This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: As we settled into our seats in the cavernous performance hall, murmurs of shock and sadness spread with word of the Hamas rocket attack on Ashkelon. Just the night before in this hall, the murmurs had been of an alleged corruption scandal and the consequent impending downfall of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Yet for three days soaring above these whispers were the words of Elie Weisel, “Our history should not be others’ nightmare. Our hope should not be others’ despair.” Or of Amos Oz, Israeli author and humanitarian, who reminded us that realized dreams always bore an element of disappointment.
In the background were the reprimands of leading Israeli Arabs that one should not refer to their relationship with fellow Jewish citizens as “co-existence” and of the need for bilingual schools and mutual respect; the reminders from Vaclav Havel, former Czech president, that strategic dilemmas need to be attuned to moral considerations.
This unfolded recently during a most extraordinary conference in Jerusalem simply titled “Tomorrow.” Held in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday, it was hosted by Israeli President Shimon Peres, at 84, one of a few remaining statesmen from the founding generation. The conference, its panels and plenary sessions were intended to look forward with a glimpse backward to the 60-year history of the state.
The four-day conference was organized by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank with a mission to continually assess the condition of the Jewish people globally and formulate broad strategy and policy recommendations. Its chairman is Dennis Ross, envoy to the Mideast for two U.S. presidents. It was Shimon Peres’ vision to gather participants from around the world, Jews and non-Jews, to confront three interweaving futures: the global tomorrow, the Jewish tomorrow and the Israeli tomorrow.
The mosaic of attendees must have fulfilled the aging president’s wish. There were heads of state, former heads of state (Gorbachev, Blair, Havel), scholars, authors, business moguls, organizational leaders, political activists, religious leaders, ambassadors and government officials. It was a Who’s Who of the Jewish world and those who have spent their careers and lives seeking peace in the region while working to ensure Israel’s survival as the Jewish homeland. The St. Louisans attending included Barry Rosenberg, director of the St. Louis Jewish Federation; Ambassador Sam Fox and Marilyn and their two daughters now living in Israel; Michael Novack, and myself.
The panel topics covered a wide array of challenging topics: “Israel and the Diaspora … the Special Relationship”; “Foreign Policy-Strategic Dilemmas and Moral Considerations”; “Jews and Muslims-Is religion at the heart of the problem or the solution”; “Tomorrow’s Medicine.” The plenary sessions included such themes as “Tomorrow through the Eyes of Nobel Laureates”; “The Revolution of the Internet and the New Media”; “Global Perspectives on Tomorrow.”
I attended a panel on the Annapolis peace process led by former ambassador Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross and Stuart Eisenstadt. Challenging their view that the process had some chance of limited success were Israelis who wondered aloud whether there was a viable context for such a peace initiative, with a highly unpopular American president, an Israeli prime minister weakened by allegations of corruption and a Palestinian president speaking for a bitterly divided people.
In another small panel, we examined five global mega trends and how they might shape the future of Israel and the Middle East. The alternative futures for Israel as influenced by these trends were, on the one hand, bleak (with a nuclear-empowered Iran holding hegemony in the Middle East through clients such as Hezbollah and Hamas) and, on the other hand, uplifting (with peace in the neighborhood, stability in a multi-polar world and prosperity for Israel through innovative technology and robust global trade). Indeed, we get a glimpse of these alternatives in the headlines with Hezbollah increasing its power in Lebanon and peace overtures between Israel and Syria. Other panels discussed the need to identify and foster new leadership, to improve educational systems and to foster Jewish identity among Diaspora Jews.
Of course, for most American and Israeli attendees a highpoint was the appearance by President and Mrs. Bush at an evening session. The president was greeted with a thunderous ovation and gave a short speech highlighting the special relationship that has existed since the U.S. immediately recognized Israel as a nation in 1948. It was not until the next day in the Knesset that the president gave his politically controversial speech.
At meal times and during breaks, panelists and attendees noshed, mingled and continued the dialogue that had been inspired in the respective venues. No pretense, just earnest engagement as the collective group milled and sought answers to the myriad of challenging issues.
Although I have traveled to Israel many times, being in Jerusalem for this conference was unique. Security was everywhere, yet it was not suffocating or obtrusive. I never had a concern for my safety or anyone else’s at the conference.
In the evenings, Barry Rosenberg and I wandered through the neighborhoods near our hotel. The weather was beautiful, with a refreshing night coolness that we wished we could export to St. Louis. On our last night, Barry and I were enjoying that wonderful night air, seated on the wood-planked deck of a restaurant having a glass of wine over osso buco and phyllo wrapped salmon. Barry commented that it would be hard for people in the States to envision the tranquility of this picturesque dinner setting in an area where mostly all we read about is violence and distress.
This brings me back to the remarkable contradictions of Israel, all on display in this visit. Rockets falling on its towns, a whiff of internal political scandal in the air, security forces at every corner, yet an upbeat buzz on its streets and in its cafes, rich cultural pursuits thriving, deep religious inspiration and vigorous intellectual exploration and engagement sincerely seeking a path to a peaceful and prosperous tomorrow.
About the authorCharles Burson, former Monsanto general counsel and White House counsel and chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, is currently of counsel to Bryan Cave and visiting professor at Washington University Law School. Mr. Burson is a board member of JPPPI.