NEW YORK (Jun. 8)
Ronald Lauder is known as a good listener, a trait that will be invaluable to him in his new role as chairman of an organization that represents 55 diverse Jewish organizations.
Finding agreement on issues of concern to the American Jewish community will be the main task for the 55-year-old cosmetics heir during his two-year term at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which began June 1.
The umbrella group, while not well-known outside of organized American Jewry, represents the views of the spectrum of Jewish religious and political organizations to the White House, Jerusalem and other governments.
When it’s Lauder’s turn to talk on a subject about which he is passionate – – the revitalization of Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe, for example, or providing water to Israel’s Negev Desert — he is an animated speaker.
But Lauder, who is the president of the Jewish National Fund of America and was a former U.S. ambassador to Austria and a 1989 Conservative Party candidate for New York City mayor, also knows how to hold his words in check.
That reticence was apparent when asked recently about an Israeli newspaper report that he had participated in secret talks between Israel and Syria.
“The responsible answer is not to engage in speculation and not to comment on speculation,” Lauder said.
But at a dinner in Lauder’s honor in Washington on June 3, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk appeared to confirm the report.
Hailing Lauder as “a man of principle and a man of exceptional diplomatic capabilities,” Shoval said, referring to the report: “If the papers are right, he’s even used them in recent years.”
Though the talks with Syria broke down, Indyk was curious. “I’m looking forward to the briefing on the Syria track,” the U.S. official said to Lauder.
But Lauder — who served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy from 1983 to 1986 — refused to discuss the trips to Syria.
“Don’t believe everything you read,” he told JTA.
Lauder has plenty of experience with bad press.
His nomination to lead the Presidents Conference was announced amid news reports in New York and Israel about financial support for then-Premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.
Israeli law prohibits political contributions by foreign citizens, and Lauder denied any financial ties to that campaign.
Lauder, who is a major contributor to Republican polities, declared his net worth in 1989 at $227 million, but The New York Times estimated at the time that it could be “considerably more than $1 billion.”
In the end, the nominating committee of the Presidents Conference was satisfied that Lauder had done nothing inappropriate, and he was elected by an overwhelming majority.
The following month, the Times reported that one of Lauder’s numerous business concerns had struck a deal with Yugoslavia’s state-run telecommunications company — despite a U.S. ban on investment in Serbia.
Lauder, through a spokesman, insisted at the time that there was “no deal in operation” and that “there will not be any deal over U.S. government objection.”
Lauder said in a recent telephone interview that he learned to stick to government policy during his tenure in Austria from 1986 to 1987.
Weeks after Lauder took office as U.S. ambassador in Vienna, Kurt Waldheim, a former United Nations secretary-general and Nazi war crimes suspect, was elected president.
Lauder, whose grandparents came from Austria and is a devotee of Austrian culture and a collector of Austrian art, had been warmly received at first.
But his absence from Waldheim’s inauguration ceremony — he was out of town – – was perceived as a snub, and he was vilified in the Austrian press.
The situation became more difficult for Lauder when the United States put Waldbeim on its “watch list” of undesirable aliens in 1987.
Lauder told JTA at the time that the U.S. action “would have a bad effect” on U.S.-Austrian relations, but he stuck to the government line nonetheless.
Lauder credits his experience in Austria with spurring him to establish in 1987 the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, which is now active in promoting Jewish life in 13 countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
“I came there very much a Jew, but a more assimilated Jew, and I left there a very dedicated Jew because I saw firsthand what was happening to Jewish life in Eastern Europe — or what remained of it,” Lauder said.
“When I saw the various children, the people in the communities, I realized it was just by fate that I was born in the United States. I could just as easily have been born in any of those countries. Me or my children,” said Lauder, the father of two daughters, who is expecting his first grandchild next month.
He said the foundation now serves 5,000 children who attend foundation- supported schools and summer camps — providing opportunities that few in the American Jewish community believed possible when Lauder started out.
“Frankly I was very impressed by his vision, though I was pretty skeptical about the ability to carry it out and the prospects of renewing life in Eastern Europe, given the realities there,” Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, said of his first conversations with Lauder over a decade ago.
Now, Hoenlein says, it is “overwhelming to see how he carried a vision to fruition and was able to implement it and literally affect countless numbers of lives.”
In addition to his business and Jewish philanthropic pursuits, Lauder is the chairman of the Commission for Art Recovery of the World Jewish Congress, treasurer of the WJC, chairman of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and has served on various Republican Party and New York state committees, among a host of other affiliations and involvements.
Lauder said that his one of his current goals in the Jewish world is “to do as good a job as I can in the Conference of Presidents and to work with all the organizations to build unity at this critical time.”
In recent years, disagreements among conference members over its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has sparked tension in the umbrella organization, which tries to attain consensus positions.
Those tensions were exposed during Lauder’s bid for the chairmanship.
A group of about 20 member organizations were voicing concern that Lauder’s politics — staunch Republicanism and alignment with Likud policies in Israel – – would obstruct the group’s access to the Clinton administration as well as a possible successor to Netanyahu’s government.
Now some of those conference members are voicing guarded optimism as Lauder takes the helm of the organization and the newly elected Ehud Barak, a proponent of the Oslo accords, becomes Israel’s prime minister.
Though he called it “speculation” to anticipate what kind of job Lauder will do, Mark Rosenblum, the political director of Americans for Peace Now, said: “The Conference of Presidents is perceived as having a mandate of finding ways to support the sitting government of Israel” and “harmonizing” relations between the United States and Israel.
Lauder replaced Melvin Salberg, a Manhattan lawyer and president of the American Zionist Movement, a popular chairman who is credited with having made the Presidents Conference a more open forum for its members.
Lauder has committed himself to the principles and process of the Presidents Conference, and those with whom he has worked closely believe that his determination will see him through.
Russell Robinson, who as executive vice president of the JNF meets with Lauder “a minimum of once a week,” compliments his leadership, humor and drive.
“There are not many people with his financial wherewithal who raise their hands and say, `I will get involved in organized Jewish life.’
“He could have sat on the sidelines,” Robinson said, “but he came forward and said, `I want to get involved.'”
(JTA correspondent Matthew Dorf in Washington contributed to this report.)