They say, “You should never meet your heroes”, but upon meeting one of mine, my admiration for him has only increased. And that’s not despite me having seen that he is human, after all, but exactly as a result of that ‘discovery’.
The President of the World Jewish Congress, Ambassador Ronald S. Lauder, is famous for his generous philanthropy, his taste in fine arts, and his political and human-rights related advocacy efforts. Few people would characterize him as being just another regular Joe (well… Ronald Steven to be exact). And yet, under different conditions, his life could have started and ended just like that. Just one more Jewish baby, destined for annihilation.
His address to Holocaust survivors and dignitaries on 27 January on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he delivered a keynote address on the 75th anniversary of the Nazi death camp’s liberation, included a sentence which on the surface, might seem hyperbolic, but was in fact, a deep and penetrating confession of awareness..“I have always wondered,” Ambassador Lauder said, “if I had been born in Hungary, where my grandparents were from, instead of New York, in February 1944, would I have lived? The answer is no, I would have been one of the 438,000 Hungarian Jews gassed by the Nazis in 1944 right here in Auschwitz”.
As a Jewish baby, Ambassador Lauder might have been destined for certain destruction, from even before the moment he was born, just like other Jewish babies in Europe at the time. He would have met my relatives in Auschwitz, perhaps for just a second. He would have met other Jews, from all corners of Europe, people who didn’t speak the same language, people who didn’t pray the same way or ate the same foods, but whose fate was decided by both the actions of some and the indifference of others.
This month, Ambassador Lauder will celebrate his birthday, a moment of joy he’ll share with his dear family and many friends. This of course, was not in the Nazis’ plan! This wasn’t in the Wannsee Protocol, for this strong and effective Jewish leader to celebrate such a birthday! Nor is it in accordance with the vision of today’s neo-Nazi hooligans, or of their brothers-in-hatred from the extreme far-left or Islamist-fundamentalist groups. As any other Jews, Ambassador Lauder could have been inside the AMIA Jewish Center in Buenos Aires during the 1994 terror attack by Iran via Hezbollah or he could have been buying food from the Kosher deli in Paris during the 2015 attack by an ISIS–inspired terrorist.
Jews continue to be targeted in 2020 not because of what they do or do not do; not because of who they are, intrinsically, but because of what we represent to this world. We embarked, millennia ago, in front of Mount Sinai, on a path of no return. That path is defined by the words “or la goym” – a light onto the Nations of the World. Not all of us will be guided by the spirit of these words, but collectively, in all generations, we’ve been just that! Spreading literacy, education, human rights, fighting disease via medical research – while perhaps the most important values have been those defined by the 10 commandments and the 613 mitzvot (good deeds). We’ve informed the world, one individual at a time, that the most important commandment is saving and preserving life.
All Jews today are, in a way, survivors. In all generations, we’ve been just that. Whether it was Haman or Torquemada who have tried to wipe us out; we are the victors of their failures, committed to the success of the ultimate Jewish project: that of bettering this world.
Just as the martyrs of the Holocaust watch over us from up above, another Jew is just now, literally, kilometers above us: NASA Astronaut Jessica Meir. A day job somewhere on Terra firma would have presented her with better pay options and fewer risks. She chose the risk and opportunity to help prepare Humanity for the next big leap.
A regular day for anyone in a similar situation to Ambassador Lauder’s could also have been made up only of pleasant, spa-side cocktails and conversation. He chose to spend it in front of the Gates to Auschwitz, the Gates to Hell, embracing survivors.
Under the leadership of President Lauder, the role of the World Jewish Congress has widened its focus trying to support not only Jewish communities worldwide and the State of Israel, but also all those whose human rights come under attack, from Christians across the Islamic world to the Yazidi minority in Syria.
During Shabbat Dinner on 24 January, as we settled into Poland just prior to the official commemoration ceremony in Auschwitz, a leader of the Krakow Jewish Community – a gentleman in his 80s – welcomed the 300 or so Jews from around the world, led by President Lauder, and at the end of the night he whispered “if only you could all stay with us here, in our community!”.
I replied that having strong communities is what we’re all about and we’re particularly focused on the needs of smaller communities, from Poland to Greece, from Hong Kong to Panama. The members of the WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps try to make sure we stand for his community and for others, advocating for them when this is necessary, making sure their rights are respected by all, joining them in celebration when that is possible.
May we all live to witness different times, those in which our work will become less relevant and less necessary. Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski quoted his friend Roman Kent (the President of the International Auschwitz Committee) and reminded us that, at least after the Holocaust, an Eleventh Commandment must be respected by all: “Thou shalt not be indifferent”! President Lauder is not indifferent. The WJC is not indifferent. You shouldn’t be indifferent.