Ronald S. Lauder: “The Jews Will Never Forget the Bravery of the Bulgarians”

Ronald S. Lauder, has several jobs. As a businessman, he strikes huge deals. As President of the World Jewish Congress, he talks to governments about aspects affecting Jews and advises communities. And as the chairman and founder of a foundation named after him, he helps schools and communities all over Eastern Europe.

The central aspect about Ronald Lauder is helping Jewish communities, including the one in Bulgaria. Imanuel Marcus caught him in Sofia, where he took part in commemoration events during the 75th anniversary of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews.

Magazine79: Your entire career shows you are a multi-tasker. Sure, you are a successful business man, an heir, you are a collector of art, you were a diplomat, and envoy. But foremost, you are known for all the help you have given to an entire ethnicity, to communities, and students. And you are still very active. At the same time, you are not 25 anymore. Where does your determination come from? And how do you preserve all the energy needed?

Ronald Lauder: I grew up as a cultural Jew, but it was really only when I became ambassador to Austria that I began to realize the urgency facing Jewish communities around the world, realized the assistance I could provide through diplomatic and philanthropic work, to revive and sustain Jewish life in places where it had been nearly decimated. I have much more drive and determination than I did when I was 25, and I hope that I’ll continue to have it for another 25 years. I have served as president and chairman of many Jewish organizations, each with different methods and mandates, but all sharing in the same vision of striving for a bright and secure future for the Jewish people. Many of my efforts have been dedicated to education, through the development of Jewish schools and summer camps, and to strengthening the younger generation’s connection with both their cultural identity and the State of Israel.

Where does my determination come from? It comes from looking at the students of the Lauder schools across Europe, who are facing anti-Semitism and dwindling numbers in their communities, and yet are so determined themselves to live and thrive as Jews. It comes when I look at the members of the World Jewish Congress’ Jewish Diplomatic Corps, the flagship program of the WJC consisting of 200 of the best and brightest young Jewish professionals from every corner of the earth, who are now leaders of their communities working on behalf of the Jewish world every day; it comes when I look at the heirs of Holocaust victims finally receiving restitution for the property stolen from their parents and grandparents. It comes when I look at the innovation and achievements of the State of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, and see new generations of Israelis proudly living securely as Jews. How do I preserve this energy? Simple. The next generation of Jewish leaders give me this energy.

Magazine79: This is not your first visit to Bulgaria. When you look at this country and its Jewish community, what do you see?

Ronald Lauder: Bulgaria has come a long way over the last 30 years and has gone through some major changes. Just a few decades ago it was a communist country trapped behind the Iron Curtain with a command economy, then it endured a painful transition period in the 1990s to become an EU member, and today is thriving as the holder of the EU council’s rotating presidency. The past 30 years should not be taken for granted and are deserving of commendation. This is the result of hard work and of the Bulgarian people’s strong desire to have a better life. Today’s generations are finally able to feel the difference and are free from the suffering endured by their parents and grandparents.

Of course, when evaluating its political, societal and economic changes, we must always consider its starting point. Bulgaria is still not among the most developed countries of the EU, and we must remember that it would be unfair to compare it to countries like Denmark or Iceland, for example, simply because of population size or land mass. Its developments can only be compared to themselves.

The Jews in Bulgaria today enjoy a very vibrant community, young leadership, and are proud of their mutual identity as Jews and Bulgarian citizens. Again, we should not take this for granted: in many countries, especially in Eastern Europe, leadership transitions from generation to generation in communities are not always smooth. Amid the rapid changes experienced in each country, generations often clash on the path their community should take. In Bulgaria – the community managed to overcome this. Today I see both generations standing side-by-side and adding value to the future of the community.
The future of any Jewish community is best judged by looking at its children. In Bulgaria there is already a Jewish school, and now we are working together with the community to create a center of educational excellence for future generations. This gives you the best answer about the direction this community is going. It is doing great now, and I see an even brighter future ahead.

Magazine79: You know what happened in Bulgaria 75 years ago, two years before you were born. You called it “one of the few positive moments during the Holocaust”, in one of your recent speeches. Bulgaria defied Hitler, by rejecting the deportation of its Jews. What is the significance of this part of Bulgarian history? What kind of reactions do you get from Americans, when they hear about this part of Bulgarian history?

Ronald Lauder: The unique story of the bravery shown by ordinary Bulgarian people and the members of the country’s Orthodox Church is unfortunately not known well enough in America. However, the Jewish people will never forget this and will always remember the bravery of the Bulgarian men and women who stood up for their neighbors, when so many others in Europe did not. We at the World Jewish Congress see great importance in this and are committed to increasing awareness of this throughout the world. The Bulgarian story, and the Bulgarian people, are unique to what was Nazi-occupied Europe. Even as the Bulgarian government sided and collaborated with Hitler, the majority of civil society refused to give up their Jewish neighbors – and succeeded in rescuing them.

This is the only example in Europe where the whole Jewish community, almost 50,000 people, were saved. This should be one of the proudest moments for the Bulgarian people. Against all odds and when the dark clouds of Nazism were covering the whole Europe, they risked their own comfort to do the right and moral thing. Just imagine how different history would been if people elsewhere tried to do the same thing on the same scale. Let’s not forget, though, that at the same time ordinary Bulgarian citizens showed this courage in Bulgaria itself, the Bulgarian authorities decided to round up and deport to the death camps the Jews in the areas administered by Bulgaria during the war in northern Greece and southern parts of Yugoslavia, today’s Macedonia and eastern Serbia. This however, by no means diminishes the courage and kindness of the Bulgarian people who stood up in defense of their Jewish friends and neighbors. In fact, it shows us that in difficult times, even when the leaders fail to act responsibly, there are ordinary people who will do so. They are the real leaders and it is their achievements that should be celebrated.

