Dr.Gerstenfeld’s article on the possible renewal of the Israeli presidential conferences was published in the Jerusalem Post and republished here with the author’s consent.
How President Rivlin could Revive the Israeli Presidential Conferences
With the termination of Shimon Peres’ presidency, his initiative of Israeli presidential conferences has ended as well. Five such gatherings took place between 2008 and 2013. President Reuven Rivlin would do well to reinstate these conferences annually. The potential to benefit Israel is enormous.
To obtain the maximum benefit for Israel, the formula devised under Peres would require significant changes. In the past, the conferences included a strange mix of both topics and invitees. By far the best sessions of the past conferences were those that addressed the newest developments and expectations for the future in several advanced scientific fields. If one did not come early to the sessions the room was already packed. The panels consisted of both foreign and Israeli scientists. In those that I attended, the Israeli presentations were as insightful and impressive as those by scholars who came from abroad.
On the other hand, there were some sessions on world Jewry in which the panelists were mainly rehashing what one could regularly read in Jewish media. There are enough other gatherings where these issues can be discussed. One also got the impression that the organizers had minimized the number of orthodox and center-right speakers.
Once, absurdly enough, an extreme critic of Israel, Peter Beinart, was invited. Also some of the goals announced were greatly overstated. Did the discussions at these conferences really – as suggested in 2013 –“engage the central issues that will influence the face of our future: geopolitics, economics, society, environment, culture, identity, education, new media, and more”? It would have been much better to have been a bit more modest.1
What could be the best new strategy for these conferences? It would first be important to identify the areas in which Israel is at the world’s forefront. There should be sessions on topics concerning recent advances and possible future directions. The panels should consist of leading foreign and Israeli participants.
Determining where Israel is a world leader or co-leader is crucial. Some very diverse areas are obvious candidates. For instance, cybersecurity, water technology, trauma treatment and the setting up of field hospitals. There are, however, many others which do not immediately come to mind. Identifying those areas of knowledge and expertise where Israel co-leads the world by asking a number of well-chosen people would rapidly create a long list.
Once one has identified the fields in which Israelis are among the world leaders, the next step would be to ask the country’s top experts in these areas whom to invite from abroad. The conferences would be broadcast in real time to receive as wide an audience as possible. In previous conferences the speakers included politicians, writers, actors, a vulgar American comedian and so on. Such people could also attend, but there would no opening session where well-known invitees express their truisms and platitudes. Distinguished cultural performances could however be a welcome addition.
The conference core of topics in the above categories could be complemented with discussions about crucial world issues. To mention a few almost at random: the future of liberal democracy, sovereignty versus globalization, which multiculturalism could be viable and truth versus fake news. It wouldn’t take much effort to define a few more.
One of the huge advantages for the participants in the panels would be the greatly varied interdisciplinary character of the conference’s speakers. Top people in a certain field usually participate in conferences where the attendees are mainly from professions close to their own. This diversity would increase the attractiveness of the conference for the panelists.
President Peres found generous patrons who financed the conferences he initiated. There is no reason why such a prestigious conference under the auspices of President Rivlin would not find similar donors. His international prestige would be enhanced by these gatherings as well. Regarding the technicalities of the conference, one could learn much from the experiences of staff members who had been part of the organization of the previous conferences.
There are many potential advantages for Israel. With the right public relations these conferences would expose to the world a broad spectrum of Israeli knowledge and inventiveness including those which are greatly beneficial to many people worldwide. As Israel is frequently attacked by a wide range of enemies and opponents, the conferences could, to a certain extent, also be a counterweight to this hatred and defamation.
President Peres had a preference for interviewing some leaders of science during the conferences. This however was an extra and the conference could have proceeded easily without it. The important thing is that President Rivlin takes the initiative, that the invitations to the conference go out in his name, and that he presides over the conference.