Leadership: a billion-dollar question

By David Rowan, May 22, 2008

Shimon Peres invited 3,000 people to plan the Jewish future. Too bad that wealth and age spoke for the rest of us

You have to credit Shimon Peres — the man certainly has style. As other senior members of Israel’s political elite were last week preparing legal defences against bribery, corruption and rape allegations, the 84-year-old President was entertaining 3,000 of his closest friends in a relentless three-day tribute to Israel’s (and his) glorious achievements. From George Bush to Sergey Brin, they lined up to pay homage: thinkers and doers, artists and scientists, rabbis and entrepreneurs, plus 15 sitting presidents and leaders from 27 other countries. Who else but Peres could have united at the same party Gorbachev and Murdoch, Kissinger and Henri-Levy, Blair and Leviev — and even, despite all the damage wrought by Borat, Kazakhstan’s parliamentary senate leader, His Excellency Kassym-Jomart Tokayev?

Peres’s “Facing Tomorrow” conference was designed to put Jerusalem on the map of international great-and-goodness — a new Jewish Davos where global problems would be solved and business cards exchanged. As he explained to his guests, their plenary sessions and panel discussions were intended to build “a better tomorrow for Israel, the Jewish people and the world”.

Across the millennia, he reminded guests inside the heavily guarded compound, amid endless free supplies of sushi and fruit nectar, the prophets of Israel have echoed in the Jewish people’s hearts in envisioning “a future of humane peace and social justice”. Platitudes, perhaps; yet Peres succeeded beyond expectations in creating an event so ambitious in its reach, so impressive in its execution, that his countrymen could justifiably feel both proud and reassured about what it said about Israel’s international status.

In an era when mainstream media increasingly question Israel’s legitimacy, when boycott campaigns propagate to isolate this supposed “apartheid” nation, the physical presence and supportive words of leaders from Ukraine and Uganda, from Poland and Palau, was an achievement in itself. But beyond the feel-good rush of short-term self-congratulation, the President’s Conference provided another, more valuable insight on some of the key challenges confronting Israel and the Jewish world. Taken as an anthropological study of Jewish leadership in action, of our communal representatives’ values and intellectual limitations, the conference offered more grounds for concern than for celebration.

For it would hardly have pleased the ancient prophets to learn the extent to which personal wealth continues to determine influence in our communal bodies; the misguidedly defensive, closed-minded nature of our public discussions; and the refusal of the older, almost entirely male custodians of institutional power to listen to, let alone make way for, the younger generations who represent world Jewry’s future hopes.

Sure, there were a handful of concrete achievements that President Peres’s PR people could trumpet at the end of three days’ intensive schmoozing. US billionaires Rupert Murdoch, Mort Zuckerman and Leslie Wexner had agreed to back a new high school to develop future Israeli leaders; the Israeli government had a plan to create a vast online library of Jewish texts; and George Bush had pledged his nation’s enduring support to ensure that “Masada shall never fall again” when it comes to Israel’s security needs. But far more representative of the event’s tone and ethos was the moment when Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who happens to be the world’s wealthiest Jew, was called on to introduce George Bush, along with Sheldon’s wife Miri, who got to make a speech expressing her pride at being in Israel’s “eternal, undivided capital”. An honour that had nothing to do, clearly, with Sheldon’s gift of $3m to have himself nominated conference chairman — even if he did have to interrupt his stay to answer police questi
ons over his business dealings with Ehud Olmert.

Other billionaire “conference trustees” — a long list including Lev Leviev, Daniel Abraham and Poju Zabludowicz — seemed not to see the irony in seminars discussing “the leaders of tomorrow” being dominated almost entirely by men over 55. No matter that, in one seminar, former Rutgers sociologist Chaim Waxman linked declining communal participation to an “increasing perception that the communal leadership is elitist, parochial, self-serving and resistant to innovation”. Pah: the “circle of wealthy old men” he identified as running most major Jewish organisations saw no reason to step aside.

Besides, for all the petty broiguses, these machers at least had a unified view of Israel’s problem. We Jews, as one panel was revealingly titled, are simply “In Need of a Good Publicist”. So when the governor of Hawaii implored her audience that “you’re each of you a PR ambassador for Israel”, no one dared suggest that, perhaps, the state of Israel’s continued encouragement of settlement-building, or the controversial route of its security wall, might be contributory factors. After all, why imperil certainty with reasoned, broadminded debate?

Only occasionally did brutal reality threaten to intrude. As the police continued to investigate Ehud Olmert, Yehezkel Dror, a prominent Winograd Commission member and a conference co-organiser, bemoaned “the quality of Israel’s political leadership [as] seriously lacking”.

Still, with Rupert, Mort and Les ready to finance a prospective solution, who need heed the killjoys whinging on about ethics?

David Rowan, editor of the JC, was a delegate at the President’s Conference on panels about future leadership and Jewish identity

    Last updated: 8:30am, May 28 2008