselves.
It was also at the top of our priority list to establish closer relationships with international bodies and agencies, particularly the United Nations, and to develop close ties with states both large and small. In the years since I entered this position, Ambassador Lauder and I have visited more than sixty communities and have met with dozens of presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, as well as mayors and parliamentarians from around the world. I have been a member of delegations that met with powerful world players such as US President Barack Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and have joined Ambassador Lauder for many other high-level meetings, including with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pope Francis has welcomed delegations of WJC leaders and has given Ambassador Lauder a private audience several times. In September 2014, Ambassador Lauder and German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood side by side and addressed a rally of thousands gathered to protest the anti-Semitism exhibited in Germany during the summer war in Gaza.
Our relationship with the government of Israel is immeasurably strong. Together with senior WJC leaders, we have met on numerous occasions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin. The WJC and the Israeli Missions partner consistently on matters of importance at UN headquarters in New York and Geneva, and we have forged deep friendships with cabinet ministers and members of Knesset across the political spectrum. Our relations with the US State Department and the White House have improved considerably in recent years due to Ambassador Lauder’s extensive experience and connections, as well as to the successful efforts of the WJC American Section and of Special Adviser in Washington Mark Levin to establish and tighten ties with various elements within the US government and Congress.
Since expanding our executive headquarters in New York City, that office has gained the reputation of functioning as an international political salon. In addition to holding high-level meetings, we established an informal speakers’ series in coordination with WJC North America, under the guidance of Executive Director Betty Ehrenberg, that meets regularly and features an impressive array of lecturers including analysts, ambassadors, and government officials.
Over the last couple of years, campaigns to delegitimize the State of Israel have gained steam at an alarming rate, from the BDS movement through resolutions drafted and approved in the United Nations. The WJC has taken an active role in the efforts to combat these campaigns recognizing our unique value as a well-connected political organization authorized to speak on behalf of more than one hundred Jewish communities worldwide. In partnership with the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, we held a well-attended conference on the issue in the General Assembly Hall in New York, and we have opened a special department dedicated to dealing with the matter in various forums.
Another of our priorities has been to strengthen the small Jewish communities whose centralized bodies lack the resources and connections of larger communities. Through visits to countries such as Peru, Uruguay, Panama, Costa Rica, Montenegro, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, and Kyrgyzstan (to name but a few), and at meetings with community and local government leaders, I have witnessed the intensity with which these countries embrace their Jewish communities and I have pledged to assist them as much as possible.
In my first year as CEO, I also set up the National Community Directors’ Forum (NCDF), an annual gathering of senior Jewish community professionals around the world, to enable one-on-one connections and roundtable brainstorming. The first meeting was held in Prague in November 2014, and the NCDF has reconvened each year since then—in Lisbon in 2015 and in Dublin in 2016. A sense of community shines strongly at forums such the NCDF and allows for a much stronger sense of cohesion among the various directors.
Our activities in smaller Jewish communities also manifest themselves in the security assistance we began providing in April 2016. Thanks to generous donations and the diligent efforts of our expert staff, we succeeded in assessing more than two dozen communities, began providing technical and professional services, as well as crisis management training, and have launched a process of reinforcing community infrastructures in the eventuality of an attack.
WJC—Jewish Diplomatic Corps
The WJC leadership strongly recognized the importance of energizing young Jewish leaders and restoring within them the same sense of Jewish pride that Ambassador Lauder experienced in his youth and continues to hold to this day. For this reason, he insisted on bringing the Jewish Diplomatic Corps (JDCorps), which had become an independent organization in 2009, back under the auspices of the WJC in 2013 as a flagship program.
By 2016, the JDCorps grew to include two hundred young Jewish professionals between the ages of twenty-seven and forty-five who engage in diplomacy and public policy on a volunteer basis. Our JDs, as they call themselves, have stood in the halls of the UN Human Rights Council and advocated for Israel in the face of hostile member states seeking resolutions against the Jewish state; they write letters to governmental and international officials against anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activities; they publish prolifically in newspapers on every continent and in many languages; and they intervene on municipal, national, and international levels in pursuit of justice. They are lawyers, policy analysts, journalists, and more. The JDs are not just the future leaders of tomorrow; they are already the young leaders of today.
