Ronald S. Lauder’s distinguished career includes many diverse roles, including business leader, philanthropist, art collector and U.S. Ambassador to Austria. He currently serves as president of the World Jewish Congress. By his own admission, sports fan or supporter is nowhere on the list.
“In my entire life, I have never said these four words: wide world of sports!” he quips. That may change very soon. Lauder is thinking a lot about soccer these days. He has been meeting with Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea FC (Football Club), the top English soccer team. He even attended a Chelsea game, noting, “They yell a lot!”
But Lauder’s interest in soccer may have more to do with his interest in combating antisemitism than with the sport itself.
At an exclusive VIP cocktail reception on Sept. 17 at Lauder’s New York City home — attendees included diplomats from more than 40 countries, as well as representatives of the World Jewish Congress and its CEO, Robert Singer; senior Chelsea FC officials; members of the media; and other distinguished guests — Lauder unveiled an innovative idea to use worldwide interest in soccer to combat antisemitism.
As he observes, “We have seen antisemitism on the right and left, on college campuses, in Europe and in the Middle East, and even in soccer stadiums. Soccer stadiums are no place for Nazi salutes or slurs against Muslim or black players!”
According to the World Jewish Congress, soccer, especially in Europe, has been plagued by instances of antisemitism and racism for years. Fans have led anti-Semitic chants, including making hissing noises to evoke the Nazi gas chambers, and targeted African and black players with monkey sounds, among other offensive actions. Ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis have also played roles in supporter groups for various teams. Lauder says “sports are supposed to be for fun, excellence and competition.”
‘It needs to be pushed out’
The WJC and Chelsea FC therefore announced an ambitious new initiative, “Red Card for Hate,” which aims to promote a global dialogue to combat all forms of hatred in sports. The initiative will include three projects: “Pitch for Hope,” a video project and an international forum—all geared towards encouraging supporters, government officials and the public to treat hate phenomena more seriously and to engage in discourse for effective action.
“Pitch for Hope” invites young adults in the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel to submit proposals for projects that “harness the spirit of camaraderie in sports to build bridges between people of all backgrounds, faiths and walks of life.” Finalist will be invited to present their proposals at Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge Stadium in London; the winners from each country will receive a $10,000 grant to develop and implement their pilot project.
As part of stage two, the WJC and Chelsea FC will produce a series of videos to raise awareness about the effects of antisemitism and discrimination. They will address such issues as mutual respect between fans and players and fans of differing backgrounds, and will be rolled out over the course of the 2018-19 football (soccer) season.
In the third stage of the initiative, WJC and Chelsea will host a forum bringing together national football associations, football clubs, players, government officials and others to share best practices, to create a forum for discussion and collaboration, and to create a network of people and organizations to enhance the fight against antisemitism in sports.
Lauder notes the potential for success given the number of people who watch sports. “Sports events are seen by billions, not millions.”
He adds, “Our goal is to wipe out antisemitism in sports. It doesn’t go away by itself. It needs to be pushed out. To see the Nazi salute … it shouldn’t happen!”
‘Take it to the next level’
The kick-off event in Lauder’s home included short remarks by Singer and such guests as Eugene Tenenbaum, director of the Chelsea Football Club; Consul General of France in New York Anne-Claire Legendre; Gary Bettman, commissioner of the National Hockey League; and Lee Igel, clinical associate professor in the New York University Tisch Institute for Global Sport.
Tenenbaum described an increase of antisemitic events in England from 100 a year before Brexit, to about 100 a month at present. He and his colleagues have carefully considered ways to address it. “When we saw the antisemitic chants of fans, we decided not to kick them out, but to educate them, and to show what it is that happens when we say it and mean it.”
He says the partnership with the WJC “let’s us take it to the next level.”
They have already organized meetings of Chelsea FC players with Holocaust survivors, and have brought 150 fans and players to the March of the Living in Poland.
Legendre called the work of the WJC and Chelsea FC “relevant and inspiring,” and noted that “France is not immune to antisemitism.” She added that “we will fight it to our utmost.”
Bettman spoke of the importance of sports for setting a tone and feels that sports “can be an incredible vehicle.”
He shared that in the NHL, “we don’t tolerate acts of hatred in our buildings or at our games. We host 1,300 events a year and want to make sure fans know the expectations and feel welcomed.” He drew a with Judaism to sports, playfully noting that “people come together, have ceremonial garb, a ceremonial chant and a common focus that is an emotional connection.”
Igel offered a powerful story about a 1938 soccer match between Germany and Austria right before the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938). He then spoke about the antisemitism and hatred that still exist in the world.
“That is why this work is so important; it is not just another nice program full of good intentions.” Igel referred to the three phases of the “Red Card for Hate” initiative, mentioning that it will include the convening of an international summit in Paris in 2019 to battle discrimination, racism and antisemitism in sports.