‘If you’re a Jewish leader, you have to stand up and fight every single day’

Exclusive interview with WJC President Ronald Lauder


If ever there were a Jewish leader who puts his money where his mouth is, it is Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and arguably the de facto leader of the Jewish world.

Thanks to him, thousands upon thousands of Jewish children in central and eastern Europe have received an education; the fight against continued and renewed antisemitism remains front and centre of the Jewish world’s priorities; enormous amounts of art, once looted by the Nazis, have been returned to many heirs of Jewish victims of the Holocaust; and funding has been put in place for both maintenance of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, and the proposed memorial to the dead at Babi Yar, the site of the notorious 1941 massacre of almost 34,000 Jews in Ukraine.

And yet, as Lauder, in his trademark New York growl, tells it, it could all have been so different. “What would have happened to me,” he wonders, “if I had not gone to Vienna?”

Lauder, an upright and upfront 76, rather endearingly worried by his lack of a tie on a boiling hot Manhattan day, has quite the story of his improbable journey to the centre of the Jewish world. Because as co-heir — with his brother Leonard — to the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire, he worked for the company founded by his parents, Estee and Joseph, before going to the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defence for European and Nato policy.

In 1986, aged 42, he was asked by President Ronald Reagan to go to Austria as American ambassador. He describes himself at the time as “an assimilated American Jew”, which makes what happened next even more piquant.

“I got to Vienna in April of that year,” he says, arriving at a time of febrile politics in Austria as Kurt Waldheim, who had hidden his Nazi past, was running to be president. (He succeeded in June 1986 and Lauder refused to attend his inauguration).

Lauder already knew and loved Austria and had spent a year in Salzburg as an undergraduate, going to West Germany to learn German. His grandparents had lived 150 miles from Vienna before emigrating to the United States - the diplomatic appointment was in many ways a perfect fit.

In May 1986, Lauder was driving through central Vienna along Tempelgasse, one of the main streets, and saw what looked like an empty parking lot. He got out of his car and asked around but nobody seemed to want to talk about what had been there. Eventually, an elderly man told Lauder that this had been the site of one of the most beautiful synagogues in Europe, destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938.

So by the time — the following week — that Lauder received in his office the Chabad rabbi Jacob Biderman, he was already thinking about the Jews and what had become of them.

Rabbi Biderman persuaded Ambassador Lauder to accompany him to a makeshift kindergarten he was running at the back of his synagogue. “Inside there were about 60 children, aged about six to eight, all from Russia”. The ambassador’s heart was touched. The children were part of the emigration shift from the Soviet Union; Vienna was then the main stopping-off point while families waited for transit visas, either to Israel or America. Sometimes they waited for months on end, so the rabbi had started this kindergarten.

Lauder started to visit the children. “First I went once, then more frequently”. He provided money to build two more floors for the nascent school, and became more and more involved.

At this time he received a visit from the then president of the Austrian Jewish community, Ivan Hacker, who told Lauder that he was “very sick and may die soon. He asked me to take over as leader of the community. I said I couldn’t because I was the American ambassador. Not long after, Mrs Hacker called me and said her husband’s dying words were that I should become the Jewish community leader”.

Lauder explained again that he couldn’t take such a position, and, laughing, recalls saying, “the Marine guarding my office probably knows more about being Jewish than I do.”

Just the same, he promised the community to do whatever he could to help — and “slowly but surely”, the school grew and Lauder himself began to focus more on Jewish causes.

He travelled to Hungary because families there said they, too, wanted a Jewish school like the one in Vienna.

After he stopped being ambassador, Lauder established a foundation and set up, over the years, 17 major schools and 17 kindergartens, with schools all over Eastern Europe. He reckons 30 to 40,000 children have attended the Lauder schools since 1987, and the building has not stopped. He’s in talks with communities in Greece and Estonia, and says openly, “Education became my life. This is where I belong.”

When he was still ambassador, Lauder, who was already a noted art connoisseur, heard that “there was a monastery just outside Vienna, Mauerbach, where there was a lot of art that they had never found the owners for”.

He went to the monastery. “I opened the door, stepped inside. I saw frames where the paintings had been taken out, I saw paintings, furniture, rugs, jewellery, silverware…” This was the start of Lauder’s work in art restitution. There were about 8,000 pieces in the monastery, all looted by the Nazis. Around 30 per cent was restored to survivors or the heirs of the original owners, the remainder being sold at auction for the benefit of the Austrian Jewish community and for causes in Israel.

Edgar Bronfman, Lauder’s predecessor as president at the World Jewish Congress, was a friend and asked him to become involved in art restitution on a more formal basis around 1990, knowing of his interest in art. (Lauder was in fact sitting, during our Zoom conversation, in front of one of his favourite pictures, one of the Andy Warhol “Cow” series). Besides working on art restitution inside the Jewish world, Lauder used his Washington knowledge to help get laws changed regarding provenance and ownership of potentially looted artwork. Lauder calls the looted art “the last prisoners of World War II”.

In 2006, Lauder bought for his gallery in New York, the Neue Galerie, arguably the most famous piece of looted art, Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which had been restored to Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann, after a seven-year legal battle.

Lauder paid a record $135 million for the painting, which is on display because Maria Altmann, who died in 2011, explicitly asked that the painting should not be in private hands but available to be seen by the public.

Long before this, however, after an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of New York in 1989, Lauder dipped his toe into the Jewish world by becoming president of the Jewish National Fund, a post he held for 10 years. Looking at his input into Jewish organisations, it’s hard not to conclude that he brought a business brain to such bodies in an attempt to professionalise them — and he has largely succeeded.

