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Disappointing homogeneity at the Presidential Conference

The Presidential Conference's disappointing homogeneity among both speakers and attendees is not conducive to real change
Dennis Ross at the 2012 Presidential Conference (photo credit: Chen Galili/ShiloPro)
Dennis Ross at the 2012 Presidential Conference (photo credit: Chen Galili/ShiloPro)

I need to complain about one thing at Tomorrow 2012,” Shimon Peres’s fourth annual Presidential Conference. Although it’s been an exciting experience being there, I think that the homogeneous demographics of the speakers (and the participants too, actually) is a fundamental problem with the conference and could impede it reaching its goals.

Homogeneous gender

At the gala event on Tuesday evening, I already noticed a gender imbalance where all the honorable speakers were men — Shimon Peres, Tony Blair and Henry Kissinger.

On Wednesday I also kept seeing more men than women on stage. I met a woman named Shari who works at the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), and when I mentioned this to her, she told me she’d already done the calculation.

Less than 10% of the speakers during this three-day conference are women.

NCJW tweeted about this:

Shari also pointed out that out of approximately 40 sessions, none were touching upon women’s issues. That really doesn’t make sense, especially since women issues were discussed so much this past year in Israel (“hadarat nashim”).

Homogeneous politics

The speakers are also, to a very large extent, politically left wing.

Let me illustrate this for you by telling you about one speaker who didn’t exactly fit the mold.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one of the most inspiring, cool people I’ve ever seen. She is so smart, wise and eloquent that I sort of wish I could be her. Well, except for those first 20 years of her life which she spent extremely confined as a Muslim in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, before she made her way to the Netherlands.

She was part of the plenary Wednesday morning called “A Strategic Look at Tomorrow.”

Ayaan spoke about three central themes that she has recognized in all Muslim cultures:

  • Absolute authority (her father, her teachers, the policeman, the president…): Disagree with the wrong person, and end up in jail.
  • Compromise is weak and everything is about pride versus shame: There is no such thing as compromise — you are either a winner or a loser. There is no such thing as a win-win solution, and when you lose, you bear a grudge until you have the opportunity to defeat your enemy.
  • There is an answer to all problems in the Koran or Hadith.

She found that these were the three things she had in common with every Muslim she would meet in the different countries in which she lived. When she moved to the Netherlands, she found that the rules were almost the exact opposite there.

When it was Dennis Ross‘s turn to speak, the American diplomat and author gave two infuriating lists, one detailing steps Israel should take, and one enumerating steps the Palestinians needed to take in order to build faith in each other and the in ability to reach a two-state solution. I was too annoyed to write down all his points, but here’s what I remember:

The Israelis should:

The Palestinians should:

  • Add Israel to their maps
  • Start taking care of themselves — building infrastructure and organizing things like a proper justice system (Sharia law, anyone?)
  • Admit that the Jews do have some history in Israel — something that shouldn’t take away from their place in the region

Ayaan’s answer to Dennis:

You can give them Jerusalem and there won’t be peace. The fact Israel is willing to compromise is shameful to the Palestinians.

Although up to that point the audience had been consistently clapping after left-wing comments, for some reason her remark elicited an eruption of applause.

Ayaan finished by saying that she believed it was important to focus on changing the attitudes of the next generation, and that only once those three things changed would peace be a possibility.

But what bothered me was that if it weren’t for her bravery sitting there among all those white men, Mr. Ross would have gotten away with his remarks without one person opposing him. And the only one there to oppose him was the one person who has lived as a Muslim.

Where are the haredim and the Arabs?

I think there was a haredi woman on a panel that I didn’t go to. I have also seen that a couple of Arabs are speaking during this conference. But I still believe there is a lack of diversity — both up on the stage and in the audience. If this conference is supposed to be discussing the tomorrow that should belong to all of us, it should contain a more accurate representation of the population.

I know it’s complicated, and it’s very possible that the individuals don’t want to come, but I’d be interested to know if the organizers attempted to invite haredim and Arabs.

There is simultaneous translation to four different languages, including Arabic, so they definitely are more than welcome. Maybe next year they should also offer translation into Yiddish?

I think it would be a wonderful goal to have at least 50-100 haredim and Arabs attend Peres’s fifth conference in 2013. I also think that the panels should be made up of at least 30-40% women, and more haredim and Arabs. That would make the conversation so much more real. Only by trying it out will we know whether or not having these people can help the discussion be more productive. I think it might.

About the Author
Deena writes about life, relationships and her beloved Jerusalem. She organizes "Jerusalem Encounters" and shares hand-picked cultural events in her online calendar, Things to do in Jerusalem.