Listen to Lauder

Joseph Aaron

I well know that all my talk about the increasing number and increasing scope of anti- democracy actions being taken by the Bibi government gets blown off by all the right-wingers out there.

Oh, there goes Joe again; Joe the Arab loving Israel hating naïve misguided self-hating Jew. Don’t listen to all his blather about democracy; after all we all know he has Bibi and Trump derangement syndrome.

Okay, feel free to dismiss me. But it ain’t just me saying the stuff about how democracy is being eroded by Bibi, about how American Jews are being alienated by Bibi. Saying it too is no less than Ronald Lauder.

Yes, Ronald Lauder, son of cosmetics queen Estee, a true blue right winger, and the guy who more than any other is responsible for Bibi being prime minister.

In 1996, the first time Netanyahu ran for the office, he was a major underdog facing a 30-point deficit to incumbent Shimon Peres. Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister had been assassinated and some saw Netanyahu as complicit in the incitement that led to the assassination.

Enter Lauder, a Netanyahu ally since Bibi was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s. Lauder was a major donor to Netanyahu’s 1996 run. More crucial, he brought Republican campaign strategist Arthur Finkelstein to work on the campaign.

Finkelstein came up with the slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem” in peace negotiations — and it worked. Netanyahu won in a shocking upset, beating Peres by 1 percent. Lauder remained in Netanyahu’s corner for more than a decade, at one point even offering to buy every unsold copy of one of Netanyahu’s books. During Netanyahu’s 1999 re-election campaign, when Lauder chaired the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the mogul took the unusual step of endorsing Netanyahu in a speech.

And yet just this week Lauder took to the op-ed page of The New York Times to slam the man he once helped bring to power. Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, panned the recently passed nation-state law and accused the Netanyahu administration of damaging “the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.”

Lauder listed a number of recent incidents — including the arrest of a Conservative rabbi for conducting weddings — that he believes “are creating the impression that the democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested.”

“Israel is a miracle. The Jews of the diaspora look up to Israel, admire its astonishing achievements and view it as their second home. However, today some wonder if the nation they cherish is losing its way,” he wrote.

Asserting that Zionism traditionally merged Jewish nationalism with universal humanism and the values of the enlightenment, he said that the Israeli government “appears to be tarnishing the sacred value of equality,” causing many supporters to “feel it is turning its back on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos and the Israeli spirit.”

Lauder wrote that Israel’s turn to the nationalist right is betraying its — and the Jewish people’s — commitment to democratic, humanistic ideals. “The Jews of the new era have fused our national pride and religious affiliation with a dedication to human progress, worldly culture and morality,” Lauder wrote. “Conservatives and liberals, we all believe in a just Zionism and a pluralistic Judaism that respects every human being. So when members of Israel’s current government unintentionally undermine the covenant between Judaism and enlightenment, they crush the core of contemporary Jewish existence.”

Wow. And that comes a few months after Lauder wrote another op-ed harshly criticizing Bibi for abandoning the two state solution. But we won’t deal with that issue for now.

Let’s stick with all the anti-democracy, anti-free speech, anti-Jewish belief in the value of all Jews being free to openly express their point of view stuff going on.

That democracy, free speech and Jewish values are being tred upon is seen not only in what Lauder had to say, but in the fact that a number of Jewish organizations in the Diaspora have been critical of the nation-state law and other indicators of what they see as a drift away from democratic values. Including organizations that almost never criticize Israel but feel it is their duty to do so now, about this.

This being the fact that the Bibi government has made it increasingly clear it has no use for people who think, believe, have views, take actions, with which it does not agree. And we are seeing what a slippery slope it is when you start deciding you can decide who has the right to their political viewpoints, who doesn’t, who should be allowed into Israel and who is not the right kind of Jew to be able to come into the Jewish state.