International Yiddish Center
The WJC views the revival of Yiddish as instrumental in regenerating Jewish culture in Eastern Europe after the tragedy of the Holocaust. In pursuit of this objective, the WJC formed its International Yiddish Center in Vilnius in 2014. The location was deliberately chosen because the Lithuanian capital was traditionally considered the major center of Jewish culture in Europe. In its heyday, Vilnius came to be known as Yerushalayim de Lita [the Jerusalem of Lithuania] or simply the Jerusalem of the North.
The Yiddish center organizes seminars and workshops for teachers engaged in formal and informal Jewish education around the world, pro- viding them with the tools to successfully transmit the information to their own students. From Ukraine to Uruguay, the center has provided seminars to more than two thousand people of all ages— teaching them not just Yiddish words, but also about the vibrant folklore, literature, music, theater, film, and media produced in the pre-war heyday of Yiddish culture.
International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians
The International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians (ICJP) is a global network of Jewish legislators, government ministers, and other elected officials. Its aim is to promote dialogue, the principles of democracy, the cause of human rights, and the rule of law, and to combat racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, terrorism, and Holocaust denial. The ICJP supports Israel and contributes to the creation of an enduring peace in the Middle East.
The ICJP provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and fosters greater knowledge and understanding of the challenges facing Jewish parliamentarians and communities in Israel and the Diaspora. The ICJP is currently chaired by US Congressman Eliot Engel.
Israel Council on Foreign Relations
The Israel Council on Foreign Relations (ICFR) is a strictly non-partisan forum for the study and debate of foreign policy. Established in 1989 by the late Dr. David Kimche and a group of prominent practitioners and scholars of international affairs, the Council aspires to stimulate public awareness of world events and insightful discussion of foreign policy issues, particularly regarding Israel, international Jewish affairs, and the Middle East, and is a favored platform for distinguished foreign visitors who wish to present their views in a non-governmental setting.
The ICFR operates under the auspices of the WJC and has, since its inception, hosted numerous heads of state, prime ministers, foreign ministers, and other outstanding guests from abroad, as well as prominent local scholars and politicians. Recent guest lecturers have included Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius, Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernández Reyna, former Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans (now first vice president of the European Commission), former Vice Chancellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Germany Joschka Fischer, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, and the former mayor of Buenos Aires and now Argentinian President Mauricio Macri.
The Council publishes The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, which appears three times per annum, and is distributed to diplomats, academics, and influential think tanks. Over the years, the journal has developed a strong reputation, attracting the writings of many of the best-known practitioners and scholars in the field of foreign affairs from Israel and abroad. Many of the most important issues on the WJC agenda are addressed in the pages of the journal.
The ICFR also operates the Israeli-European Young Diplomats Forum, which enables young Israeli diplomats and their European counterparts currently posted in Israel to enhance their knowledge of, and exchange ideas on, issues of common interest. Through monthly policy talks on relevant topics, the European ambassadors of tomorrow are being imbued with both a substantive knowledge of Israel and a network of Israeli contacts, both of which will bear fruit in the evolution of European-Israeli relations. Similarly, the Israeli participants gain an invaluable understanding of Europe. The current ICFR president is Dan Meridor, and it is run by its director Dr. Laurence Weinbaum.
SACC World—Global Security Department
In March 2015, the World Jewish Congress Executive Committee decided to form a WJC global security department in response to an alarming increase in anti-Semitic violence in Europe and a series of fatal attacks against Jews. The department covers Europe, Eurasia, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa and coordinates all activity with WJC regional affiliates and individual member communities. In this capacity, the department provides professional and technical security services and intercedes with senior government and police officials to obtain necessary assistance. The WJC has focused its efforts in small Jewish communities with underdeveloped security operations and weaker relations with authorities.
Since it began operations in April 2016, the WJC’s Security and Crisis Centre (SACC) has advised communities in twenty-eight countries on security measures, has begun reinforcing infrastructures in five communities, and is on track to work toward reinforcing fifteen to twenty communities each year for the next five years. It has conducted crisis management training courses in more than a dozen countries to enable community members to be prepared for any emergency, be it a natural disaster, security incident, or major accident.