Magazine79: I would like to ask you about a phenomenon. There are countries, who have excellent relations to Israel. Let’s mention Germany and Bulgaria. Yet, the German government gives millions to organizations which are working against peace and against Israel, including the PA and UNRWA. Both countries mentioned recently voted against Israel at the UN General Assembly, and it wasn’t the first time. Why would friends of Israel show this kind of behavior? What is your explanation?

Ronald Lauder: The situation, as you know, is not black and white and cannot be reduced to the question of why a friend of Israel would disagree with Israel. It is far more complicated than that. The World Jewish Congress will not, on principle, interfere in the foreign policy decision of any country, but we do advocate on the international stage and vis-à-vis diplomatic means to encourage a just resolution to issues of concern, including the State of Israel and UN decisions to that regard. The primary responsibility of the World Jewish Congress will always be to our communities, to ensure that our activities are in their best interest.

When it comes to the United Nations, and votes against Israel’s interest, the World Jewish Congress sees a clear need to elevate facts, for instance about how the Palestinian Authority or UNRWA use funds and set priorities. We believe that these countries, these friends of Israel, do have a genuine will to help the Palestinian people, but there is a lack of information and misguided priorities that desperately need to be brought to life, including the critical issue of payments to terrorists, which put these moves into question. It is our view that the only way to help the Palestinian people long term is a negotiated two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians, directly agreed upon and with no imposition.

Magazine79: The personification of the BDS movement, Roger Waters, is about to start yet another world tour with his band. He will be performing all over Europe, including Sofia, and Latin America. Waters is known to spread anti-Israeli propaganda during his concert. What do you think is the right reaction to that guy and to what he stands for?

Ronald Lauder: We are not against Roger Waters, or his music or his band. We are against the influence he has as an artist to spread hatred against Israel and Jews through the BDS movement. Both on stage and off, Waters uses his name to espouse antagonism toward Israel and to promote a movement that is already illegal in many places, including numerous US states, and cities in France, Germany, and Spain. The World Jewish Congress will always call out Roger Waters and others like him when they aggressively attack Israel and the Jewish people. The BDS movement is not about helping the Palestinian people, plain and simple; it is about vilifying Israel. It has been proven that BDS has had more of a negative impact on the Palestinian economy than on Israel. We can never give legitimacy to a body whose sole mandate is to delegitimize Israel.

Magazine79: Recently, 1,500 Nazis from Bulgaria and other countries took part in the so-called Lukov March, a procession with which they wanted to honor the notorious anti-Semite Hristo Lukov. Similar events are being reported from other European countries too. This is 2018. How do you interpret this kind of open display of antisemitism and the reaction of the authorities?

Ronald Lauder: There is indeed a worrying trend taking place across Europe today, with the rise of populism and the strengthening of extremists and far-right movements, some of which espouse blatantly neo-Nazi views. These are all a cause for major concern, as they provide space for the old notions of anti-Semitism to raise their heads and for manipulations of history and the Holocaust to be more prevalent. There are two important elements missing in Europe which can help fight this phenomenon. One is mandatory Holocaust education to counter revisionist trends. The second is legislation, to enable authorities on the ground to implement forceful measures to prevent these manifestation from occurring. It is inconceivable that in 2018 we are witnessing glorification of the same dangerous ideology that paved way for the near destruction of European Jewry just seven decades ago. In Bulgaria, we saw extremely positive reactions from the government, including calls by the Sofia mayor for a complete ban on the march, and declarations of condemnation from the foreign ministry. During the meetings between the high-level WJC delegation and senior officials in the Bulgarian government, we heard clearly that most Bulgarian see this march as a blight on their community. These declarations are powerful, but until proper legislation is put in place, it will continue to be impossible to halt these trends once and for all.

Magazine79: The Jews in Israel and all over the world have been worried about the situation around Israel for decades. Your organization, the WJC, has just released new numbers showing how the Palestinian Authority abuses funds it gets from the EU and other sources to pay salaries to terrorists and their families. Also, the PA is still refusing to return to the negotiating table. Does this behavior demonstrate a will to achieve peace? What are your hopes regarding the announced peace initiative from the White House?

Ronald Lauder: The World Jewish Congress and I have publicly stated our position that the only viable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a two-state solution, directly negotiated and agreed upon by both sides. Both sides: This is the point to underscore. It takes two to make peace, without preconditions. The Palestinian Authority has worsened the situation by inciting its people to violence against Israel and refusing to negotiate unless it can bring to the table its preconditions. I do not think there is a lack of will for peace – I have spoken to Abu Mazen, and I believe that peace is achievable. But to get to this place two major changes need to happen, among others: one, the PA must stop encouraging incitement among its population, and two, the PA must stop incentivizing this terror with payments. Let us not forget that these funds come from foreign aid which should be used for the well-being of the Palestinian people and not to perpetuate the conflict with violence against Israelis.

With regard to the White House’s peace initiative, I know and respect President Trump well, and I have full faith in his vision. I believe that the US is the most appropriate moderator for any negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and I indeed have hope that we are headed in a positive direction.

Magazine79: What does Ronald S. Lauder, the private citizen, like? Let’s say you are in New York, it’s the evening, and there is no WJC guest, no exhibition, no business meeting and no meeting at the foundation. What do you really like to do in moments of that kind?

Ronald Lauder: Nothing is more important to me than spending time with my family.

More about Ronald Lauder, his foundation and his work in Bulgaria can be read in the new book “Bulgarian Jews: Living History”, available at Shalom in Sofia, Sofia Synagogue and Amazon Europe.

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