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August 22, 2018 12:16 pm

Ronald Lauder Treats Israelis Like Misbehaving Children

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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The Israeli Knesset building. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

For most of the last 70 years, the American Jewish establishment has taken the position that Israelis should make their own decisions, particularly on matters of peace and security, because Israel is a thriving democracy and its citizens must bear the cost of those choices. It was therefore disappointing and a little tiresome to read yet another op-ed questioning Israelis’ judgement by Ronald Lauder, a paragon of the establishment and head of the World Jewish Congress. Lauder is entitled to his opinion, but in my view, his poorly-argued public attack on the government of Israel disqualifies him to lead a major Jewish organization.

One reason I was so stunned by Lauder penning not one, but two critical op-eds is that unlike virtually every other American Jew, he can pick up the phone to call the Israeli prime minister or schedule a meeting to express his views directly and privately.

So why lately is he insisting on becoming one of Israel’s foremost public critics? Has Lauder become like so many far-left antagonists of Israel, and grown so frustrated that Israelis do not agree with him that he needs to have yet another public tantrum?

If Lauder were serious about speaking to the Israeli public, why didn’t he express his views in an Israeli periodical instead of an American newspaper? Lauder believes that he knows what is best for Israel and will “save it from itself.” Does he realize how paternalistic he sounds, as if Israelis were small children who need to be lectured by an American billionaire about what’s best for them, even though he does not live in Israel, has not served in its military, and does not pay taxes there?

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Imagine how American Jews would feel if Israelis told them how they should vote, what leaders they should support, and how they should practice their religion.

Israelis are understandably sick and tired of being lectured by Americans. Israelis don’t need to be told to do more for peace; no one wants peace more than they do. But they understand their security dilemma far better than Americans sitting comfortably in their homes 6,000 miles away, without the anxiety of living with rocket and terrorist attacks. The latest poll shows less than 50% of Israelis support a two-state solution, not because they oppose peace, but because they do not see a Palestinian partner willing to accept the existence of a Jewish state.

Lauder and others have criticized Israel’s lack of religious pluralism, and want to superimpose their views on Israelis. They ignore the fact that Israelis are not clamoring for the Judaism practiced by American Jews. Israel is largely a secular society; the prime minister does not wear a yarmulke. But most Israelis know more about their history and traditions than the average American Jew and, if they go to a synagogue, they choose an Orthodox one. If they were clamoring for Reform and Conservative Judaism, Israelis would make that clear, but they have voted with their feet against the introduction of these movements.

Some aspect of religious practice in Israel are controlled by the Orthodox, to the chagrin of many Israelis. Nevertheless, all Israelis have freedom to practice Judaism as they wish. If you don’t want to keep kosher, there are no shortage of places to get shellfish. If you don’t want to rest on Shabbat, you can drive to the beach. If you don’t want to fast on Yom Kippur or avoid bread on Passover, you can find what you want in Arab markets.

But, critics say, public transportation doesn’t run on Shabbat and there are other restrictions imposed by the Orthodox. This is true, but this is not a reason to feel alienated from Israel. Where I live in Bergen County, New Jersey, Blue Laws are still in force, so I cannot shop on the Christian Sabbath. Every December, the town is filled with Christmas displays. The dominance of Christianity has not turned me against America.

The Bible says that Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land because he disobeyed God by striking the rock instead of speaking to it. But the punishment does not seem to fit the crime. Rabbi Elie Munk, who served as Chief Rabbi of Paris, offered this explanation: He observed that the Israelites were like children when they first left Egypt. They were infantile, with a slave mentality. They needed a paternalistic, parental figure like Moses, someone who rebukes and smites the rock, a disciplinarian, to lead them. But after spending 40 years in the desert, they matured and became more independent. The generation of Jews that Moses was bringing into Israel were all born in freedom. They no longer needed that paternal figure, someone who smites, lectures, and condescends. They needed a leader who talked to the rock, someone who understood how to speak to them as mature adults. Thus, Moses was not really being punished, so much as his leadership style no longer suited the times.

I don’t in any way mean to compare Lauder to Moses, but he sees Israel as it was in its infancy, when it needed advice, economic assistance, and the goodwill of the American Jewish community. Today, Israel is a powerful, modern, mature nation that can stand on its own. Lauder wants to treat Israelis like children who just gained their independence.

His attitude is paternalistic and condescending. And for someone who has been involved at the highest levels of politics for as long as he has, how could Lauder possibly believe that he can change Israeli policy to match his views through an op-ed in The New York Times?

To be sure, he is a great philanthropist, and a man of huge heart who has done incalculable good for the Jewish people, especially in Eastern Europe. But he treads on the very ideals of democracy he espouses for Israel through his misguided and misplaced criticism.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 32 books, including Lust for Love, co-authored with Pamela Anderson. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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