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November 27, 2015 / 15 Kislev, 5776
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Presidential Conference “Facing Tomorrow” While Facing Away from Observant Jews

"The world's greatest minds come together to discuss how we can make the most of tomorrow's opportunities."

"The world's greatest minds come together to discuss how we can make the most of tomorrow's opportunities."
Photo Credit: Olivier Fitoussi /FLASH90

Israel Maimon, Chairman of the Facing Tomorrow 2012 conference steering committee, is proud of the way the event “attracts the world’s greatest minds and personalities, all of whom come together in Jerusalem each year to discuss how we can make the most of tomorrow’s opportunities.”

Like any major summer junket, the conference assembles both has-been and just-been celebrities: Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, Cisco Systems Chairman John Chambers, President Peres, Ernst & Young Chairman James Turley, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, hip-hop pioneer Russell Simmons, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who just strained his hip).

Under the auspices of Israeli President Shimon Peres, this charmed crowd will be in Jerusalem Tuesday, “to tackles vital issues, initiatives and decisions that must be implemented to guarantee a better tomorrow for the world, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

I checked out some of the discussion forums, trying to assess if there was anything there that would blow my mind. So I checked out “Tomorrow’s Religion: Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?”

“What is the role of religion in shaping tomorrow? How will it influence the development of human society? Can religion, which is part of the current problems, become part of tomorrow’s solutions?”

The answers to these crucial questions will be provided by Professor of the Study of the Abrahamic Religions Guy Stroumsa (moderator); by University College Anthropologist Jonathan Benthall; former Minister for Social Affairs and World Jewry Rabbi Michael Melchior (who is on the short list to succeed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks as GB Chief Rabbi); University of Edinburgh Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies Mona Siddiqui, and Trinity College Professor Mark Silk.

The panel does includes a real rabbi, then, alongside a slew of academics, each of whom will share a portion of the 90 minutes allotted this weighty topic (Thursday, June 21, 2:00 – 3:30 PN). No room will be made for people who actually engage all day long, every day, in their religion, which is why, even if the panel had 10 hours, they would still not be able to come up with exciting answers to whether religion is part of the problem or the solution.

I safely filed this session under “part of the problem” and moved right on.

“Judaism and Democracy: Complementary or Conflicting Values?” doesn’t even feature the obligatory rabbi (Wednesday, June 20, 11:30 – 13:00). The panel does include two politicians: Natan Sharansky, and Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, who must be facing a lot of issues of Judaism vs. democracy in his daily work.

Onward, Jewish soldiers, to “New Interpretations of an Ancient Identity: The Next Jewish Generation” (Wednesday, June 20, 11:30 AM – 1:00 PM) moderated by Ha’aretz English edition editor Charlotte Halle. The panel includes rich guy David Hatchwell, president of the Jewish Community of Madrid, who was also a member of the Madrid Vivo Foundation, which prepared the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Spain. Talk about new interpretations of an ancient identity. Then there’s the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, a contributing editor at The Forward, and Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Oh, and a singer from the Dag Nahash rap band.

Who on this panel has any connection whatsoever to me, to my shul, to our children? What does any of those folks know about the explosion of Torah learning in Israel, about our packed houses of worship, about our proliferation of loan societies, about our irrepressible demographics?

And there’s this gem: “Tomorrow’s Jewish-Arab Coexistence in Israel: Moving Forwards or Backwards?” (Thursday, June 21, 11:30 AM – 1:00 PM). The moderator is Arab radio journalist Eman Kassem-Sliman, who told the NY Times: “I am not a Jew, how can I belong to a Jewish state? If they define this as a Jewish state, they deny that I am here.” You see where the discussion is going? Then there’s Dr. Masad Barhoum, the first Arab director of a government-run hospital in Israel since the establishment of the state, who’s  a decent man with remarkably sober and honest views; Shlomo Buhbut, Mayor of the Arab-Jewish city of Maalot Tarshicha, who actually knows a thing or two about coexistence; Mohammad Darawshe, who praised MK Ahmed Tibi and some 40 Iasraeli Arab politicians who visited Libya’s then president Muammar Gadhafi; Amal Elsana Alh’jooj (I actually like her), and Professor Sammy Smooha, from the University of Haifa’s Jewish-Arab Center.

It’s interesting that a panel on Jewish-Arab co-existence features two Jews and four Arabs. It reminds me of those NPR reports on Jewish settlements which feature a debate between a PLO official and a journalist from Ha’aretz. Even handed…

And who is missing from the panel on co-existence? Obviously, folks like you and me on either side of the debate, religious Jews and religious Muslims. We are not in the conference’s narrative. But in reality, the only meaningful exchanges on Jewish-Arab co-existence have been conducted between men of God on both side.

It’s a good thing that numerically we’re going to be the only ones around in 20 years, but not if you were to ask this conference’s organizers.

The conference will kick off with its trademark “My Recipe for a Better Tomorrow” plenary session, in which Google’s Schmidt, world champion swimmer Keren Leibovitch, Israel’s minister of defense Ehud Barak and Nobel Prize laureate Professor Daniel Kahneman will each present their own unique ingredients for a “better tomorrow.”

Personally, I would have grave doubts accepting from Ehud barak his recipe for French fries, much less for a better tomorrow. As to Google, as long as they continue to locate Jerusalem as an independent entity in Asia, no relations to the state of Israel, I have grave doubts about Eric Schmidt’s and my idea about tomorrow.

Among other sessions planned for Facing Tomorrow 2012 are “Europe – Between Unity and Division” (hope they’ll invite a European person to speak); “Israel’s Security in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring” and “The Brain – Can Machines Improve Humans?”

Yes they can, and eventually those improved humans will grow up to run presidential conferences.

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.

The author's opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Jewish Press.

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2 Responses to “Presidential Conference “Facing Tomorrow” While Facing Away from Observant Jews”

  1. Stephen Leavitt says:

    To be fair, the political session on Israel's borders looks like it has a balanced panel with relevant panelists, due to the inclusion of Naftali Bennett and Caroline Glick.And the science and economic panels seem to have relevant panelists.

    But, the glaring absence of representation from the Israeli religious-zionist camp on pretty much any panel discussing Judaism, Jewish identity, Jewish future, Jewish religion, Diaspora relations, Jewish-Arab relations is very disturbing, even more so than the strong leftwing bias of many of the panels and speakers.

  2. Charlie Hall says:

    Rabbi Melchior is a Religious Zionist. While one can complain that there should be more representation, "absence" is not accurate.

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