Lead­er­ship: a bil­lion-dol­lar ques­tion

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 Hen­riLevy, 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-and­good­ness — 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 ques­tions 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 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?

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