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.
“We 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.
The WJC 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 Jewish community.
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.”