BRUSSELS (JTA) – Ronald
Lauder during his first trip to Europe as World Jewish Congress
president injected equal doses of levity and gloom, including tales of
youthful girl chasing in Scandinavia with dire warnings about unprecedented
levels of global anti-Semitism in the same speech.
Lauder, 63, talked about his
extensive European travels to some 100 dinner guests at a Hilton hotel in
Brussels, recalling that as a student he had spent time in
Copenhagen in hopes of meeting Danish girls.
“No one told me that by the
time I arrived in April, all the girls had left town,” he joked. “I
didn’t learn much Danish.”
But only a few minutes later
his face tightened and he launched into the theme of his European visit.
are in great peril with the situation with Gaza, Hamas and Iran,” Lauder said. “And when you
walk in the street with a yarmulke, you run the risk of being accosted. It has been
not been so bad since just before World War II.”
Lauder, elected in May to
replace the retiring beverage fortune heir Edgar Bronfman, timed his trip to
coincide with the presidential elections of the WJC-affiliated European Jewish
Congress. The victor in that race was Lauder’s ally and fellow billionaire
philanthropist Moshe Kantor, president of the Russian Jewish Congress.
Besides greeting the 87 EJC
delegates from 41 communities Monday and Tuesday, Lauder and WJC
governing board chairman Matthew Bronfman, Edgar’s son, came to Brussels to
call on European Union leaders.
In meetings with European
officials, Lauder pushed for a European Union-wide legislative framework to
address anti-Semitic and racist crimes in the wake of reports documenting a
dramatic increase in both across Europe.
Lauder would not discuss
the substance of the meetings but said that one of his interlocutors, European
Commission Vice President Franco Frattini, was quite responsive.
president said that European politicians needed to be more aware of anti-Israel
practices being used as a cloak for anti-Semitism, citing the current effort by
British unions to impose a boycott on Israeli academics as an example.
When JTA pointed out to
Lauder at a news conference that a plethora of European
intergovernmental pacts and programs to combat anti-Semitism already existed,
he responded: “Clearly they are not working.”
Perhaps an even larger theme
of Lauder’s multiple addresses to EJC delegates here was that new
strategies were needed to ensure Jewish security, and that education had to
play a key role in the effort.
The emphasis on education was expected,
considering the lead role Lauder’s foundation plays in funding Jewish
education programs in Eastern Europe.
He pointed out that the
Jewish National Fund, of which he is president, has sponsored guest speakers at
120 universities in the United States to promote tolerance and respect of Israel.
“We haven’t done enough
of that at universities in Europe,” he said.
“In universities in
Europe there are strong Muslim groups using anti-Israel rhetoric as a cloak
for anti-Semitism. We must get in there.”
Asked for more details, Lauder said he had only been on the job officially for two weeks.
“I could be specific,
but I don’t want to be,” he said, adding that first he wanted to consult local Jewish community leaders. “One mistake I will not
make is talking about what I do not know.”
Lauder did briefly address
financing, noting that he wanted to widen the appeal of the WJC to more participants and donors. He again used JNF as an illustration, noting that it had 490,000 contributors.
Stephen Kramer, secretary
general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said Lauder did offer “a
real chance” for the WJC to gain momentum after being weakened by several
years of financial scandals.
But the German community
leader had some misgivings over what he described as WJC leaders turning the
European event into their own.
“I was to some extent
disappointed at how the meeting was treated by the WJC leadership,” he
said. “I didn’t have the impression that they were guests. It was more like they
were there to make sure kids didn’t misbehave.”
Although the WJC’s deputy
general secretary, Maram Stern, dismissed the notion that there was competition
between the WJC and EJC, Kramer and several delegates who requested
anonymity said the tension was obvious.
The WJC has an
office in Brussels; the EJC does not.
European Jewish leaders have
complained that WJC officials visit with politicians in their
country without bringing along or consulting representatives from the local
Asked for her
impressions of Lauder and the potential of the WJC, newly elected EJC board
member Lena Posner offered a measured response.
“The only thing he said
that made me optimistic in a way is that he understands the importance of
European Jewry,” said Posner, who is
the president of the Official Council of Swedish Jewish Communities and founder of
Paidea, an international institute for Jewish studies in Stockholm. “And without anyone asking he brought up the importance of Jewish
education. He has a good track record on that.”
Lauder has been portrayed by
critics as being wooden, but he offered a few quips during
his whirlwind Brussels trip.
A journalist for Poland’s
largest daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, asked him if he felt the
Polish government’s offer of 20 percent compensation for property looted during
the Holocaust and then under communism was fair. Would the WJC, which is
seeking full compensation, accept a compromise, she asked?
He rapidly replied, “I
would like to ask the 3 million Jewish Poles who died in the war what the
compromise should be.”