Opinion

When Jewish Billionaires Get Buyer's Remorse Over Israel

Dame Vivien Duffield and Ronald Lauder suddenly woke up to the fact that Israel doesn't conform to their idealized version. But yearning for a fictive Zionist paradise will never help us fix Israel's problems

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder (left), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) and Dame Vivien Duffield (right).
Mark Israel Salem / Sebastian Scheiner, AP / Oli Scarff, Getty Images for The Clore Duffield Foundation

Buyer’s remorse is what you and I get the moment we’ve picked up our new car. After we’ve spent months of market research, planning how to afford it and waiting for it to arrive and we’re driving out of the dealership. But the color of the paint job is never quite how it looked in the catalog. The air-conditioning not quite as powerful as you’d expect. And in front of us at the traffic light waits the better model I could have bought if only I’d added a couple thousand. And while we’re standing still in traffic – remind me why I even needed a new car?

Billionaires don’t get that kind of buyer’s remorse. They don’t buy stuff like you and I do. Their entire relationship with mere material possessions is different than ours. If you want to get a rare glimpse of billionaires’ buyer’s remorse, read Dame Vivien Duffield’s interview to Haaretz last week and Ronald Lauder’s op-ed in The New York Times on Monday.

When billionaire philanthropists get buyer’s remorse, it’s with something as big as an entire country. Or as Duffield said to Haaretz’s excellent Gili Izikovich, “my Israel is dead.”

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I’ve never met Dame Vivien, but based on the interview I can safely assume we share similar politics and of course, as an Israeli and a Brit – like millions of others – I’ve been the beneficiary of the immense sums her foundation has poured into education, science and the arts. Just for founding JW3, the glorious center in London for all that’s best in British-Jewish culture (which also houses the only decent kosher restaurant in Britain), she deserves to be revered in perpetuity. But any credibility she has as an observer of Israeli politics was shattered by her saying that “there is a huge division in Israeli society, which there wasn’t when I used to go.”

I have less affinity with Ronald Lauder’s politics (though I’ve also enjoyed visiting his contribution to the arts, the delightfully decadent Neue Galerie in New York). A long-time donor to the Republican Party, old friend of Donald Trump and the man who extended his patronage to a young Benjamin Netanyahu, Lauder may have the title of World Jewish Congress President, but his greatest influence on Jewish history will always be the introduction he made for Netanyahu in 1996 to the American grandmaster of dirty political campaigning, Arthur Finkelstein.

Which is why an entire New York Times column by Lauder on how the wonderful Israeli democracy is being jeopardized, without even a passing reference to the role he played in its degradation, is a bit rich.

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The one thing that cries out from the Duffield interview and Lauder column is that for all the time they’ve spent in Israel over the past decades, for all the Israelis they’ve met and countless millions they’ve spent here, they really don’t know the country at all. Of course, everyone has a right to an opinion, especially a critical one, on Israel. Many non-Israelis know this country very well and often, first-time visitors have unique and useful perspectives. But billionaires are the least reliable observers.

Landing in their business jets at Ben-Gurion’s private terminal (no matter how critical they may be of Israel, they won’t get detained at passport control and be questioned by Shin Bet), wafted out in a chauffeured vehicle between a string of private residences in Caesarea, Neve Tzedek and Yemin Moshe, meetings with senior politicians, businesspeople and a couple of visits to places they fund. Getting to know a country from within a bubble of sycophancy hardly makes them experts.

On her first visit as a nine-year old, back in 1955, Duffield and her father were greeted by the president of the Weizmann Institute, stayed in the house of late Israeli statesman Abba Eban and were guided around the young country by then-Trade Minister Pinhas Sapir. “I always think I know Israel better than most Israelis,” she says in the interview, but you kind of wonder.

Duffield has apparently only just become aware of the “huge division in Israeli society.” A year after her first visit, Border Police massacred 48 Arab citizens at Kafr Qassem for breaking a curfew they didn’t even know existed and Israeli Arabs lived under martial law until 1966. But Duffield says “the Arabs were there, but there wasn’t this viciousness directed at them like there is now.”

Lauder extols the commitment of the founders of Zionism and Israel to democratic values, name-checking David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. Which is kind of ironic when the left is justifiably up in arms this week over the detention and political questioning of U.S. Jewish critics of the government’s politics by Shin Bet agents at Ben-Gurion International Airport. It’s not like Ben-Gurion didn’t use the Shin Bet throughout his thirteen years in power to keep tabs on political rivals from right and left, and Golda Meir as prime minister didn’t send them after Haaretz’s then-diplomatic correspondent Dan Margalit to find out who was leaking to him from cabinet meetings.

After coming here for so many years, Duffield and Lauder have suddenly woken up to the fact that Israel doesn’t conform to their idealized version of how Israel should be. Duffield laments that “you get the very religious and the non-religious, it hasn’t ‘melted’ the way it should.” Because of course, traditional, religious and Mizrahi Jews were all supposed to have arrived and meekly entered the “melting pot” to be transformed into modern, secular and Ashkenazi liberals. How awful of them to have clung to their cultural and religious traditions.

Lauder fears that with the racist nation-state law, Israel is distancing itself from the 200-year-old tradition of “modern Judaism” which “aligned itself with enlightenment” and was dedicated to “human progress, worldly culture and morality.” How conveniently he elides the fact that most Israelis are not descended from Jews who experienced European enlightenment and that many of those who were, belong to another 200-year-old Jewish tradition, ultra-Orthodoxy, whose entire premise has been rejecting modernity and the values of enlightenment.

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The Israel they invested their philanthropy in, the Israel they professed to love, their Israel, was never the real thing. For better and worse, Israel has always been a much more complex place than that. I agree with nearly all their criticisms of Israel in 2018, and believe we can fix some of Israel’s problems in the future. But yearning for some mythical Zionist paradise that once existed in their minds will never help us do that.

Lauder is concerned that “Jewish millennials are raising doubts that their parents and grandparents never raised. The commitment to Israel and Jewish institutions is not unconditional.” As if that’s a bad thing.

Let them reexamine and reassess their perspective of Israel. It will certainly be based on a more realistic view than of any billionaire’s. And perhaps the next generation of Diaspora philanthropists won’t give their money to Israeli institutions or lobby for American military aid.

That’s fine. Israel is prosperous enough to take care of itself and, anyway, the “military aid” is just a subsidy to U.S. arms manufacturers, which has created the Israeli military’s damaging dependence on expensive American fighter aircraft, instead of investing more on indigenous systems.

Much better to base the future of Israel-Diaspora relations on honesty, rather than money. That way there’ll be no billionaires suffering from buyer’s remorse.