Trailblazing through history

Prof. Yehezkel Dror wants the Jewish people to stop and think.

August 3, 2008 01:12
Trailblazing through history

Dror 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )

If you ask Yehezkel Dror, he'll tell you that the future of the Jewish people is an uncertain one. The Jews are treading a path through history filled with dangers and challenges, and the key to getting through it all safely, he says, is to sit down and do some serious thinking. Born in Vienna in 1928, Dror's professional life as a scholar of governance traces its own remarkable path. From the RAND Corporation in the late 1960s, he went on to serve as policy adviser to defense minister Shimon Peres in the mid-1970s, adviser on the structure of the new European Union from 1989 to 1991, and consultant to various UN and other international bodies. He shared the 2005 Israel Prize in Management Sciences, and famously served on the five-member Winograd Committee investigating government failures surrounding the Second Lebanon War. It is easy to see why Dror, an emeritus professor of political science at the Hebrew University, would be considered an excellent choice to head the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, which was formed by the Jewish Agency in 2002 to do Dror's brand of strategic thinking for the Jewish people as a whole. On the occasion of his retirement from the institute at the end of last month, the octogenarian, who served as a Hagana officer during the War of Independence, offered some of the wisdom he's gleaned along the way and explained why his institute needs a billion-dollar endowment, why the Jewish people needs its own version of the computer game Civilization, and how a new age of humanity is dawning in which the Jews could have some of the answers to humanity's ethical dilemmas. First, The Jerusalem Post wanted know how he felt on leaving the institute, which many feel has failed to deliver the impactful policy changes suggested in its mission statement. The institute, he admits, is a work in progress. It has yet to "achieve impact" in the Jewish world, but this is to be expected. Think tanks do not begin overnight. "This is normal for think tanks worldwide. It takes time to build up the staff, the shared interdisciplinary work, the clientele, the resources to achieve impact," he says. The RAND Corporation, he adds by way of example, had years of uninterrupted funding "to build capacities" before anyone came to demand a product. Besides, a think tank on the Jewish world is climbing a steeper hill, he explains, because "there are big black holes in the research. For example, one of the ideas which came up in the institute - which demonstrates how we think about the unthinkable - is to try to make Jewish education in the United States free of charge. But there are no studies on this. "It makes sense that if Jewish education were free many more parents would send their children to Jewish schools. But this is not assured. It's merely a proposition, a hypothesis, a speculation. Nobody did an experiment. There is no survey we know of where parents are asked systematically if they would send their children to a free Jewish school." In proposing free Jewish education, he notes, the institute has encountered stiff opposition among American Jewish leaders, since it would demand government financing of religious schools, something that is anathema to most Americans. While he admits that "I'm not sitting in America," Dror repeats that securing the future of the Jewish people will require "thinking the unthinkable. There will be a need in the future for a conceptual revolution, for radical policy innovations. This takes time. And in order to convince you need data." Of course, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute's radical suggestion "is not obvious. Somebody can tell us, rightly, that the Orthodox community in America sends its kids to Jewish schools even when it costs a lot of money." This suggests that the answer may lie with changing the priorities of Jewish families: "vacation less, but send the child to Jewish school." So he proposes "a social experiment. Let's get two communities to open their schools [for free] and see what happens. If it goes well, with a solid evidence-based demonstration, it will be easier to convince others. It's also an opportunity to do costing." What is the institute doing to compensate for lack of data? "We are not a field study organization," Dror insists. "We do meta-analysis. We rely on work done by others. Field studies are very expensive and require a different specialization. It's up to the Jewish communities in the United States to do this." What, exactly, is meta-analysis? "It is a term used in medicine when they take 50 to 60 studies on the impact of penicillin on pregnant women and integrate them into an over-arching analysis. We do analysis based on field studies and data collected by others. We're not a data-collecting body. We cannot be, we are not, and we don't want to be." There are numerous signs during the conversation that Dror's time at the institute has led to frustration with American Jewish institutions, as when he notes that he "was unpleasantly surprised" when he discovered "that there is no shared meeting of the heads of Jewish organizations in the States," apart from get-togethers of federation executives. "The heads of the organizations are not necessarily the future, but it is necessary to get them together for an Aspen-type retreat for a frank exchange of views and experiences. This is not happening. If there was such a meeting, we would go there to present our China study," which offers a series of recommendations for a Jewish world-sized policy to engage with the rising superpower. "This is a study with good, very cheap recommendations. What is $1 million a year? Everyone agrees it's a good proposition, but it has not been implemented," he complains. Israel, too, is a source of frustration for the veteran policy planner, because it lacks even the awareness of the need for a basic planning process, which Dror has been trying to bring to the country since he was asked to establish a think tank by prime minister Levi Eshkol in the 1960s. Such a think tank, an Israeli RAND Corporation, never materialized because policy planning "doesn't fit into the decision-making culture [of Israel], which is a culture of improvisation. This proved itself in the establishment period - the state is a great success and its first 60 years are a heroic achievement - but it doesn't assure the future." He insists that "on a number of critical issues" - he can't divulge details - "the concerns of the Jewish people are taken into account." But he agrees that the Diaspora is among the "20 central issues on which the Israeli government has no policy. I'm not speaking about the current government. The news that the Israeli government doesn't do policy thinking is not new. Why should the government have a policy on the Jewish people if it doesn't have one on income disparity? With exceptional cases in some special domains, the government is not oriented to