JERUSALEM, March 16 (JTA) — In the intimate setting of a sun-filled, book-lined room, some of Israel’s top young minds squared off with the likes of Dennis Ross, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu over the fate of the Jewish people. Rising from their seats, their hands waving in the air and their voices firm, university students from across the country debated and exchanged ideas last week with the top diplomats at a new Israeli public-policy research center in Jerusalem. Dubbed a “master class” with leading Jewish figures, the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute borrows a page from master classes with music greats and promising students, said the institute’s director, Avinoam Bar-Yosef. Bar-Yosef said he hopes his new institute, modeled after an American-style think tank and funded in part by the Jewish Agency for Israel, would bring together the best Jewish minds in public policy with the younger generation of Jewish people. “We have masters of public policy at the institute,” he said, and it is “a waste” not to bring them together “with the best students in Israel and Jewish students from abroad.” The group of some 30 students met first with Netanyahu — Israel’s finance minister and a former prime minister — to discuss the economic reforms Netanyahu is introducing in Israel. Then they had an animated session, with former U.S. Middle East envoy Ross, that tackled subjects from demographics in the Jewish state to the rise of the so-called new anti-Semitism, especially in Europe. Ross advocated a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, arguing that “the only way Israel can stay Jewish and democratic is if it has borders” separating Israelis and Palestinians. Ross predicted that Jews would be a minority in Israel by the end of the decade if the country held onto the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The students discussed how the Diaspora-Israel dynamic would change if Israel lost its Jewish majority. “I think Israel needs the Diaspora because there is a risk of Israel being truly alone without it,” Ross said. In a sign of curiousity about their counterparts abroad, one student asked Ross why secular Jews in the Diaspora identify as Jewish. Another asked if Ross did not fear that assimilation would take its toll, even in his own family, and that his children might one day marry out of the faith. Ross said he would give his children the best Jewish education he could, but that nothing was guaranteed. He also said Judaism gave “grounding” to his own life. “It creates a sense of who I am; it provides a sense of values,” he said. Ross added that the Jewish tenet of tikkun olam, repairing the world, helped guide him in his peacemaking efforts. The students also discussed what gives them their sense of Jewish identity — and whether or not they feel more Jewish or Israeli and what that might mean for their connection with the Diaspora. Eitan Lashevsky, a history student from Berl College, sparked fierce debate when he suggested that historically Jews thrived when dispersed around the world. Shouldn’t Israelis consider returning to the Diaspora, he asked. Leora Sidi, a public-policy student at Hebrew University, took issue with the suggestion. “What Israelis take for granted is a sense of belonging,” she said, noting that exists only in Israel, despite all their dreams of better lives abroad. The students debated what they said was a lost sense of Israeli pride and how it could be gotten back both to inspire themselves and their Diaspora counterparts on the front lines of defending Israel to the world. “We are beginning to lose our legitimacy to have support,” said Shachar Rabi, a student in philosophy at Beersheba University. “The Jewish Diaspora sees governments who don’t seem interested in peace.” Peres, leader of the Labor Party and a former prime minister, discussed the challenge of changing the country for the better. Telling the students that the university setting was the best place to practice democracy, Peres urged them to get involved in Israeli civic life. He also urged them to ponder the meaning of the Jewish nation and their role in it as intellectuals. “Israel must retain its energy,” Peres said. “You have greater potential than you can even begin to imagine.”
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