Thinking about the future

It is difficult to devise policy for a body that has no policy maker.

dennis ross 88 (photo credit: )
dennis ross 88
(photo credit: )
The Chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, Dennis Ross, opened the three-day conference that ended yesterday with an obvious inherent problem: it is difficult to devise policy for a body that has no policy maker. The lack of a coherent recipient for its recommendations was ironically mirrored by the conference itself, which did not even attempt to winnow down the multitude of recommendations produced by its working groups, single out actionable priorities, or systematically suggest mechanisms for their implementation. The JPPPI, which is partly funded by the Jewish Agency and has held a number of such high-level events, is the latest entrant in the decades-old process of agonizing over Jewish future. Perhaps President-elect Shimon Peres, speaking to the closing plenary session, had it right when he said that "to be Jewish is to be dissatisfied." Indeed, this conference, like many of its predecessors, was torn between those who look at the fullness of the same glass differently. Some point out that the Jewish people has never had things better in its long history, split primarily between the most powerful, flourishing, pro-Israel democracy and the near-miraculously reestablished sovereign Jewish state. On the other hand, as Binyamin Netanyahu noted when he spoke to the conference Wednesday night, both these centers of power and success are profoundly threatened, ironically by exact opposite threats - that of assimilation in the Diaspora and of physical attack in Israel. Speaking at the opening plenary, Canadian MP Irwin Cotler alluded to this dichotomy when he compared the situation to 1938, in the sense of a "gathering storm" of another totalitarian and global threat. Yet such a comparison is incomplete, Cotler argued, without recognizing that we are not in 1938 with respect to the collective resources of all kinds available to the Jewish world today, which are incomparably greater than the pre-war period, not least of which is the State of Israel. So we have mega-threats and mega-resources and are mainly lacking mega-leadership to bring the latter to bear on the former. This lack of leadership was another leit-motif of the conference, perhaps accentuated by the presence of two members of the Winograd Committee, Yehezkhel Dror and Ruth Gavison, and by the chief protagonist, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who spoke to a plenary session. One conference, obviously, cannot begin to fill this gap. It is a measure of the collective sense of need for strategic thinking, however, that the disparate gathering of activists, community leaders and academics from Israel and abroad did not degenerate into the usual round of finger-pointing, institutional bravado and turf-fighting that have characterized previous efforts. The challenge, then, for the organizers is to channel the many good ideas and considerable good will and talent into a form that policy makers can use and to which they will have to pay attention. Peres picked up the gauntlet thrown by JPPPI at the end of the conference, agreeing to provide an umbrella for the effort, and suggested that the conference reconvene next spring in honor of Israel's 60th birthday. That gathering is unlikely to take place, and certainly will not be worthwhile, if in the interim the participants and organizers do not find away to move beyond indentifying problems to formulating concrete plans for action. Dror, the JPPPI's president, responded to the growing frustration at the session regarding the diffusion of recommendations by stating that "thinking" is necessary before action. Coordinated strategic thinking, indeed, has been in short supply, whether in government or outside it. Just as decision-makers are forced to ruthlessly prioritize their efforts and attention, so must the bodies that seek to advise them. Without going through this difficult process, it is hard to see how even the best thoughts will be translated into effective action.