Since the end of World War II, the World Jewish Congress has played an integral role in combating anti-Semitism, sustaining the memory of the Holocaust, and fighting for the rights of survivors to restitution and dignity. The world marked the seventieth anniversary of the end of the war in 2015, and the World Jewish Congress was active in organizing and participating in a number of major commemorative events.
On January 27, 2015, the eyes of the world turned to the largest German Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. On that day, the seventieth anniversary of its liberation was commemorated, with the World Jewish Congress playing a critical role in this momentous event. In front of the infamous Death Gate at Birkenau, Ambassador Lauder delivered an address to the more than three thousand people in attendance, reminding the world that Jews still find themselves under threat, even seventy years after the Shoah. In partnership with the USC Shoah Foundation, the WJC brought 101 Auschwitz survivors from twenty-three countries, together with members of their families, to Poland to participate in the commemoration.
Ambassador Lauder spoke of the growing anti-Semitism in Europe and the recent murders of Jews, simply because they were Jews, addressing his remarks to the leaders of the forty national delegations present—including Austrian President Fischer, Belgian King Philippe, French President François Hollande, German President Joachim Gauck, Dutch King Willem-Alexander, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The ceremony was broadcast live to tens of millions of households globally, receiving unprecedented media coverage worldwide for any Holocaust commemoration.
Three months later, on April 26, 2015, Ambassador Lauder delivered a key-note address at the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen in Germany. Bergen-Belsen is unique in that it is not only the site of a Nazi concentration camp where approximately fifty thousand inmates, the vast majority of them Jews, died. From 1945 until 1950, Bergen-Belsen was the largest Jewish Displaced Persons (DP) camp on German soil, where survivors of the Shoah were able to experience a physical, spiritual, cultural, and political rebirth, and where more than two thousand children were born in a spectacular affirmation of life. The WJC’s British Section provided substantial political support to the DPs during those years.
The International Committee of the Red Cross
Two days later, in Geneva on April 28, 2015, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the world’s foremost humanitarian organization, and the WJC commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Ahead of the conference, an exhibition showcasing relevant material from the ICRC archives opened to the public at Geneva’s Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum.
The conference, called Remembering the Shoah: The ICRC and the International Community’s Efforts in Responding to Genocide and Protecting Civilians, reflected on how legal and political responses to mass killings have developed since the Holocaust. The event was attended by two hundred guests, including senior members of Geneva’s diplomatic corps. It featured a panel discussion with the American Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt and the Canadian physician, writer, and humanitarian activist James Orbinski. In his keynote address at the event, ICRC President Peter Maurer said that the ICRC “failed to protect civilians and, most notably, the Jews persecuted and murdered by the Nazi regime.
. . . It failed as a humanitarian organization because it had lost its moral compass.”
“World silence led to the Holocaust,” said Ambassador Lauder, “World indifference led to the Holocaust. The Red Cross chose silence as well.
. . . The first lesson coming directly from the Holocaust is that in the face of a human catastrophe, silence is not a moral alternative. This is more important today than ever because of what we see throughout the Middle East, Africa, and even right here in Europe I believe the ICRC has an important obligation that goes beyond relief work.”
The proceedings of the April 28 program were published by the ICRC and WJC as a 36-page brochure that is available upon request.
The WJC partnered with the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, in cooperation with the Ukrainian government, in September 2016 to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. Hundreds of delegates, including more than two hundred young people, traveled to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv (Kiev) from the United States, Canada, Israel, and other parts of Europe to participate in the commemorative events, which also included an academic symposium and a special concert.
Speaking at a commemorative dinner in Kyiv the night before the commemoration, Ambassador Lauder said: “Babi Yar is one of the most infamous pieces of ground in the entire world. Tens of thousands of our people were killed there for only one reason: because they were Jewish.” He went on to highlight the fact that Ukrainians collaborated in the German effort to exterminate the Jews of Kyiv. “While Babi Yar was organized by the Nazis,” he declared, “there were willing helpers in the Ukrainian militia. In almost every occupied country, local people helped the Germans
round up their Jews. In some cases, the locals were even more enthusiastic in their killing than the Nazis. And that is what happened at Babi Yar.” At the same time, Ambassador Lauder praised those Ukrainians who “risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors.”
