Billionaire Ronald Lauder Talks Hugo Chavez, Bomb Shelters in Israel and Anti-Semitism – Forbes
After roughly a week of campaigning for a tougher U.S. response to rising global anti-Semitism, billionaire Ronald Lauder was preparing for his final public speech in D.C. on Wednesday — a lecture later that night at Georgetown University centered on how Jews and Christians should come together against radical Islamic groups.
It’s been a busy trip: On Tuesday, Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, testified before a House of Representatives subcommittee on the surge in attacks against Jews in Europe, and his schedule has been dotted with other high-profile meetings with top Senate officials, Russian diplomats and Vice President Joe Biden.
As he sits in a meeting room at the ritzy Willard Intercontinental Hotel, just a few blocks from the White House, he seems energized by a week spent rallying Congressmen to support Israel — and pushing them to attempt shutting down any nuclear deal with Iran that he would find unfavorable for the Jewish communities he lobbies for from about 100 countries.
Lauder has focused on diplomacy for decades and was the U.S. Ambassador to Austria from 1986 to 1987. But his estimated $3.9 billion fortune comes largely from a stake in the Estee Lauder cosmetics conglomerate his mother founded. Sensing a market research opportunity, he was quick to ask me if I use a top coat after doing my nails, and what I think of M.A.C., an Estee Lauder brand. I sat down with him in the midst of his D.C. tour to talk about running to bomb shelters in Israel, breaking the ice with then-president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez and the progress of his campaign to return art stolen by the Nazis to the rightful owners’ descendants. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
During your testimony in front of Congress, you asked “Where is the United States?” That’s a big question. What would you want to see the U.S. government actually do?
Ronald Lauder: I would like the U.S. to start being tougher with what we see. First, any school that teaches hatred toward Jews should be stopped or closed down. Any place of worship that preaches hatred of another religion or another people should be closed down. There’s freedom of speech, but freedom of speech does not give people the right to teach people hatred. Second, we shouldn’t have anything to do with countries that practice boycott, divestment and sanction of Israel. We should have nothing to do with countries that are openly anti-Semitic or openly anti-Christian. I also think that if the United Nations keeps on passing anti-Israel resolutions, I believe the U.S. should say, ‘Unless you don’t keep this up, we’ll stop paying.’ We pay a lot of the money to the U.N. through Congress.
Politically, anti-Semitism is often conflated with being anti-Israel. Do you think that helps your cause or deters it?
Lauder: I think that anti-Israel is a cover for being anti-Semitic. What starts off as anti-Israel demonstrations quickly becomes anti-Jewish. Five or seven years ago, I met Hugo Chavez, who was at that time the president of Venezuela. We sat down and I wanted to get the conversation going, and I said, ‘President Chavez, I understand you’re an anti-Semite.’ I wanted to get it going in a good way. He said to me ‘Mr. Lauder, I am not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-Israeli.’ I said, ‘Let me ask you a question, ‘Who do you think lives in Israel? Martians?’ You can’t be anti-Israel and pro-jewish.
You’ve said also that part of the rise in anti-Semitism stems from media reports being one-sided.
Lauder: I mentioned CNN’s coverage of the Gaza War in my testimony. I couldn’t watch it anymore. Day in and day out, they only reported dead people being in Gaza since there were fewer in Israel. They didn’t want to see night after night rockets blowing up in the air. They didn’t do a good job of showing what it’s like there. I’ll tell you, I was there. I was in the south, I was in the middle. In the south, they say, ‘You have 30 seconds from the time you hear the siren to the time it hits.’ So you have to get into a shelter in 30 seconds. I didn’t know where the hell a shelter was. And I can’t run that fast anymore. All of a sudden, it’s like, ‘What do you do?’ If you hear a siren go off, you run, but you don’t know where you’re going. And secondly, you don’t know if it’s 30 seconds or 25 seconds.
So what was that like?
Lauder: I was very nervous. It [bombing] didn’t happen while I was there. I was there for about two hours. But a year ago, I was in a town on the border, and we were in a town hall and I walked outside with the mayor and a couple of other people and all of a sudden the sirens go off, and we go running back in the town hall, and within 20 seconds, we heard an explosion that shook everything. I looked around and thought, ‘I love Israel but I don’t want to die here.’ The rocket went right over the building and landed 50 yards behind the building. If it was one degree different, it would have hit the roof. I might have been okay but it was kind of scary. We saw the hole it had made.
So, you’ve said previously that you had experienced anti-Semitism while you were serving as the U.S. Ambassador in Austria. I was hoping you could tell me about some specific examples?
Lauder: This goes back a long time. It was during the time that Kurt Waldheim became president. When he got to be president, the country coalesced around him and, all of a sudden, because the U.S. attacked him, there was a rise in anti-Semitism. They couldn’t attack the people back in Washington. But there was this representative, a young Jewish ambassador, so they attacked me. It wasn’t done where they painted swastikas on my door. They would have been shot. But it was in newspapers and innuendos all over the place. Frankly, it helped make me Jewish. I came in there Jewish, but wasn’t too involved. By the time I left, I had started my foundation and was very involved because of the attacks. There were subtle attacks. ‘What do you people have against Waldheim?’ The ‘you people’ were not Americans. It was very subtly done but it was no question what was meant.
I also wanted to ask about your campaign to return art stolen by the Nazis and now sitting in museums to the descendants of the original owners. How is that going?
Lauder: It’s been going fabulously. All of a sudden, the world woke up to it. I’ve been at this for 10 to 15 years. No one cared about it. The Gurlitt Collection woke people up. We got enormous publicity. “My Woman in Gold” [a painting by Gustav Klimt that was stolen by the Nazis] is very famous and the movie is coming out in a few weeks. The museums are filled with things in Germany and other areas. They’ve never done provenance research. Why? Because they don’t want to give up their works of art. They’re also afraid that people will say, ‘You know something. You’ve had this painting for 70 years and you didn’t know it was stolen?’ They knew. They’re embarrassed and they’ve been dragging their feet hoping it goes away. It won’t go away.