When last did you spend a whole weekend listening to people rabbiting on about empirical structures, emergent phenomena and epidemiology? Not to mention a thorough (but not trenchant) unpacking of maps with ideological formalism, without being stodgy or exhibiting a panoply of paradigm shifts? Haven’t heard such elevated language in a while? Then you obviously weren’t at the latest Anglo-Israel Colloquium in Jerusalem held one balmy weekend in November.
Everything is oh-so-splendidly posh at this biannual gathering of brainy, intellectual, top British and Israeli experts in their field: discussions take place (fueled by artichoke hearts and baked fish with yummy sauces) in the tranquil beauty of Mishkenot Sha’ananim, nestled in the embrace of Jerusalem’s Old City walls.
This year’s topic was Urbanism; panels included a mayoral candidate for London, a director of studies at Cambridge, a sprinkling of “Sirs,” heads of departments in England and here, architects, professors and journalists. And a rapporteur (that would be me) frantically scribbling down debates on whether cities confer a new form of political identity and musings over the chances that environmental concerns are making every urban metropolis dysfunctional.
Being within earshot of church bells and muezzins and minha, all topics inevitably turned to Jerusalem.
Oh, Jerusalem! Sneaking in yet another cinnamon bun and coffee, distinguished guests debated whether good fences indeed make good neighbors – even when there are no cows to wall in or wall out.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” said Robert Frost, and one particular wall was mentioned again and again. “Jerusalem,” claimed Avner de Shalit, professor of democracy and human rights at Jerusalem’s Hebrew U, is doing okay.
“The city reminds me of two exhausted boxers,” he explained, “each just dog-tired of the endless fighting. Both are just waiting for an external referee to come in and sort out a truce.”
The Friday night dinner table type discussions lasted three days. Colloquia provide a framework to talk and talk and talk some more, without necessarily reaching conclusions. Issues are raised and faced, hopefully leading to a clearer understanding among all participants. The idea of bringing highly influential Brits here for a few days – movers and shakers who could afterwards cooperate with their Israeli counterparts – was the brainchild of publisher Baron George Weidenfeld.
Being involved in the project seems to confer a kind of elixir of life: Weidenfeld, who died last year, lived for almost a century. Lilian Hochhauser, one of the founding figures, is sprinting up flights of stairs looking utterly glamorous in her 90s. Asher Weill, convener of every Anglo-Israel colloquium since their inception in 1997, is still winning medals in the pool for Israel in his 80s, and donor Dame Shirley Porter, also in her ninth decade and also wonderfully glam, is energetically straightening out environmental problems bugging Israeli cities.
Past gatherings have dissected topics such as the “Politics of Heritage, Wealth and Happiness”; “Ethics and Responsibilities in an Interconnected World” and “Who Should Raise our Children.” Participants are erudite and think quickly: as I raced to stay on top of allusions to Aristotle and Plato’s rebuttals, my pen broke into a sweat. One vowel veering out of its lane can be fatal. Last colloquium, while deconstructing the “Value of Arts,” clever chaps from impressive places kept referring to “Canteen Politics.” I wondered, as I dutifully copied down the phrase, if that was what happened around the water cooler? Over tea and ginger snaps? God was watching over me; just before I hit ‘Send’ with the finished work, some vague recollection of Philosophy 101 floated in to save me. I changed “Canteen” to “Kantian” just in the nick of time, possibly disproving Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” right there and then. (Saving myself was, for me, a good thing; but was it based on “good will” and duty to the “moral law”?) Philosophers could write forever about this year’s issues: after a tour of Tel Aviv’s White City by night, and yet another slap-up meal, Sunday saw us touring two modern built-from-scratch cities: Modi’in in Israel and Rawabi in the West Bank. Less than half an hour’s drive from each other, both planned cities embody the miracles and the craziness of our complex, layered land.
Modi’in, constructed quickly with full government backing, is a vibrant, clean and cheerful city straddling archeological tels and nature reserves.
Rawabi, constructed in spite of what its founder calls “The Occupation,” is a vibrant, clean and cheerful city without an adequate access road, due to Israel’s policies. Bashar Masri, the Arab entrepreneur and guiding force behind this astonishing city, shared his vision and his frustrations with our group over (yet another) lunch. Here’s just one example: Rawabi is built on hills; the quickest, cheapest way to level the land for construction is to blast.
“So we asked the Israelis for permission to use explosives,” he explained, to general hilarity around the table. “We’d use an Israeli company,” he clarified, “we didn’t want the dynamite for ourselves.” The government eventually okayed the request – three years after it was submitted. By that time the excavation was finished, of course, at an additional cost of many millions of dollars.
Some Palestinians, too, protested the planned city: radicals decried any cooperation with Israeli companies and the Palestinian Authority, with no faith in the project, put various obstacles in the way.
Still, Masri is optimistic. “When Israeli radicals and Palestinian radicals both attack us,” he says, “we know we are on the right track.”
His city has created 10,000 jobs in the West Bank, Masri envisages five more Rawabis with 50,000 jobs. That could be a game changer.
The weekend wrapped up with a symposium at Beit Hansen to mark 20 years since the death of eminent philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin. The subject “The Pursuit of the Ideal” explored whether cities can ever achieve perfection.
The dictionary definition of an ideal city is one that is built only in the imagination: “perfect, but hardly likely to exist.”
Utopia is not achievable, proclaimed Berlin (I got hugely educated during the proceedings). “Values like justice and mercy crash up against each other; liberty and equality don’t usually gel. One size does not fit all.”
In the meantime, New York, Berlin, London, Rawabi and Jerusalem are not yet perfect – but be comforted: some great minds have been working hard on unpicking the problems.
Watch this space: the topic for the Colloquium of 2096 might well be: “Coping with Peace; the Perils of Perfection.”
Roll on 2096.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC.