Jerusalem — More than a thousand leading politicians, scholars and scientists from around the world are set to convene in Jerusalem next month with the lofty goal of outlining a blueprint for the future of Israel and the Jewish people.
The global leaders will gather in the Jewish state May 13 for “Facing Tomorrow,” a three-day conference convened by Israeli President Shimon Peres to coincide with the country’s 60th anniversary celebrations. The list of scheduled participants boasts an impressive variety of figures, from politicians like President Bush, Tony Blair and Mikhail Gorbachev, to business moguls such as Google’s Sergey Brinn and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, to entertainment stars such as Barbra Streisand.
Against the backdrop of what are viewed by many in Israel as dull and ordinary events celebrating Israel’s 60th, the conference stands out for its ambitious goals and its A-list invitees. The gathering is the brainchild of Peres, the last remaining leader from the generation that founded the state.
Peres has been ridiculed in the past for his grand visions of a new Middle East, but he is now setting out to take on nothing less than the future of the Jewish people. And in typical Peres fashion, he wants to redefine the basic structure of relations among Israel, the Jewish people and the world.
“It is time to change the nature of the partnership between the various parts of the Jewish people,” Peres told the Forward. “It needs to be less materialistic and more intellectual.” Israel, he argued, should aspire to become a “leading world laboratory” for thought, technology and science.
The idea for the conference, dubbed a “Jewish Davos,” after the famed annual meeting of world leaders at the eponymous Swiss ski resort, came from Peres himself shortly after he took office last year. The gathering’s agenda will be set by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank that for the past several years has brought together Jewish scholars and leaders to discuss the future of the Jewish people.
“We are trying to look at the possible tomorrows through three lenses: leadership, morals and ethics, and creativity,” said Avinoam Bar-Yosef, director general of JPPPI.
Organizers say the three-day conference will produce several projects that will bring Israel closer to realizing Peres’s vision. Among the ideas being discussed are founding an academy for Jewish leadership in Israel and taking on at least one technological project of unprecedented magnitude in the Jewish state.
“I want us to be as ancient as the Ten Commandments and as young as nanotechnology,” Peres told the Forward in describing his vision for the future of the country.
The 84-year-old Nobel laureate was sworn in as president this past July. Over the course of six decades, he has served in numerous senior positions, from assistant to David Ben-Gurion to two terms as prime minister. The gravitas attached to his name goes a long way toward explaining why Peres was able to convene such a conference when a similar effort by his predecessor, Moshe Katzav, made little headway.
According to Peres, what makes his conference different from past efforts to bring together Israelis and Diaspora Jews to discuss the future of the Jewish people is the breaking of old patterns. The conference, he notes, will focus on individuals rather than on the communal organizations that have traditionally been viewed as representing the Jewish people.
“Today there are many Jews in the world who don’t have a checkbook but are not any less important,” Peres said. “The world today is much more intellectual. One person can create a revolution; you don’t need an organization for that.”
The Israeli president also hopes to steer Israel-Diaspora relations away from the cause that for decades has united the far-flung Jewish people: the fight against antisemitism.
“The Jews spend too much time being apologetic,” Peres said. “They spend too much time on issues like fighting antisemitism. Antisemitism is not a Jewish disease, so let the non-Jews treat it. It is their disease.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.