Presidential Conference: Feminist nightmare?

The conference is oriented towards imagining a superior reality to the present and as such provides a unique forum for modeling a healthier sense of gender equity. Yet with an ostensible lack of female representatives, the conference failed spectacularly in this sense.

Sarah Silverman 311 (photo credit: JPOST.COM STAFF)
Sarah Silverman 311
(photo credit: JPOST.COM STAFF)
This week President Shimon Peresholds his now annual conference in Jerusalem, an electric confab of leaders andthose aspiring to leadership, idea-makers and those with the capacity to adoptand implement those ideas. It is a fitting legacy for President Peres to be theconvener of this kind of conversation, which draws on and contributes toexciting leadership conversations in the realms of Israel and its future,technology, global change and citizenship, and the Jewish community. Unlikemany Jewish and world leaders, the indefatigable President Peres lives in thepresent and thinks in the future.
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But there is an obvious feature to the conference that does not befit this aspirational President nor the ambitious goals of the gathering, and that it is the woeful – sinful! – representation and lack of representation of women in some of its most public forums. In only one of the plenary sessions is there an equal representation of women; in most, there are no women to be found. Most embarrassing is the opening event of the conference, which features several male thought-leaders, who are then ‘balanced’ by the American Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman and international musical sensation Shakira (incidentally, not a Jew.)
Let’s leave aside for now the ethics of which public figures are given the stage to model and stimulate a conversation on the Jewish future, though Shakira’s “Oral Fixation” tour, and Silverman’s outrageously off-color comedy both suggest that they are slightly out of place with the academics and statesmen with whom they share the stage. To their credit, both Shakira and Silverman have used their celebrity to advance meaningful political and ethical causes; Shakira is a UN Goodwill Ambassador and philanthropist, and Silverman famously lobbied the Jewish community during the 2008 Presidential election to rally Jewish voters in Florida as part of an effort called “The Great Schlep.” Still, it is hard to shake the obvious impression: Men speak thoughtfully, women shake their booty and sing about f****** Matt Damon.
But what is really galling is that the conference is presented less as a descriptor of present realities, and entirely as a framework to think about the future. If there was ever a moment to model an aspirational future in which the gender imbalances with which we live were to disappear, it would be in a future-oriented conference like this one. The Jewish community, as a microcosm of the societies in which we live, still struggles around questions of gender equity in workplaces, in public forums, in positions of leadership. There is work of great integrity underway on the grassroots level to try to remedy these problems, and a host of tactical fixes being experimented with on the private and public stage to try to address these imbalances. I don’t think anyone in the field expects to see wholesale and systemic change overnight; in my own organization, we try to be intentional and thoughtful in how we re-imagine our work culture, our hiring processes, and the public conversations that we host – knowing all the while that we will not always succeed. For this, we beg for patience in the spirit of working towards a better reality.
In this public case, however, the entire conference is oriented towards imagining a superior reality to the present. What would be the cost of modeling a healthier sense of gender equity (and for that matter, all sorts of other kinds of equality that are unrepresented? Even if we were to grant the conference organizers that there were no women headliners to be found to parallel the likes of Amos Oz and Jimmy Wales – a wildly problematic assumption itself – are we to imagine that the only people capable of prognosticating the future are those who have led in the past? Are we to believe that the future must necessarily look like, or share the same anatomy with, the leadership of this past and current generation? The conference risks not only falling short of present realities in showcasing a version of Jewish leadership that misrepresents the actual diversity of the Jewish people; it also risks becoming immediately irrelevant in visioning a future that looks sadly much like the present.
The truth is, when it comes to visions and aspirations, our tradition has much to offer. In our history and our ideas we are more enchanted by what we might be able to achieve than by what our present limitations prevent us from doing. As our tradition is oftentimes the product of problematic historical realities – exile, suffering, etc. – our ethical tradition is premised on the notion that we not be constrained by the real in imagining the ideal. Messianism, for instance, is a tool of moral imagination. What could the world look like if we could make it look right? What would we want to see happen if we could imagine a reality that exceeds the limitations of the present? And in turn, this kind of messianic and aspirational thinking challenges us to play a role in bringing a new vision about.
What saddens me ultimately about this conference is not just then that the slate of its presenters mirrors the unfortunate shortfall of our current realities around gender, diversity, power and leadership in Jewish life; but more troublesome, that it reflects a failure of our moral imagination in precisely the moment when we are free to do this kind of imagining. I do not believe, ultimately, that the failure of our major institutions to model shared leadership has to reflect a problem in Judaism or Jewish ethics. The sad reality is that sometimes we are merely mirrors of the conditions around us, and we don’t always succeed at being better than everyone else. But it is in our aspirational moments, in our opportunities to fantasize – in these times, more than ever, we should thrive. And in those moments of visioning the future, I sincerely hope it looks better than this.
The writer is President of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.