by Lieba Nesis
It’s 6 PM on Wednesday November 6th in New York City and dozens of Secret Service are gathered at the Pierre to protect billionaires, politicians and global influencers at one of the premier evenings of the year. The World Jewish Congress (WJC) dinner always gathers the best and brightest-otherwise known as leader Ronald Lauder’s peers-and in its 8th year it was clear this trend shows no signs of abating. Lauder, who was elected president in June 2007, has taken his responsibility of combating global anti-Semitism and protecting Jewish identity to an epic level-devoting much of his precious time to these ambitious goals. The illustrious guest list was unparalleled as Robert Kraft, Tom and Alice Tisch, Leonard Lauder and Judy Glickman, the Safras, Ray and Veronica Kelly, Henry Kissinger, David Halpern, Inga and Ira Rennert, Dick Parsons, The Rothschilds, Ben Ashkenazy and Jack Chehebar, were just a few of the super power players who descended on the foyer of the Pierre. There were numerous oligarchs from Russia, Ambassadors from the Ukraine, and dozens of inner circle investors who rarely venture out to weekday galas.
The cocktail hour was a unique opportunity for socialization for this preeminent group and the buzz in the room was palpable. When the guests finally agreed to sit for dinner Lauder began by discussing the alarming upsurge in anti-Semitism from both the right and left including Bernie Sanders recent speech where he declared that if Israel continued disrespecting human rights he would send foreign aid to Gaza instead of Israel. Lauder decried Columbia University’s decision to invite Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to speak-someone who has called Jewish people “hook-nosed” and “rulers of the world by proxy.” Lauder raised alarm bells declaring that the Jews were in danger of losing an entire generation as the population has swung from 4 to 2 percent with the need for education to avail students of secular and judaic culture more pivotal than ever. He has opened 30 schools in Eastern Europe with his ultimate goal being to create 100 new Jewish schools to provide 70,000 students with a religious education.
Lauder said he and honoree Joel Grey were the son of immigrants and heralded the incredible success of the Jews many of whom have only resided in the United States two to three generations. He praised honoree Nikki Haley as one of the greatest women in the world and said her job wasn’t over as he was hopeful she would seek higher office. He also introduced Teddy Kollek award recipient Joel Grey by calling him a Jewish and national treasure with the greatest sign of acting prowess being his ability to convey thought and emotion without speaking a word. We were then shown three clips: one from Joel Grey’s highly successful “Fiddler on the Roof” Yiddish adaptation, and two from Cabaret-exhibiting the vast range of this creative artist. Grey dedicated his award to his father, Mickey Katz, who used to record yiddish parodies of 50’s hits which record companies refused to produce. Despite Grey’s lack of familiarity with the Yiddish language when asked to produce “Fiddler on the Roof” he said it took him 7 seconds to agree. The success of the show, which has been running for two years, came as a surprise to Grey who will be taking the play to Melbourne, Sydney and Los Angeles in the upcoming year. Grey’s close connection to his Jewish roots was evident in the production which stuck close to the script without secularizing the impactful “Fiddler.”
After dinner was served, guests were treated to highlight speaker Nikki Haley who was presented with the Theodor Herzl Award. Nikki was introduced by statesman Henry Kissinger who praised her as an all-star politician adept at the machinations of Washington and the UN. He said the world was in a state of crisis with the role of the US “unique and indispensable”. Nikki, Kissinger said, did a fantastic job by leaving no attack against the US unanswered and helping Trump move the US embassy to Jerusalem. As the audience watched a compelling video of Haley declaring “there was a new sheriff in town” it became harder to fathom why Haley left her government position when she was so well liked. Haley gave a speech that sounded very campaignlike declaring the Jews were entitled to a state according to Herzl’s vision. Haley said when she accepted her position in the Trump cabinet she conditioned it on not being a wallflower or confined to a “talking head” job. She recalled her first day in the administration where she telephoned the Ukrainian, French, British and Israeli ambassadors to ensure they would stand up to Russian aggression.
Growing up as an Indian in South Carolina, Haley’s father wore a turban, resulting in her being subjected to bullying and abuse; something she would not tolerate when she became ambassador to the UN. She said with over 193 countries represented in the UN she couldn’t understand why Israel was bashed more than half the time. She reiterated her proclamation that foreign aid should be linked to voting in the assembly and said that favoring a longtime ally as opposed to treating Israel like a provisional enemy was the correct path. She decried the rise of anti-Semitism which she said must be treated with the same disdain as racism or other forms of hate even when it comes from a Congresswoman in Minnesota. Haley received a lengthy standing ovation as many attendees exited at the conclusion of her brief speech at 9:20 PM. Thankfully, Joel Grey remained, fielding comments from attendees and reiterating his appreciation for his Jewish upbringing.