long-term strategy. It doesn't have the staff units, the professionals or the culture." Dror's hopes for the future of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute are quite specific. He tailors them to the needs of the Jewish people, as he sees them. "My starting point is the future of the Jewish people, which is not assured. The biggest challenge is the detachment between Israel and the Diaspora. Young Israelis and young Jews in the United States live in a different cosmos, the communities have totally different structures, and how many Israeli ministers even understand what's going on in the Diaspora?" Thus, examining the Israeli education system, he discovered to his distress that the only teaching about the Diaspora that takes place in Israeli schools is contained in a single chapter of the Education Ministry's citizenship textbook. Thus, he says with some passion, it is "absolutely necessary" that the institute open a branch in New York "that would study American Jewry and be staffed with people with deep personal knowledge of American Jewry." After detachment, Dror places assimilation as the next danger facing the Jewish people, both in the Diaspora and among "Israelis of the next generation who are much more Israelis than Jews." Third, the Jewish people face the danger of - "this may sound a little esoteric" - the loss of a sense of mission. "This is tikkun olam," he explains, "and I don't mean sending money to the poor. I'm not against a Jewish 'peace corps,' but this also isn't what I mean. I think that without giving a sense of pride in the Jewish people, among those without religion the motivation to belong will go down. "I regard humanity [as] on a dangerous slippery slope. The human capacity to influence its future grows exponentially, while its moral and cognitive capacities - what to do with this power - is more or less stable." This growing gap means that "the world is full of problems that need a new ethics, including the question of poverty and equality in globalization; the problem of a modern version of Amalek, enemies of humanity, mass-terror groups; the possibilities of space travel; what to do about bioengineering and the possibility of cloning human beings, creating a different kind of homo sapiens superior. I think these are continuity-breaking types of knowledge" that require a new examination of humanity's interests. For Dror, "the Jewish people's main contribution" in this new era will be in dealing with these "ethical problems for the next age of humanity. In this, Israel can be a medinat mofet [exemplary state], a modern version of 'a light unto the nations.' This is good in terms of realpolitik, and it is a moral imperative." To fulfill such a Herculean role, one of three things must happen. "The Jewish people's think tank needs a billion-dollar endowment, or [we must] get outstanding political leaders, or [we must] get outstanding Jewish value creators, spiritual leaders. I'd prefer the third option, but," he adds with a smile, "I don't know how to engineer it. How to craft politicians - I have some ideas. How to craft policies - I have many ideas. But how to develop spiritual leaders, [Rabbi Yosef] Soloveitchik, [Avraham] Heschel, Ahad Ha'am and [Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak] Kook? If it were up to me, I'd set up tomorrow an institute for advanced ethical Jewish thinking. Get the best thinkers for two years, then terminate it." The purpose would be narrow and specific: "to think about ethics for humanity." This vision, a new narrative of a Jewish and universal purpose, "is the way to get the younger generation involved," Dror says. Barring that, he suggests focusing great energy on developing Jewish political leaders and policies. "Do you know the game Civilization?" he asks, referring to the immensely popular turn-based strategy computer game that has produced at least 17 spin-offs and sequels. "I proposed sponsoring a game called 'Jewish Civilization.' It would be a money-maker! I contacted the company which makes Civilization, and they say developing such a game would cost a million dollars or two - not so much." To promote Jewish unity, Dror suggests creating a unified curriculum for the Jewish world. "Prepare five core curricula, different so each stream can pick what it likes," but with a core that will be shared in Jewish schools around the world. All these solutions seem to focus on institution-building. As this newspaper has noted before in criticism of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute's work, there seems to be little focus on inspiring and creating culture. "I'm not an expert in this," Dror admits, but "we'd love to have someone dealing with cultural studies of the Jewish people [at the institute]. In our last annual assessment, for the first time, we succeeded to put in something on culture, namely on Jewish cinema." Couldn't culture bridge the gap between the Jewish communities? Should we not invest more in encouraging culture? "I agree with you. I would love to see the institute deal with this, but there are no quantitative criteria for measuring it. If we could bring about a pluralistic Jewish renaissance, I'd give up everything else for this. It would have an impact on policy, on leaders. But this is deus ex machina, and I don't know how to generate it. The literature [on cultural renaissances] is open-ended. Creativity is a black box. I don't know how to craft policy for this." In leaving the institute, Dror admits to feeling "a certain regret," but believes he is leaving "for the good of the institute - it should not depend on a person of my age." He is disappointed that the Jewish people haven't shown "much more support" for the institute, since "I'm not sure we have the institutions and the leadership - spiritual and political - to deal with adjusting to the 21st century." But, he adds, "maybe my frustration is the result of not being patient enough. Those processes take time. The institute is new. The idea of a Jewish think tank is new." Finally in real retirement, without the pressure of Winograd or the institute, Dror plans "to return to reading, trying to think and writing." He will rewrite his Letter to a Jewish-Zionist Leader "into something more serious" and complete a book he has worked on for 10 years entitled The New Ruler. Looking back, he remarks that the past few years have been some of his most "interesting." "I'm now 80. I could have died at 70, and I would not have had the Winograd Committee experience, the institute, the Israel Prize. But I'm eager to get home. I'm tired of this business. Winograd was a great burden, though it was an unequaled, unique experience in life." The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, though lacking "the drama, the visibility, the noise and shouting of Winograd," is on par as one of the "big events" of his life. What else can we expect from a man at the end of such a long and remarkable professional life? "Well, I'm not going to write an autobiography. That would be a waste of time," he concludes dismissively.

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