The Scent of Controversy

Ronald Lauder, the billionaire cosmetics heir, philanthropist and conservative political activist, has been unanimously selected by a nominating committee to become the next chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The decision has ignited a furor among heads of liberal and labor-linked groups that make up nearly half the conference’s 55 members. Critics include most leaders of the two largest factions in Jewish life, the Reform and Conservative movements. Prominent activists call the choice “an outrage,” “a disaster,” “ludicrous” and other terms unfit for print.

Critics say Lauder’s right-wing views make him an inappropriate spokesman for American Jewry and would put him needlessly at odds with the Clinton administration — and perhaps with the next Israeli government. They say his close ties to the Netanyahu government will make it hard for him to play the crucial role of conciliator and consensus-builder in the sharply divided Presidents Conference. And they say that his reputedly weak communication skills won’t help.

“The key to being an effective conference chairman,” said Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, “is to be somebody who will listen carefully, and will be astute enough and talented enough to build a consensus in a very divided conference. And to remain silent when no consensus exists. Obviously, I hope he’ll be an effective chairman. But we’ll be watching.”

And, yet, true to the byzantine ways of Jewish organizational culture, most critics say that they will vote for Lauder when his name comes before the full body in February. Even in the nominating committee, Reform and Conservative representatives who had opposed Lauder agreed to vote for him once his nomination became inevitable. The goal, they say, is preserving unity in the Jewish community and its chief representative body. “To weaken the conference doesn’t help the Jewish community,” said committee member Stephen Wolnek, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Lauder’s defenders call the opposition sour grapes. “Everyone would like their own representative to be chosen,” said Orthodox Union president Mandell Ganchrow, who was himself a candidate but calls Lauder a good choice. “I think he’ll do credit to the organization.”

Though scarcely known to the public, the Presidents Conference is generally recognized in government and diplomatic circles as the senior voice of American Jewry on international affairs. Operating with a tiny staff and a yearly budget of less than $1 million, it has succeeded for four decades, largely because community leaders and successive U.S. administrations have wanted it to.

In the last decade, though, the conference has lost clout, paralyzed by left-right divisions. Compounding the tension is liberal mistrust of the staff director, Malcolm Hoenlein. A staunch conservative, he is sometimes accused of shortcutting decision-making processes and taking hawkish positions without full conference approval.

The current chairman, New York attorney Melvin Salberg, has won high marks for his dogged efforts to follow procedure and build consensus. But the tedious discussions have left all sides exasperated.

Lauder, 54, is generally seen as Hoenlein’s personal candidate. But some observers say that he could surprise everyone.

The younger son of cosmetics magnate Estee Lauder, he left the family business in 1983 and joined the Reagan administration as an assistant secretary of defense. He later served briefly as U.S. ambassador in Austria.

In 1989, he mounted an expensive, spectacularly unsuccessful campaign for mayor of New York City. He ran under the banner of the small, right-wing Conservative Party, charging that Republican Rudolph Giuliani was too liberal. The race won Lauder little beyond ridicule for his wooden speaking style.

Since then, Lauder has devoted most of his energy to his Ronald Lauder Foundation, an acclaimed, multimillion-dollar program that runs Jewish summer camps and day schools in formerly communist Eastern Europe. He also serves as treasurer of the World Jewish Congress and chair of its commission on stolen art.

The presidency of the Jewish National Fund was offered to Lauder in 1997, in a move widely seen as positioning him for the conference chairmanship. Under Lauder, the fund, which was wracked by financial scandals, has dramatically recovered. He brought in new personnel and renewed morale. He also fulfilled a pledge to the right by ending the fund’s 30-year ban on spending American donations in the administered territories.

Israeli press reports regularly name Lauder as a major financial backer of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Some reports say that Lauder donated the services of conservative American media guru Arthur Finkelstein to the Netanyahu campaign.

In his interview with the Presidents Conference nominating committee on Jan. 7, Lauder denied any financial role in Israeli politics. Still, the issue was touchy enough to hold up his nomination for two days, while staffers looked for proof of his donations. None was found.

In the end, Lauder emerged from a field of six candidates as one of two finalists, along with former American Jewish Committee President Robert Rifkind. Committee members said that Lauder impressed them with a strong command of issues and a sincere commitment to pursue consensus. Most of all, though, members said that it was Lauder’s resumé — his JNF leadership, his foundation work, plus his wealth and prominence — that made his candidacy irresistible. “Name recognition does count,” said committee member Marlene Post, president of Hadassah.

As for Lauder’s political views, several committee members recalled the role of Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the Reform movement leader, who chaired the conference in 1977, when Menachem Begin became prime minister. Schindler’s embrace of the Likud leader helped pave the way for American acceptance of Begin. Lauder, they say, could similarly be a bridge-builder.

The comparison only angered liberals. “Schindler was a liberal speaking for a liberal Jewish community,” said one veteran conference member. “Lauder would be a conservative speaking for a liberal community to a liberal administration. What sense does that make?” In fact, he noted, no liberal has headed the Presidents Conference since 1982.

Indeed, some said that Lauder’s nomination seemed to mimic the current crises in Washington and Jerusalem, where right-wing minorities are successfully imposing their agendas on liberal majorities that are not effectively organized.

Lauder has worked hard to soothe his critics in recent days, promising in meetings to listen and govern from the center. Most significant, he has reportedly agreed to consider creating an executive committee. That would give the conference, for the first time, a decision-making tool that is nimble yet disciplined.

If he keeps his pledges, liberals say, he could breathe new life into the organization. If not, they warn, the body will simply continue its drift to irrelevance.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.