Grinning, he speaks of how when he came to JNF “they were selling trees for $10 and losing money. I said, let’s make it $18, and was told, no, people won’t buy at that price. So we made it $18, and guess what? We started to balance the books”.

Over the years Lauder has been a big hitter in many Jewish organisations, from the Conference of Presidents (of Major American Jewish Organisations), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the “Joint”), the Anti-Defamation League, the World Jewish Restitution Organisation, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation, to Israeli-linked bodies such as the International Society for Yad Vashem and the board of governors of Tel Aviv Museum. Together with his brother, Leonard, he co-founded the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, aimed at developing drugs to “prevent, treat and cure” Alzheimer’s Disease.

He’s been on the board of just about everything you can think of in the Jewish world, and still sits on the board of Estee Lauder. But his focus today is as president of the World Jewish Congress, a role which opens doors for him all over the world and allows him unprecedented access to global opinion formers. These include, though he doesn’t want to discuss him, his friend since they were teenagers, Donald Trump.

For Lauder, steering the vast ship that is the WJC can be distilled into one word: “Leadership. You have to be willing to take the hits. Nobody says, great job, we love you, no problems. There’s always a fight.” But, he says, when he was elected WJC president in 2007, he brought to the table the experience of his other forays into the organised Jewish world. Additionally, before Covid, he travelled to Jewish communities and world leaders “about 50 per cent of the time. If you are a Jewish leader, you have to stand up and fight every single day, and that’s what we do.”

To help him he established a corps of Jewish Diplomats, or JDs, of whom there are 305 throughout the world. It means, he says, “that on a daily basis I get what’s happening in all of those places, from the biggest to the smallest”, through the work of the JDs. He says he knows about 90 per cent of the world’s political leaders and, where necessary, can pick up the phone.

His reach as WJC president led to his remarkable editorial in May this year, in, of all places, Arab News.

Lauder wrote: “Last January 27, I stood at Auschwitz-Birkenau and implored world leaders to not be silent and or complicit in hatred, as we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp. Earlier that month, Mohammed Al-Issa, the secretary general of the …Muslim World League, led a delegation of Muslim leaders from more than two dozen countries to the same upsetting ground.

“The Moroccan minister of religious affairs, Ahmed Toufik, is now leading a project to build a museum for the heritage of life in the Atlas region, and one part of that project is dedicated to the Jewish culture”.

He is optimistic over improved relations between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, though he presently excludes Iran from this change.

Traditionally the WJC has not operated much in America or Israel, on the assumption that both countries have their own organisations or — in Israel’s case, government bodies. But latterly, Lauder says, he’s found more and more attention has to be paid inside the United States, and the reason is not hard to find: antisemitism.

When asked to assess the state of play regarding antisemitism, Lauder groans slightly and says it is “terrible. We are now dealing with the third generation after the liberation of Auschwitz… and these are young people who have had no contact with what happened, and all of a sudden they are becoming part of the extreme right. There is a nationalistic trend in many countries, people talking about Hitler… but in the last two or three years, we are [also] seeing antisemitism from the left. It’s because of certain Middle East groups, and anti-Israel responses morph into antisemitism. People will tell me, I’m no antisemite, I’m just anti-Israel. I say, who do you think lives in Israel, Martians?”

Then Lauder, a self-defined right-of-centre Republican and great friend of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says something startling: “The more Israel becomes nationalistic and talks about annexation, the more this [anti-Israel feeling morphing into antisemitism] comes out.” Israel, he says, “has to have a two-state solution. It’s inevitable, and the sooner they do it the better it will be”.

Because he is so concerned about the issue of antisemitism, at the end of last year Lauder put $25 million of his own money into the establishment of a new group, the Antisemitism Accountability Project, or ASAP. It’s a separate organisation from the WJC because of laws relating to political and activist bodies.

ASAP, says Lauder, is for “calling out antisemitism wherever we see it”. More important, however, is a new, tough attitude: “To be antisemitic, you will pay a price”. The organisation will closely survey those running for political office and monitor their statements.

For communities outside the US, Lauder’s pledge is that the WJC will help and support them, but because it is an umbrella body, fighting antisemitism has to be done “at grassroots level”.

Omnipresent for all Jewish leaders — and Lauder is no exception — is the worry about what will happen if and when they hand over the baton. He divides young Jews [in the US] under 40 into two groups; Orthodox and liberal. “The Orthodox are there and will stay there.” But the rest, Lauder says, with an intermarriage rate of more than 50 per cent, “view Judaism not as a religion but as a culture. I call them JINOs — Jews In Name Only. The question we have is that of education.”

He hopes, through a programme called Auschwitz Legacy, which will be rolled out annually on January 27 with films and workshops, to bring people back into the fold. But realistically he is pinning his hopes on his JDs, or Jewish Diplomats, and is working on a leadership school — “to teach them how to give speeches, how to organise. But Judaism is going through a major problem and I don’t know the answer. There is a major crisis in leadership.” He himself is a passionate speechmaker, believing strongly in the power of the spoken word.

Lauder is conscious of another change — that “wealthy Jewish people” no longer give big money to Jewish causes; and, he says, “the role of rabbis is much less important”.

But then he reminds himself that through the work of the World Monuments Foundation (yet another of his roles), he was able to help restore 50 synagogues; and that through the work of the Ronald Lauder Foundation, the intermarriage rate of the children who passed through his schools is less than 10 per cent.

“Look”, he says, “they don’t have to learn every word of Torah. But it is important that they learn of the joys and responsibility of being a Jew, that’s what we teach them”.

He then smiles, and says, “I wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t gone to Vienna, or if I hadn’t met Rabbi Biderman, and been turned on by all this?

“I can’t answer that.”

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