The last couple of months have featured one incident after another. Israel denied entry to Jewish-American activist Ariel Gold, who is active in the social justice NGO CodePink, because of her work with the BDS movement, despite having a valid student visa. Two American-Jewish activists who live and work in Israel were detained by Israeli authorities for more than three hours at Egypt’s border with Israel. Simone Zimmerman and Abby Kirschbaum were returning from a weekend in the Sinai with friends. They both carry type B1 work visas registered with Israeli nonprofit human rights organizations. And yet, Zimmerman and Kirschbaum found themselves sitting on benches outside a back office talking to a security agent — and being questioned about their political activism.

Why did you come here to work with Palestinians, the agent asked, according to Zimmerman. Why not Jews? Who do you protest with? What are their names? Have you ever participated in violent protests? What do you think of Benjamin Netanyahu?

Other American Jews have been stopped at Israel’s borders and questioned by security personnel about their nonviolent activism or visits to Palestinian areas. A week before Zimmerman and Kirschbaum’s detainment, another leftist activist, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, was detained for three hours at Ben-Gurion Airport as he entered Israel. Two weeks earlier, Meyer Koplow, a prominent American Jewish philanthropist, was questioned before leaving the country after a fact-finding tour that included talks with Palestinians. Koplow is chairman of the board at Brandeis University and has contributed millions of dollars to Israel

But that’s how slippery slopes work; they never stop with the fringes. Once you question anyone who has beliefs and thoughts and opinions you don’t like, it never ends. And so you may be cool with interrogating those on the far left, people like Gold who are truly on the fringe in supporting BDS, but how about Meyer Koplow, a longtime donor to pro-Israel causes, the top guy at a top American university?

And then this week brought us the case of Peter Beinart who was detained at Ben Gurion Airport for an hour and questioned by an Israeli security official about his political activism.

Beinart, a prominent American Jewish journalist, was visiting the country with his wife and children for a family affair.

He described being pulled aside for interrogation. “The political questions began. Was I involved in any organization that could provoke violence in Israel? I said no. Was I involved in any organization that threatens Israel democracy? I said no — that I support Israeli organizations that employ nonviolence to defend Israeli democracy.”

This is all happening right before our very eyes. The country that proudly refers to itself as the only democracy in the Middle East, a country that has traditionally been a source of pride for American Jews precisely because it has always shared American values of democracy and freedom of speech and expression of political views, is pulling aside American Jews because they hold views that don’t match up with, are not deemed as okay by the Bibi government. That ain’t democracy. That ain’t Judaism.

How insane all this is getting was seen when a hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City published a list of “haters of Israel” who have been “banned…because of crimes committed against the Jewish people.”

The Jerusalem Heritage House describes itself as an institution which provides “warm and comfortable accommodations for Jewish travelers in the heart of the Old City for a nominal fee.” It boasts of having hosted more than 60,000 guests since 1985.

Its list of banned haters of Israel includes figures such as comedian Jon Stewart, politician Bernie Sanders, former Obama administration ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and actress Bette Midler. Also banned are members of the media including the staffs of CNN and the New York Times as well as the heads of the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform movement.

With all this going on, it is no wonder that the new head of the Jewish Agency, talking to American Jewish leaders, said he is “very aware of the growing feeling that Diaspora Jews are drifting away from Israel.”

And it is why a member of the Israeli Knesset who is no left winger, Nachman Shai, has called on the state comptroller to begin an inquiry into what he described as the “blacklist of people denied entry.”

“Israel, which boasts of its democracy and its freedom of expression, cannot impose such restrictions on visitors,” he said. “The war on terror and on delegitimization is one thing, but gagging people is something else entirely. This causes great damage to Israel’s international standing and its democratic values, as they are perceived overseas.

“I have no idea how the list is put together and who appears on it, but it’s reminiscent of totalitarian regimes.”

It’s important that American Jews speak out now about the fact that American Jews who may not feel like you do are being subjected to efforts to intimidate them, to keep them quiet, to keep them out. And that ain’t me saying that, that’s the Bibi kingmaker, son of Estee, one Ronald Lauder, saying that.

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