February 24, 2020

Did Ronald Lauder Help or Hurt Israel?

I don’t know Ronald Lauder, one of the most powerful Jews in the world, but I’m guessing he was satisfied with himself after writing a heartfelt critique of Israel in The New York Times last week. In a piece titled, “This Is Not Who We Are,” the president of the World Jewish Congress came across as a lover betrayed.

“When Israel’s government appears to be tarnishing the sacred value of equality,” he wrote, “many supporters feel it is turning its back on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos and the Israeli spirit.”

Going through a litany of well-known complaints against Israel— the new nation-state law prominent among them– Lauder concluded that “This is not who we are, and this is not who we wish to be. This is not the face we want to show our children, grandchildren and the family of nations.”

The irony, of course, is that by writing in the world’s newspaper of record that “this is not the face we want to show,” Lauder was doing precisely that. He was showing a face of Israel he didn’t want to show; a face much of the world already sees as mean and oppressive.

Given that Lauder is a longtime supporter of Israel and that he was writing to a global audience, it’s worth asking: Why did he think his opinion piece would be helpful to Israel? It’s not as if the world needs another op-ed criticizing Israel; God knows there are more than enough of those.

But if piling on is not the way to go, then what is? Could Lauder have written something more useful to the community conversation and to Israel?

I think so. While not ignoring Israel’s problems, Lauder could have introduced something that rarely gets mentioned in the daily avalanche of Israel bashing: The enormous corrective mechanism inherent in Israel civil society. In other words, he could have highlighted the thousands of social activists and non-profit groups who have the freedom to fight daily to make Israel a better place.

While acknowledging the injustices in Israel, he could have mentioned, for instance, the New Israel Fund, which has provided over $300 million to more than 900 justice-fighting organizations in Israel since its inception in 1979.

For every problem Lauder spotlighted, he could have added context and perspective. A Conservative rabbi who got arrested for officiating at a marriage? Horrible. But authorities had so much egg on their face the rabbi gave a Torah class at the President’s house the following day.

The nation-state law? Knowing that Israel’s enemies are using the law to falsely malign Israel as an apartheid state, instead of just piling on, Lauder could have added some crucial balance to tone down the hysterics. He could have quoted Bret Stephens, for example, who wrote in the Times:

“What the bill is not is the death of Israel’s democracy— it was enacted democratically and can be overturned the same way. It is not the death of Israeli civil liberties — still guaranteed under the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty and visibly reaffirmed by the large public protests following the bill’s enactment. And it is not apartheid— a cheap slur from people whose grasp of the sinister mechanics of apartheid is as thin as their understanding of the complexities of Israeli politics.”

While not ignoring Israel’s problems, Lauder could have introduced something that rarely gets mentioned in the daily avalanche of Israel bashing: The enormous corrective mechanism inherent in Israel civil society.

Lauder waxed nostalgic about the founding ideals of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948, which he reminded us guarantees “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” But what he failed to mention is that up until 1966, Israeli Arabs lived under the thumb of the military and had virtually none of the freedoms and rights they enjoy today. How did this progress come about? Maybe it’s that corrective mechanism Lauder chose to downplay.

In sum, overwhelmed by his disappointment with Israel, Lauder overlooked the complexity of Israeli society. He applauds Israel for being a “miracle,” but one of the key reasons Israel is a miracle is that Israelis—Jews and non-Jews alike– are not a passive bunch who quietly accept their fate. They’re not intimidated by authority. They protest, they argue, they fight.

They know their country is far from perfect; they know Haredim have too much power; they know their government makes plenty of blunders. While living in a state of virtual siege surrounded by Jew-hating armies who’d love nothing better than to wipe them out, Israelis struggle to balance the imperative of survival with the ideal of justice for all.

That noble struggle is also the face of Israel, and as a global champion of Israel, Lauder should feel no shame in showing it.