I was privileged to speak on behalf of our president, the WJC, and world Jewry at the public commemoration on September 29th, alongside Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German President Joachim Gauck, and US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzer. “Too many of those who did not help the Nazis conveniently looked the other way,” I said on that occasion. “Too many ordinary people watched as their Jewish neighbors were taken away and pretended that they didn’t see.” I also reminded the audience that the world seems to have learned little since the Babi Yar massacre. “Today, after more than 500,000 Syrians have been slaughtered, the world still looks the other way. It was the same in Rwanda and Bosnia and Darfur. When whole populations of Christians disappear in the Middle East, we don’t want to hear ‘Never again,’ because it is happening again.”
Missions and Exhibitions
During the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip in 2014, the WJC canceled a planned senior staff retreat in the United States and moved it to Jerusalem, in solidarity with Israelis as they came under rocket fire from Gaza. Our top professionals felt strongly that it was time to stand with the beleaguered Israelis and not spend time in the American mountains. The WJC also brought a solidarity mission to the south of Israel to meet with people hit by Hamas rocket attacks. Israeli President Shimon Peres and the seventy-eight-member WJC delegation paid a visit to Kibbutz Zikim near the Gaza Strip, close to where a terror attack had been narrowly thwarted a few days earlier by the IDF after a Hamas commando tried to land on Zikim Beach.
In 2015, the WJC engaged in a number of activities and initiatives in defense of Israel. Approximately one thousand participants from a dozen countries gathered in Geneva in June 2015 to express their support for the State of Israel as the UN Human Rights Council held another debate on Israel and on the Commission of Inquiry report into the Gaza conflict. Members and supporters of more than eighty non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including many Jews and Christians, traveled to the Swiss city to express their support for the Jewish state and to urge the United Nations to treat Israel fairly. In my speech to the crowd, I said: “The reason we are here today is to tell the United Nations that it needs to change. It needs to overcome its obsession with Israel. This obsession is destructive, and it stands in the way of an effective human rights policy that is so badly needed.”
A WJC mission comprising thirty-eight international Jewish leaders gathered in Brussels to express solidarity with Belgium’s Jewish community immediately following the deadly attack on the Jewish Museum of Belgium in May 2014.
The delegation, led by Ambassador Lauder, paid homage to the three victims at the museum and met with Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders, Interior Minister Joëlle Milquet, and Justice Minister Annemie Turtelboom. Both sides agreed on the necessity to strengthen cooperation on a European and worldwide level to prevent further deadly attacks. The prime minister also agreed to set up a joint commission of the government, the WJC, and the Belgian Jewish community tasked with identifying measures to improve security, fight growing hatred (including on the internet), strengthen Holocaust education in schools, and facilitate the exchange of information.
Speaking outside the Jewish Museum in central Brussels, Ambassador Lauder told reporters: “What we don’t want is that a young generation of Jews grows up with fear.”
Education without Borders
The WJC was an integral partner in creating an exhibition showcasing the Israeli Education Without Borders program, an initiative co-organized by Israel’s Ministry of Education, its SASA Setton Kav-Or initiative, and World ORT Kadima Mada, which provides activities and schooling in thirty-five hospitals across the country to children who are hospitalized for more than three days, as mandated by Israeli law.
Photographer Shahar Azran captured the daily activities of the children in many of these hospitals, who included Jews, Arabs and minorities, children of illegal immigrants, children from the Palestinian Authority coming to Israel for medical treatment, and children of Syrian refugees.
The exhibition was launched in Geneva in September 2015, in partnership with the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. It also has been exhibited at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) headquarters in Paris, in partnership with the Israeli Mission to UNESCO and with the active participation of UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, and at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. The exhibition was scheduled for another run at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Fighting the Delegitimization of Israel
Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)
The WJC has placed itself at the forefront of the fight against the BDS movement and other forms of delegitimization of Israel, coordinating closely with the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. Ambassador Lauder has committed himself to these efforts and to that effect, the WJC decided to open a department specifically dedicated to counter-delegitimization.
