“I have been involved and in love with the Jewish State since 1974 and am still waiting to see my people live in peace with its neighbors… I will continue to hope that there will be a solution soon, within my lifetime or at least during the lives of my children.”
July 7, 2015
September 24, 2015
Israel first became a significant part of Marvin Lender’s life in 1974, when he went on a United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Young Leadership Mission trip to Israel: “Israel became the second most important thing in my life after my family. I became part of something much bigger, and Israel was at the center. There was not a day that I didn't think about what…I could do to advance Israel's position as a nation and its connectedness to the Jewish community in America.” Indeed, as Lender’s synagogue involvement waned, his deep commitment to Israel filled the space for him. For the past 40 years, Lender has dedicated his life to communal service, predominantly on behalf of Israel.
After Lender’s first trip to Israel, he visited there several times a year, eventually serving as national UJA chair and initiating Operation Exodus, a program that ultimately raised a billion dollars to support the resettlement of Soviet Jews in Israel. As chair, Lender was given the challenge to raise funds for Operation Solomon, facilitating the covert Israeli military operation to airlift more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in a 36-hour period.
Following the 1982 Lebanon War, Lender noted a growing separation developing between American and Israeli Jews: Israelis were becoming more focused on their own growth and survival, while Americans were trying to keep their community intact as intermarriage rates soared. Their sense of responsibility to one another appeared to be dissipating.
This split prompted Lender, together with former Member of Knesset and Israeli Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, to found the Israeli-American Jewish Forum. The group brought together prominent U.S. and Israeli Jews bi-annually to discuss how to deepen the connection between the two Jewish communities. Birthright is a good example of programs that were discussed.
In 1994, Lender was recruited to join the board of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) by Jonathan Jacoby, then its Executive Director. IPF is an advocacy group and think tank focused on creating the conditions for peace between Israel and its neighbors. It was where Lender for the first time became involved in the political aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
IPF, like Lender, is centrist, yet is oftentimes unfortunately misperceived as a left- wing organization. In Lender’s view, the organization is a rare bipartisan spokesperson for a balanced position on Israeli-Palestinian peace within the Jewish community – a position that represents the majority of American Jews who are “by and large in the center.” It is critical for IPF to continue to attract political support from both sides of the aisle as well as its centrist core.
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At IPF, Lender was able to capitalize on his many connections from his years at the UJA – from cabinet and Knesset members to the five Prime Ministers during whose time he served; while through IPF, he came to know many Arab leaders. He met with Egyptian Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan a number of times. Lender had only three meetings with Yasser Arafat. He found Arafat to be an anomaly: grubby in appearance, yet intelligent and extremely knowledgeable about Israel. It was at the third meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders that Arafat "spent an hour putting Israel down in a most undiplomatic way" and it was deplorable. Lender made a decision: “As long as I'm chairman here, we're not meeting with him again.” (Lender served as chair of the IPF Executive Committee from 2002 to 2005 and then as board chair from 2005 to 2007.)
To broker a peace agreement, Lender believes that “you need to have all the right people in place at the right time.” Perhaps the only time that occurred was during the Olso peace initiative, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, President Bill Clinton and Arafat were the key players. “I was at the White House the day the Geneva Accord was signed, and a picture of the three of them together sits in my office, showing sadly what might have been. Subsequently, there has not been the right mix of leadership at any time.” While Lender thinks that the “right people” are still not in place, he believes that a decisive Israeli leader could make a significant difference in moving an agreement forward.
The Iran nuclear agreement, according to Lender, is “an awful deal, but it’s an agreement,” in a situation lacking other viable options. For that reason, he supported the deal. Similarly, he sees an urgent need for a two-state agreement, because there are no other viable options for Israel.
“In the beginning, we helped Israel by giving a lot of money. Today it's political influence in Washington that helps the State,” and American Jews are needed as advocates to assure that support is maintained in a world with many pressing issues. “Israel cannot exist security-wise without the United States. They cannot be on their own; not in that neighborhood.”
Lender believes that a big challenge for his generation is to help young people understand the importance of Israel to the Jewish people and to make it matter to them on a personal level. “It’s difficult,” he says, “because we raised our kids to be liberal,” and liberals are critical of how Israel treats the Palestinians.
On November 1, 2015, Lender wrote a letter to his dear friend Avraham Burg, an Israeli politician and business leader, about his concerns. Excerpts from that letter follow.
"If someone from Mars were to drop in and view this situation they would not believe what has been going on for so many years without bringing all of this to a halt and allowing two people, two nations to exist side by side. For me, it is all so simple and yet so complex.
How can a country like Israel that has advanced to heights that no one would have imagined not be able to create a scenario that would result in a positive solution. Conversely, how could the 200 million Arabs surrounding this tiny state not participate in bringing this madness to an end. I have been involved and in love with the Jewish State since 1974 and am still waiting to see my people live in peace with its neighbors… I will continue to HOPE that there will be a solution soon, within my lifetime or at least during the lives of my children."
Marvin Lender was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1941. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1963 and worked and grew his family business, Lender's Bagel Bakery, until he sold to Kraft Foods in 1985.
Lender was very involved with his synagogue as a child, but Israel did not play a significant role in his Jewish identity at home. After going to Israel on a Young Leadership Mission sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal in 1974, Israel and Diaspora-Israeli relations were to become the center of Lender’s life and most of his philanthropic involvement from then on.
Lender was in leadership of the United Jewish Appeal for nearly a decade, culminating with his service as national chair from 1990-92. His work during that period included two significant areas of fundraising for Israel. Operation Exodus was a massive effort to raise money to resettle in Israel over one million Jews from the former Soviet Union and Operation Solomon was an emergency rescue mission to airlift over 14,000 endangered Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
After the 1982 Lebanon War, Lender and former Member of Knesset Yossi Beilin founded the Israeli-American Jewish Forum. The group brought together prominent Israelis and Americans together twice a year to discuss the growing rift between the communities and to build better bridges.
In 1994, Lender became involved with the Israel Policy Forum, a centrist group that takes a nuanced approach to making and influencing policy that encourages active diplomacy for a two-state resolution. Lender served as chair of the IPF Executive Committee from 2002 to 2005 and then as board chair from 2005 to 2007.
In addition to his work in the Jewish community locally, nationally and internationally, Lender serves on the board of the Yale New Haven Hospital and is an emeritus member of the Syracuse University board of trustees.
Lender is Chairman of Baldwin Street Management.