A high-powered group of 20 Jewish intellectuals met behind closed doors near Washington late last month to discuss the future of the Jewish people — and the mood was not optimistic.
Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, former Israeli Cabinet minister Natan Sharansky and Canadian Minister of Justice Irwin Cotler were among the select group of attendees at the two-day meeting over Memorial Day weekend, participants said. The event was convened by a think tank connected to the Jewish Agency for Israel, and its conclusions will be shared with the Israeli Cabinet and with major Jewish organizations.
Discussion topics ranged from geopolitics to science and technology, but the bulk of the weekend was spent mulling over ways to stem the declining levels of Jewish affiliation outside of Israel.
“There really was a sense that we’re at a watershed, and we cannot continue with business as usual,” said Stuart Eizenstat, who was deputy secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton. “That sense of urgency was felt across a wide spectrum of participants.”
Much of the pessimism arose from a review of Jewish demography presented to the conference by Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergolla, who is considered Israel’s leading expert on world Jewish population trends. He has argued that the American Jewish community has lost between 300,000 and 400,000 members in the past decade, pointing to a trend of continued decline.
His projections are based in large part on much-publicized findings of the National Jewish Population Surveys of 1990 and 2000-01 that have been disavowed as flawed by the surveys’ own sponsors, but remain widely accepted in Israel. Other estimates of Jewish population are higher, some considerably so, but concern was also caused by the high rates of intermarriage and low rates of synagogue affiliation.
Little of that uncertainty appears to have entered into the Memorial Day weekend discussions, which were focused largely on threats to the Jewish future and how to address them.
The no-nonsense meeting — a round robin with no time set aside for recreation — was held at the Wye Plantation, the Maryland conference center where Israeli and Palestinian officials signed the Wye River Memorandum in 1998. The Memorial Day weekend sessions included three structured discussions and meals filled with more information and debate.
Among the other attendees were Marcos Aguinis, an Argentinian writer; Jacques Attali, a science fiction writer and investment banker who had been a special adviser to former French president Francois Mitterrand; Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz; Brandeis University president Jehuda Reinharz; American philanthropist Michael Steinhardt; Rene-Samuel Sirat, former chief rabbi of France, and Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration’s top Middle East policymaker. Some attendees reportedly wanted to keep their participation confidential, and Summers and Cotler were not on the release list, but other participants recalled conversations with the men. Summers did not return calls, and Cotler’s office said that he was there as a private citizen.
The only women in attendance were two Israeli biology professors and Rachel Fish, a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School who has led pro-Israel campus campaigns.
The idea of bringing together Jewish intellectuals from outside the Jewish organizational world is not entirely new. In 1994, then-Israeli president Ezer Weizman convened a large gathering of intellectuals in Israel, but it quickly devolved into a debate about the importance of Jewish migration to Israel. The current Israeli president, Moshe Katsav, is planning a meeting with some 200 Jewish leaders and thinkers sometime next year in an effort to create a global Jewish body for yearly consultation.
The Wye brainstorming session is part of a separate initiative by the Jewish Agency think tank, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. During the past two years, the institute has released six position papers as part of a project called Alternative Futures for the Jewish People, 2025. The papers were the starting point for the discussion at Wye.
The institute’s board is to meet in the coming weeks to formalize the weekend’s findings, and will present them to the Israeli Cabinet in July. Later this year, the institute plans to convene a group of Jewish organizational leaders before bringing the intellectuals together again. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who was to attend this time but had canceled, reportedly has promised to attend future gatherings.
The idea of the meetings, said the director general of the policy institute, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, is to provide a new form of “strategic planning.”
“We are trying to engage some of the best minds in the Jewish world to dedicate at least part of their thinking to the Jewish people,” Bar-Yosef said. “That was not done before.”
Accounts of the meeting suggest that the participants took a dim view of the current directions of organized Jewish community life. According to a communiqué summarizing the weekend, the main point of agreement was that “the Jewish people must remove the obstacles preventing many from joining its ranks.”
In the spiritual realm, the communiqué said, “the Jewish people lacks spiritual leadership capable of formulating new inspirational content for Jewish identity.”
There were complaints about the high costs of joining Jewish institutions and about the obstacles confronting converts to Judaism.
“The difficulty of conversion is absurd,” Dershowitz said in an interview. “It’s elitist, it’s self-defeating — it’s just wrong.”
The participants noted the reported success of the Orthodox community in retaining the loyalty of its younger generation, but did not think it provided a feasible model for winning back the mass of unaffiliated Jews.
The urgency of reversing current disaffiliation and assimilation trends was emphasized by Reinharz, Brandeis’s president, who argued that the declining Jewish population would lead to a decline in influence, ultimately threatening Jews’ security. “American Jews are so pleased with themselves, due to the illusion that they have a lot of political and economic power,” Reinharz said. But he warned that the community only has a “window of another few years” before the American political reality shifts and the political power is lost.
Not everyone agreed about the priority of the demographic threat. Dershowitz said he led a small group during the weekend that was more focused on external threats to the community — such as antisemitism and radical Islam — than on internal threats.
“I get very nervous hearing people telling other people who to marry, or how often they should go to synagogue,” Dershowitz said. “For me the priority is to make sure that no Jew is pressured to give up his heritage. There’s too much of that still in the world.”
Dershowitz said that despite the disagreements, the discussion was much better than anything else he’d found in the organized Jewish world.
“These sorts of discussions are usually predictable — mostly people looking to preserve their own jobs,” Dershowitz said. “This was a lot of interesting minds at work on very difficult questions.”
With reporting from Ha’aretz.