Over the course of 2014 and 2015, the WJC was active in campaigns to halt efforts by Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) members to boycott Israel, and intervened when the French cell phone giant Orange announced that it would be cutting ties with its Israeli counterpart, Partner Communications. In the summer of 2015, the WJC stepped in when it emerged that the Spanish Rototom music festival had disinvited the American Jewish musician Matisyahu after trying to coerce him to make a political statement in support of the Palestinians. In part thanks to the WJC’s efforts, the festival directors recanted, and Matisyahu was re-invited to perform.
In May 2016, the WJC and the Israeli Mission partnered to host the first international conference on delegitimization in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations headquarters. The conference, entitled Building Bridges, Not Boycotts, was attended by more than fifteen hundred people, a majority of them students. The audience heard addresses from dignitaries, including Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon, Ambassador Lauder, and Israeli Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein and was treated to a special performance by Matisyahu. Three panel discussions featuring acclaimed experts followed, focused on the effects of the boycott movement in academia, the legal realm, and the public sphere.
In recent years UNESCO has become increasingly anti-Israel under the influence of countries hostile to Israel and other elements. In 2011, UNESCO was the first UN organization to accept Palestine as a member state. The WJC undertook proactive efforts to fight these wrong-headed attempts to politicize a cultural international agency, both in the media and by writing directly to Director General Irina Bokova and senior government officials of member states. Following a number of positive responses from Bokova, we established a close working relationship with her and have welcomed her professionalism and fairness in contending with highly sensitive and controversial issues. In February 2015, when we denounced the inclusion of Palestinian-themed posters in UNESCO’s list of world heritage objects on the grounds that the documents could fuel anti-Semitism, she concurred with a veto of her own: “It is my conviction that UNESCO should not associate itself with such documents whose inscription could fuel hatred and anti-Semitic perceptions.”
In 2016, the WJC leadership undertook an extensive advocacy campaign, including contacting representatives of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and the ministers of foreign affairs of countries on the UNESCO Executive Board, urging them to vote against an egregious resolution that ignored the Jewish historical connection to Jerusalem and instead declared the Western Mount to be an exclusively Islamic site. Bokova herself publicly emphasized that, “The heritage of Jerusalem is indivisible to deny
or conceal any of the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim traditions undermines the integrity of the site, and runs counter to the reasons that justified its inscription in 1981 as a World Heritage site.” Nonetheless, on October 13, 2016, the day after Yom Kippur, the UNESCO Executive Board adopted a resolution that declared the Temple Mount in Jerusalem to be exclusively “a Muslim Holy Site of worship,”6 totally ignoring its millennia-old Jewish identity. Only six countries—the United States, Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom—voted against this resolution.
On October 17, 2016, Ambassador Lauder in his capacity as president of the WJC denounced the UNESCO resolution in a full-page statement in The New York Times. “This outrageous vote,” he wrote, “is an affront not just to the Jewish people, but to all those who value the vital role of historical truth in navigating current global issues For the UN to fulfill its potential and become a temple of peace, it must start by reversing its outrageous erasure of the Jewish people’s ties to the Temple Mount.”
Other UN Bodies
The WJC has been an accredited NGO at the United Nations since 1947. In recent years, we have renewed and strengthened our positioning in the organization and have a strong connection with UN agencies, offices, and missions in New York, Geneva, and elsewhere. We advocate on all WJC core issues and promote programs on Holocaust education, combating anti-Semitism and racial discrimination, promoting religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, as well as on countering resolutions that single out Israel.
Every year in September, at the high-level gathering opening the new session of the UN General Assembly, the WJC organizes a flurry of diplomatic meetings at the highest levels. In 2014, together with other organizations, we ensured that the unilateral bid by the Palestinians for statehood at the UN Security Council was defeated. We consistently stand up for Israel in Geneva, with regular statements at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and campaigns aimed at other UN bodies in both Geneva and New York, such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
We also hold programs at the United Nations headquarters in New York to highlight the experience of Jews exiled from Arab lands, as well as coordinate with the Holocaust and United Nations Outreach Programme on regular programming for International Holocaust Remembrance Day each year on January 27.
