LONDON – Ambassador Ronald Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, had much on his mind when we met in London on a rainy day in early March. The tall, distinguished 73-year-old art collector, homme d’affaires, and philanthropist was clear-minded about a number of issues, even on five hours of sleep.
At the top of his list of concerns is a worrying upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents, not least in his native United States. These include threats to, or actual attacks on, synagogues and other Jewish institutions, and the desecration of graves in St. Louis, Missouri, and other cities. “Even in the US, the country with the strongest Jewish community in the diaspora,” Lauder laments, “anti-Semitism is alive and kicking.”
Anti-Semitism comes in waves, and each historical epoch provides its motives. Christian anti-Semitism blamed Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. This anti-Semitism, which systematically marginalized Jews in the medieval and early modern periods, was supplanted by a pseudo-scientific race-based discourse that culminated in Auschwitz. When the sheer enormity of the Jewish Holocaust was revealed, these ideas slithered back into the shadowy world of the extreme right. But the anti-Semitism rearing its head again in Europe now sometimes comes from the far left as well.
Lauder, for his part, is particularly concerned about developments in Hungary, France, and the United Kingdom. In Hungary, dubious historical figures such as the Regent Admiral Miklós Horthy have been rehabilitated – and even commemorated – in domestic political discourse. Horthy persecuted Jews for decades before Nazi Germany invaded Hungary. Today’s far-right Jobbik party is his direct political heir.
In France, the National Front’s Marine Le Pen has distanced herself from the morbid anti-Semitic obsessions of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in favor of opportunistically attacking French Muslims. But she has still called for a ban on yarmulkes and kosher slaughter as part of a promise to crack down on public displays of religion. Should Le Pen win the presidency and make such discrimination a reality, Lauder hopes that all French men will take to wearing small skullcaps in a show of solidarity.
Last but not least, in Britain, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has become a catchall protest party, and is now the political home for Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) activists, even though there are only 20,000 Palestinians in Britain. The PSC is the driving force behind the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which often conflates opposition to Israel with hatred of Jews.
BDS activists have picketed Jewish-owned businesses – from single shops in Glasgow to the retail giant Marks & Spencer – while making many university campuses increasingly uncomfortable for Jewish students. The movement’s frequent likening of Israel to apartheid South Africa is especially nasty, given that many South African Jews fought against apartheid, sometimes from within the ranks of the African National Congress.
Lauder may be a worldly diplomat, but he is also ready to fight. He reports that, in the United Kingdom, there are ongoing efforts to contest local councils’ right to introduce “gestural” BDS motions aimed at banning procurement from Israeli businesses. And at the “street level,” the advocacy group Jewish Human Rights Watch maintains an excellent website that monitors PSC and BDS acts of intimidation.
Lauder, during his time at the WJC, has personally enlisted world leaders of all stripes, from the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to join the battle against anti-Semitism. Among Putin’s few redeeming qualities is a revulsion to anti-Semitism. And, as it happens, Russia’s Jewish community is thriving. Jewish kindergartens and other schools are full, and five new Jewish universities have opened. Moreover, according to a survey conducted by the Russian Jewish Congress, anti-Semitic attitudes in Russia are among the lowest in the world, at 8% of those polled.
The WJC was founded in Geneva in 1936, beneath the dark clouds of an earlier period of anti-Semitism. But it would be wrong to assume that fighting anti-Semitism is the organization’s sole focus. It played a leading role in helping Jews escape from the former Soviet Union, and in defending the religious freedoms of those who remained there.
The WJC is also a major player in Holocaust-remembrance efforts. And it works to return Jewish families’ stolen assets, by confronting museums that do not closely trace the provenance of art works.
In addition, the WJC is active in fostering Jewish communities around the world. Ironically, Germany is the only European country with a growing Jewish community, now 125,000-strong. A renaissance of Jewish culture is now occurring: many new synagogues have opened; and a majority of the faculty and students in Judaic studies courses are Gentiles.
Still, this cultural rejuvenation has not been trouble-free. Leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party routinely question the need for Holocaust monuments, including the particularly moving “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
In Lithuania, the WJC sponsors a center that is working to revive Yiddish, the language that Eastern European Jews spoke for 800 years. And it is helping to promote broader inter-religious dialogue, notably with the Roman Catholic Church, by encouraging more student-exchange programs. These efforts are geared toward removing one of the primary sources of anti-Semitism: mutual ignorance and incomprehension.
When talking to Lauder, one quickly gets the impression that his combination of urbanity and insight makes him exactly the right person to speak for the world Jewish community in these troubled times. With headstones being smashed in Philadelphia, of all places, my encounter with Lauder could have left me filled with gloom; instead, it left me feeling optimistic.