Israel’s Presidential Conference: A Big Waste of Time

Elli Fischer just put it in perspective:

“As Israelis take in the collapse of Netanyahu’s grand coalition, ultra-Orthodox demonstrations in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv tent protesters’ lionization of an attempted suicide, it may have escaped general attention that none of these problems featured among the prophetic visions of last month’s Presidential Conference, which charged itself with ‘Facing Tomorrow.'”

They are holding themselves back. This conference sucked.

A month ago I struggled to find anything to write about it. I went there thinking this would actually be an intellectual’s hub for considering the problems facing the country, maybe even the world. I suppose I delude myself a lot living here. So few things in Israel are actually as advertised. The conference really had nothing to do with Israel. It was way, way too broad to mean anything. The speakers were big and the topics vital, but the meeting wasn’t dynamic or interactive. It wasn’t creative or practical. It didn’t address real needs and did not showcase any new, creative ideas for the problems discussed. I’d love Israel to be a problem-solver’s hub, but this was a nonstarter for thinking outside the box.

I would love Jerusalem to be a thinker’s capital. I’d love for its conferences to play as importantly as the ones held in Washington DC. But the thinking is too narrow and ideas too scarce as it seems to me for this city to play that sort of role, at least right now. The conference epitomized one of the central obstacles to Israel’s Tomorrow – the ability to think. It’s unfortunate that so many people laugh when they talk about Israeli (dis)organization skills or small-mindedness. It was evident here.

It didn’t really consider where technology and international politics were going. The Islam & Democracy panel – that is to say, lecture – was about the Ottoman Empire’s reforms. It didn’t have anything to do with reconciling Sharia/Islamic law and the Egyptian constitution; the Ottoman Empire is more an example of abrogating Islam than integrating it. Similarly, the religion panel wasn’t a discussion. Four people were given 15 minutes apiece to pontificate. That panel barely mentioned Judaism, let alone Israel. Judaism is a central element to public discourse on the future of Israel’s democracy and societal divisions. Where was it?

These are primary and secondary issues to Jewish thinkers and bloggers and reporters every single day. These were not the focus of the conference. There wasn’t any discussion about Israel’s Jewish majority, birthrate or immigration; no discussion of the role of religion and personal status in the state. How will the country’s international power change? Will its tech prowess make it exceptional? Will it join NATO? Will it join the EU? Does Israel need to sit on the UN Security Council? Will the IDF need to expand? If there is no Two-State Solution, would Israel annex the West Bank and how would she do it? What about Jerusalem’s development in a split city with pressure to rebuild Jewish holy places?

Beyond all that, will Jerusalem be a regional capital akin to Istanbul, Cairo or dare I suggest New York? What vision does this, and only this, country have for itself?

The list goes on. There was an idea to bring together a group of extraordinary people, but no clue how to make them do (let alone say) extraordinary things. It was business as usual. A lot of people got flown in to make an appearance and make it look like something was happening. It was a big waste of money and time, unfortunately.

About the Author
Gedalyah Reback is an experienced writer on technology, startups, the Middle East and Islam. He also focuses on issues of personal status in Judaism, namely conversion.