The Iran Deal
The WJC closely followed the negotiations between the P5+1 powers to reach a deal with Iran over its contentious nuclear program. During this time, I took part in a small delegation of Jewish leaders that met with US President Barack Obama on the matter. When the final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed in Vienna in July 2015, Ambassador Lauder expressed appreciation for the intense efforts by the P5+1 group of nations, but said he remained deeply skeptical that the agreement’s restrictions would ultimately prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. “I fear we may have entered into an agreement that revives the Iranian economy but won’t stop this regime from developing nuclear arms in the long term, which would have disastrous consequences for the entire region and the world,” said Ambassador Lauder. “As the famous proverb goes, ‘the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.’”
The WJC has continued to take an active role in pursuing interfaith dialogue and relations, and has established a particularly close relationship over the past few years with the Catholic Church. On multiple occasions, Pope Francis has welcomed senior WJC delegations and held private audiences with Ambassador Lauder. On one such occasion, on the sidelines of our Governing Board meeting in Rome in October 2015, Pope Francis welcomed a delegation of WJC leadership and met privately with Ambassador Lauder to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the breakthrough 1965 declaration that helped improve Jewish-Catholic relations. WJC dele- gates later took part in a public audience with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square to commemorate the event.
The WJC has also met a number of times with leaders from the Evangelical Christian community, lauding their friendship to Israel, and works closely with a number of organizations representing those churches and denominations. The WJC Israel Branch also has close ties with the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus. Ambassador Lauder has spoken and written extensively on the plight of Christians persecuted in the Middle East.
Reaching Out to the World
Media and Communications
Over the last few years, the presence of the WJC and, in particular, of Ambassador Lauder, in the media, both in print and online, has grown exponentially. When a major event pertaining to the Jewish world, global terrorism, Holocaust restitution, or anti-Semitism occurs, we are often the first address for a comment or remark. We issue regular statements on issues of concern; are quoted prominently in the international news wires and major European, Latin American, Israeli, and North American media outlets; and we are consistently interviewed about matters of concern to world Jewry and our affiliated communities across the globe. Our public relations efforts have resulted in reaching tens of millions of readers per topic or event. Opinion pieces by Ambassador Lauder, myself, Deputy CEO for Diplomacy Maram Stern, General Counsel Menachem Rosensaft, and members of the Jewish Diplomatic Corps have also become par for the course and a regular occurrence.
In addition, the WJC is working collaboratively with a cutting-edge, strategic marketing agency to enhance the organization’s impact by developing innovative creative content and programs to address critical issues impacting the Jewish people and to combat anti-Semitism around the globe.
The WJC has also made enormous leaps in its social media profile in the last three years and has become an important and ever-present fixture on digital platforms, viewed and used by people of all ages, all over the world. Thanks to our growing presence on widely used platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google+, the WJC maintains its relevance in the far reaches of the world for Jews and non-Jews alike. We are considered an important and well-respected source of news about Jewish communities and their activities everywhere; people turn to us for in-depth analyses and commentaries on a range of issues including anti-Semitism, Holocaust remembrance, Israel advocacy, Jewish traditions, and Judaism in general. Our upgraded website, www.worldjewishcongress.org, also hosts a wide selection of original content for social media distribution.
The WJC’s Facebook pages— available in five languages— are among the most popular pages of all Jewish organizations and have more posts and engagements with users than any other Jewish organization. In total, the WJC speaks every day in multiple languages to more than two hundred thousand people who follow these pages. Over the last three years, we have managed to raise the weekly reach from three thousand to more than one million. The annual reach of the WJC’s Facebook page in 2015 alone was close to ninety million, an increase from four million in 2013. We are constantly striving to produce compelling original content and hope to see even greater growth in the coming years.
Fundraising and Charity Ratings
The World Jewish Congress has been able to operate so successfully in recent years thanks to the generous funding of our president, Ambassador Lauder, and our thousands of donors committed to the Jewish cause. Randi Dubno, Acting Head of Development, and her team have worked diligently to reach out to our donor base and to update them on our activities and needs. As a charity, we depend on this funding and are enormously appreciative of each and every one of our donors.
Thanks to the professionalism of Chief Financial Officer Chaim Reiss, the WJC has been consistently cited by Charity Navigator— the largest and most utilized independent evaluator of more than eight thousand philanthropies in the United States—with its highest four-star rating for financial health, accountability, transparency, and efficiency. In a letter to the WJC’s American Section, the president and CEO of Charity Navigator wrote: “We are proud to announce that the World Jewish Congress, American Section, has earned our 4-star rating. Receiving four out of a possible four stars indicates that your organization adheres to good governance and other best practices that minimize the chance of unethical activities and consistently executes its mission in a fiscally responsible way.”
