The bad news: There is no Jewish strategy

Jewish conferences aren't always pointless. Some have changed Jewish life, even the world.

herzl hertzl 88 (photo credit:)
herzl hertzl 88
(photo credit: )
Jewish conferences are not necessarily pointless. Some gatherings have dramatically changed Jewish life, and even deeply impacted the rest of the world. The 1897 First Zionist Congress, for one, ignited one of the most spectacular mobilizations in history, on the part of a European Jewry reeling under the assault of the Czar's killers and nationalistic anti-Semitism in Central and Western Europe. The 1942 Biltmore Conference, for another, shaped postwar Jewry, determining that the goal of the Zionist movement would be the establishment of a full-fledged Jewish state and marking a powerful moment on American Jewry's road to preeminence in the Diaspora. The two landmark gatherings, both cornerstones of the ultimately successful Zionist project, shared something basic and obvious which surprisingly seems to escape the notice of the Jewish people's present-day strategists: a clear direction. This week, President Shimon Peres is holding his impressive "Facing Tomorrow" conference in celebration of Israel's 60th anniversary. With names such as Kissinger, Gorbachev, Havel and even Bush on the attendee list, the meeting in Jerusalem counts as a spectacular birthday bash that would make almost any country proud. But the conference has another side - a gathering of important Jewish thinkers and activists seeking to develop strategies for facing the uncertain challenges of the Jewish future. This strategic planning element - set out in the conference's name - was outsourced by the conference planners to the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a group headed by veteran policy experts Prof. Yehezkel Dror and Dennis Ross. The heads of the institution are an excellent indicator of the identities of the other participants - former generals, Jewish organizational leaders, philanthropists and academics in the social sciences. Similarly, while discussion topics dealt with education and identity, they also included Islamic extremism, forging leadership and opposing the Iranian threat. Yet although the question of culture was nominally on the agenda, the builders of culture - the educators, artists, writers, journalists and many of the cleverest minds of Jewish academia - were not. Nor were Israeli political leaders present to listen, still less to speak. Without decision-makers or culture creators, the conference unintentionally illustrated the isolation of Jewish policy planning from Jewish culture, thought and Israeli public life. Would Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist with a good idea and a passion, have been invited to this conference? It is also worth noting that, as distinct from a policy planning process in government, no agency is committed to carrying out any plans the JPPPI produces, nor are discussions focused on specific assets or organizations. The individuals involved in the JPPPI conference are intelligent and important figures without exception. But, as over a dozen told The Jerusalem Post, they are participating this week in a conference that has no clear direction, has discounted culture and Jewish educators and has conducted a gathering that was a confused combination of Davos-like cocktail lunches and repetitive lectures. Unless it finds a way to fold in the potential builders of a world Jewish culture, the self-described planning body of the Jewish people will amount to little more than an echo chamber of policy wonks conducting an academic discussion with no real beginning and no discernible end.