A Tale of Two Conferences

Nineteen days and one kilometer is all that separates two extremely different conferences in Jerusalem; “The Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism”, and “Facing Tomorrow: The Israeli Presidential Conference”.

“The International Conference of the Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism” (GFCA) took place in the Ramada Hotel between May 28 and 30. GFCA was hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs. Over five hundred participants from over fifty countries came together “to discuss ways of combating the different manifestations of current Anti-Semitism.” The long list of distinguished attendees included Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, British MP John Mann and many other current and former diplomats from around the world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also delivered greetings by video feed.

The conference was divided into ten rooms to discuss different aspects of Anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism on the web, Anti-Semitism in academia, and other topics were discussed in depth on the first day, with the results shared in panels on the second day. The emphasis of the working groups was to not dwell on the situation, but rather to come up with action plans to combat the problems that exist.

A view of one of the panels at the GFCA

Everything at the GFCA was thought out, even down to the colors. The brochures, the stationary, and the logos were lined with blue and yellow. Blue symbolizes the role of the state of Israel in protecting Jews everywhere from  Anti-Semitism. Yellow recalls the ‘Jude’ star, the holocaust, our people’s darkest hour. It has become the color that represents the weakness, persecution and suffering of the Jewish people.

Hop on the light rail and disembark at Binyanei Hauma’s International Convention Center. There Shimon Peres will host his annual presidential conference over the next two days. The conference is titled “Facing Tomorrow” and it aims to “engage the central issues that will influence the face of our future: geopolitics, economics, society, environment, culture, identity, education, new media, and more.” On the guest list is former President of the US Bill Clinton, former British PM Tony Blair, former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and many more household names.

The stage of the President’s conference

The rooms of the president’s conference all focus on the future. From green energy to women’s equality, from political Islam to brain research, leading minds in all of these fields will try to find ways to “lead to a better tomorrow for Israel, the Jewish people and for all of humanity.” The conference will also serve as a 90th birthday party for the president, who is certainly a symbol for optimism and hope.

The themes of these two conferences seems confusing at best, paradoxical or hypocritical at worst-  serious concern versus optimism, self protection by defusing attacks on our nation versus spirited engagement in solving the world’s problems. This begs the question- Who are we? Are the Jewish people persecuted and hated? Or are the Jewish people leaders and innovators? Is one of the conferences more representative of reality?

In my opinion this conundrum is not at all new, rather it has been around since our inception as a nation. And the answer to the questions is that these two themes do not contradict each other, rather they parallel the dual identities of the Jewish people. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a”h, describes these two characters in his brilliant essay Kol Dodi Dofek (The Voice of My Beloved Knocks). In this essay,  Rav Soloveitchik describes the historical context of the Jewish people. He labels these two identities Fate (goral) and Destiny (ye’ud).

Fate is forced upon us- we do not ask for any the tragic persecution and hate that we have encountered and continue to see today. The identity of Fate is described by Rav Soloveitchik as “the covenant of Egypt”. The Jewish people were persecuted by the Egyptians, and God saved them. God said that “I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God” (Exodus 6:7). The wording of this verse highlights the fact that the slavery and exodus were forced upon us.

Rav Soloveitchik outlines a number of positive results of Fate. One of these effects is unity.   We are like a flock of animals that join together to protect ourselves from predators. Rav Soloveitchik writes, that “a strange necessity bonds individuals to one congregation.”(Translations are my own). Sadly we genuinely come together as a people only in times of harsh persecution and suffering.

Destiny is the other side of the coin.  We are not just a persecuted flock, we are also “a light unto the nations” (Or LaGoyim), that engages in “fixing the world” (tikkun olam). This is done of our own accord, out of our own free will. We unite around common goals and ideals because we want to, not because we have to. We are creative, innovative and charitable, both as a people and as a state.

Israel is proud of its world renowned artists and Nobel prize winners. Little Israel is quick to send disproportionate amounts of relief aid to areas that have been struck by natural disaster. Israeli technology is used in computers and cell phones all over the world, and our agricultural innovations are being used in fields from Indiana to India.

The historical precedent for Destiny was “the covenant of Sinai” according to Rav Soloveitchik. There we were mandated with being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). And it was done with our consent- “We shall do and we shall listen” (Exodus 24:7).

Fate and Destiny are on display every day, here in Israel and around the world. For example, the IDF is on high alert at the Syrian border, even allegedly striking an arms cache. But at the same time a four year old Syrian girl received life saving heart surgery at Wolfson Medical Center.

Now we can answer the conference conundrum. We are attacked by our enemies, and we attack the world’s problems. We are hated by many, and appreciated by many more. Both of the conferences are necessary, because they both reflect part of who we are as a nation. We will always encounter Fate, so we have to be prepared to proactively combat Anti-Semitism in its different forms. But we are also a people of Destiny, that is expected to lead the world in making a better tomorrow.

It is interesting to note that these identities can never be truly isolated from each other. Stephen Hawkins’s decision to boycott the President’s conference led to a flurry of articles that discussed the Anti-Semitic BDS movement (Fate) within the context of Israel’s innovative technologies that he utilizes, and of course the President’s conference itself (Destiny).

When we see that this duality traces back to the very founding of our nation, to the exodus and to Sinai, we realize that things have been this way all along. If these two conferences form a paradox, then it must be a three thousand year old paradox called “the Jewish People”, and it’s still going strong.

About the Author
Yaakov Wolff is a soldier in the IDF. He made Aliyah from Boston to Beit Shemesh in 2007. Before joining the army he studied in Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh. He holds a degree in Middle East Studies from Bar-Ilan University.