One of the main ingredients for a successful organization is the synergy between a president, a CEO, and its lay leaders. Ambassador Lauder and I work in constant symbiosis, and our relationship with our lay leaders is just as solid. The World Jewish Congress today is strong thanks to the dedication of Ambassador Lauder, Governing Board Chairman David de Rothschild, Treasurer Chella Safra, and the rest of the WJC Steering Committee: Eduardo Elsztain, Robert Goot, WJC-Israel Chairman Shai Hermesh, Yuri Kanner, European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor, Euro-Asian Jewish Congress President Julius Meinl, WJC North America Chairwoman Evelyn Sommer, and Latin American Jewish Congress President Jack Terpins.
Of course, an organization is only as good as its professional staff, and the World Jewish Congress is no exception. Our Latin American affiliate, run professionally under Claudio Epelman, has succeeded in becoming a preeminent organization in its region; under Executive Director Raya Kalenova, the European Jewish Congress continues to be a major player across the continent; Natasha Schmidt, acting CEO of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, has immensely strengthened that region of smaller communities; and our North America Section, directed by Betty Ehrenberg, has strongly established itself as the global representative of world Jewry for the United States, Canada, and Mexico, which is no small feat in a playing field of dozens of influential Jewish organizations and lobby groups. The WJC Israel Branch, guided until August 2016 by Director-General Sam Grundwerg, together with its board of representatives from every Jewish party in the Knesset, has come to be seen as a colleague in Israel’s political arena.
Our office in Brussels, led by Deputy CEO for Diplomacy Maram Stern and Chief Operations Officer John Malkinson for over twenty-five years, is our guiding force in operations and governance, and has become a beacon of light for the Jewish world in Europe. The WJC has remained fiscally sound and maintained best practices thanks to Chief Financial Officer Chaim Reiss. Under the guidance of Chief Program Officer Sonia Gomes de Mesquita, the WJC has become known for its extensive and intensive activities. Our fundraising efforts have successfully allowed us to grow and fulfill our mission, thanks to Acting Head of Development Randi Dubno. Our media relations activities are energetic and far reaching, ably conducted for almost twenty years by Director of Communications Michael Thaidigsmann. Our archivist Isabella Nespoli is the custodian of our institutional documentary memory. Lauren Rose, the WJC Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, has brought new life into our Geneva office and has solidified the WJC’s place as a strong force there. My executive office in New York is run diligently and expertly under the guidance of Shira Copans. Our legal advice is always sound and robust, thanks to General Counsel Menachem Rosensaft, also the custodian of the WJC’s historical memory, and without whom this eightieth anniversary volume would not have been possible.
Since joining the WJC as CEO and working together with my colleagues, I have completely changed the organizational structure, significantly expanded our executive headquarters in New York, reactivated our office in Geneva, and added more than a dozen new positions, while simultaneously securing our financial strength and dramatically increasing our professional and intellectual capabilities. In that time, we have more than doubled our staff, and in keeping with our vision for breathing new life into the WJC and focusing on the next generation, we sought out new hires in their twenties and thirties. Our young staff comes from a wealth of cultures and backgrounds, each endowed with professionalism and experience, and a hunger to help protect, defend, and empower the global Jewish community. The WJC is now filled with talented young people whom we have entrusted with taking leadership roles on the global political issues in which we engage each day, improving their expertise so as to someday take over the reins themselves. These young professionals are more than just the young faces of the World Jewish Congress—they are the core of the WJC today.
The World Jewish Congress is a vibrant and exciting place, with an incomparable staff and a bright future.
To reiterate the words of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, we do not expect the World Jewish Congress to perform miracles. But we do expect a Jewish world that is protected, represented, and united as one Jewish community. The World Jewish Congress has succeeded in this mission for the last eighty years, and I have no doubt that it will continue to succeed for years to come. The WJC today is a remarkable organization, full of talented young professionals, and is constantly attracting new individuals capable of dealing with the most challenging issues and events.
I am very proud to lead the WJC professionally into its ninth decade of service to the Jewish people.