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In Jerusalem, Where Many Tongues Cleave

Jerusalem – Journalists, like crewmembers on the Starship Enterprise, are not supposed to participate in the events they’re observing. Still, when you’re invited to an international gathering in Jerusalem with an imposing title like the Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, it’s hard to say no. Confused, I phoned a friend who edits another newspaper, Ha’aretz, to sound him out on the ethics of taking part. His reply: “Come on. I’m going. It’ll be fun.” So I went.

Of course, a normal person might giggle at the pretentiousness of the conference’s title. One might even laugh out loud at the ungainly name of the sponsoring organization, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (known for short as JPPPI, which sounds even worse when you say it aloud, as institute chairman Dennis Ross did repeatedly at the conference, to gales of laughter).

In truth, though, this institute is a serious operation, as we’ve reported before. Set up in 2002 at the initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel, it produces an annual assessment of the worldwide Jewish community — physical safety, demographics, cultural cohesion, political influence, country by country from Argentina to Zimbabwe — that is unique on the global scene. Ross, the chairman and a longtime American diplomat, presents the report to Israel’s prime minister each spring at a special Cabinet meeting. The long-range goal is to create an ongoing framework for worldwide Jewish consultation and strategic planning.

Among other things, the founders want to find a way for Diaspora Jewish communities to have input into Israeli decisions that could affect the Diaspora. The “Who is a Jew” debate, for example. Or, say, an assassination of a Hezbollah leader in Lebanon that prompts a bombing in Buenos Aires. But the idea ran into a flat veto when it was first presented to the heads of major American Jewish agencies — the Anti-Defamation League, Aipac, the Conference of Presidents and others. “None of our business,” they all said. “We’re American citizens. We don’t make Israeli policy. Don’t go there.”

And yet, intriguingly, when the Conference on the Future opened July 10, it included many of the people who had vetoed the consulting idea. Clearly, something was up. Conferees, some 100 in all — half Israeli, half Diaspora — included heads of most key Jewish organizations in America and Europe, a gaggle of Israeli government officials and security experts, prominent philanthropists, professors of sociology, political science and Jewish studies, plus a smattering of rabbis, writers, journalists and professional gadflies.

The plan, it seemed, was not just to open a dialogue across continents, but to bring people who have new ideas together with people who have the clout to make them happen.

It almost worked. Unfortunately, the organizers neglected to explain the plan at the outset. The result was a strange disconnect. At most conventions, the movers and shakers spend their time in back rooms, trying to get business done without interference from nudniks and hangers-on. This time, the big shots — the heads of ADL and Aipac, Jewish Agency chiefs, Israeli ministers and government aides — were perfectly happy to spend three days mingling with intellectuals and gadflies, knowing that this was why they came. The intellectuals and gadflies, on the other hand, complained continually that they had been roped into a dead-end exercise, concocting ideas that would go nowhere. Nobody had told them they were sitting with the very people who could implement their ideas. “Foxman? Hoenlein? Here?” one participant responded after hearing who was there. “I had no idea. What do they look like?”

The lack of clarity was compounded by separation. Participants spent the entire three days in four working groups, variously devoted to geopolitics, leadership, community organization and Jewish identity. Most of Israel’s Cabinet dropped in at points to join the talks. Mealtimes brought the entire group together for speeches by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President-elect Shimon Peres, Ambassador Ross and Brandeis University president Jehuda Reinharz. The full group assembled again at the end to share the working groups’ findings and proposals. When it was over, Peres promised to set up an ongoing secretariat for the group, under his auspices, to keep things moving.

Not that the ideas were earth-shattering. Each working group had an agenda, but deliberations tended to drift into speechifying and tangents. The geopolitics group mostly discussed Iran, slighting global antisemitism and barely touching the institute’s signature thesis that Israel’s conflicts and Diaspora troubles are linked. The leadership group looked deep into the parlous state of Diaspora Jewish leadership, and even compiled some action plans, but hardly discussed Israel’s leadership crisis. The community and identity groups unintentionally covered much of the same ground, revisiting assimilation statistics, urging greater funding for schools and listening to long Israeli speeches on the centrality of Israel.

Running through it all, like an electric current, was the palpable sense that Americans and Israelis had no idea what the other was talking about. For Israelis, Jewish policy is made by the government; for Diaspora Jews, it is urged on the larger society. Israeli leadership is elected; Diaspora leadership is cultivated.

Most vexing, the Jewish identities of the two societies are so different as to be almost mutually incomprehensible. It’s been said a thousand times, of course: Israelis experience Jewishness as all-encompassing, the stuff of daily life, while Diaspora Jews experience it as an amorphous, shifting set of choices. We’ve all heard it. You have to sit for three days with two dozen rabbis, professors and educators trying to hammer out a common agenda to realize how vast the gulf really is.

By the end, amid the frustration, one sensed a glimmer of recognition of the chasm. Perhaps, I thought, that’s what this is really about.

I ran the idea past one of the American bigwigs during cocktails. “Wrong,” he said. He walked me over to a photo on the wall, showing him and a dozen others — the heads of Aipac, ADL, the American Jewish Committee, the Presidents Conference and a few others, plus senior officials in the Israeli prime minister’s office — posing for the camera after a two-day meeting last year, convened by the institute. “This is the point,” he said.

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