Shimon Peres likes to bill his Israeli Presidential Conference, the star-studded international talkfest that he’s convening in Jerusalem this week for the third time (the previous ones were in 2008 and 2009) as a Davos-style gathering of great minds to consider the great issues of the day. And it is that, in part. But like most everything else Peres touches, it combines big ideas and soaring rhetoric with healthy dollops of raw politics and moments of unintended, embarrassingly low humor
The big ideas were big indeed. At one session, Peres shared the stage with the presidents of Macedonia, Mongolia and the Dominican Republic to discuss climate change, poverty and the demands of leadership. At another, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and British media mogul Sir Martin Sorrell discussed the ways in which technology is changing decision making.
At a third, Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer moderated an intense discussion over the future of the global economy—meaning, mostly, the rise of China and the threat of a Greek debt contagion—with former U.S. Treasury secretary Larry Summers, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, former president Alejandro Toledo of Peru and former Bank of Israel governor Jacob Frenkl (Frenkl was sitting in for French finance minister Christine Lagarde, who dropped out at the last minute; she was scheduled to be interviewed this week to take over the International Monetary Fund).
Thousands of delegates attended each of those sessions. When they were done, I couldn’t find anybody out in the lobby standing and discussing what had transpired inside. Most people I talked to couldn’t remember exactly what was said.
What did get discussed? One hot topic was a session, nominally titled “Looking Towards Tomorrow,” at which former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, head of the opposition Kadima party, ripped into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy. In fact, Livni and her rivals for Kadima leadership, Shaul Mofaz and Avi Dichter, seemed to be the most popular subject among hallway chatterers, far outstripping Greek debt and Mongolian decision-making.
Another hot topic was a surprise speech by Arye Deri, the onetime leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party jailed in 2000 for bribe-taking, who chose the Peres conference stage to announce that he is returning to politics. It’s unlikely most Shas members in the streets outside the convention center had ever heard of the mostly secular, mostly Ashkenazi Peres conference before, but they’re all talking about it now.
Also popular fodder for lobby chatter was a smaller session, titled “Criticism vs. Loyalty in Israel-Diaspora Relations,” at which Judea-Samaria Settlers Council head Danny Dayan attacked Jeremy Ben-Ami of J-Street as a hypocrite who secretly wants to undermine Israel. Other panelists, including Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism and Haifa University historian Fania Oz-Saltzberger (daughter of author Amos Oz), tried to defend Ben-Ami, but Dayan wouldn’t let up. The audience was solidly with Dayan.
As nasty as the Dayan-Ben-Ami smack-down was, the conference’s strangest moment was an opening-night appearance by comedian Sarah Silverman. Rather than give a talk, she was interviewed by Israeli television news anchor Yigal Ravid. It was part of a session titled “My Recipe for a Better Tomorrow.” But despite Silverman’s repeated efforts to address the topic, Ravid kept peppering her with questions about why she wasn’t married, why she dated a non-Jew, why she didn’t consider herself Jewish by religion and—repeatedly—“why so many people hate you.” In the end she tried out several creative ways of calling him an idiot, but it seemed to go over his head.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).