Forum Ponders Israeli Innovation, Isolation


Still marveling over what he saw and heard, Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul general in New York, told an audience in Westchester last week about the Israeli theater group he hosted three months ago — a troupe whose entire cast is deaf and blind.

For a moment in his speech, Aharoni imagined how scary it must be for the actors and actresses to take the stage, feeling as “totally isolated” as they must feel at times. But members of the ensemble, Nalaga’at (“Please Do Touch” in Hebrew), have developed a unique system of cueing each other during a performance, he said, touching each other the whole time they’re on stage.

Aharoni related the story by way of answering a rhetorical question he asked earlier: “What is it that Israel brings to the table?” What does Israeli society contribute to the world?

He asked the question during a forum on “Israeli Innovation vs. Israeli Isolation” sponsored by the American Jewish Committee’s Westchester Region and co-sponsored by several organizations, including The Jewish Week. Part of an annual gala that raised $250,000 for AJC Westchester, the forum included Aharoni’s speech and a panel discussion with AJC Executive Director David Harris and Washington Institute’s Project on the Middle East Peace Process Director David Makovsky.

Scott Richman, director of AJC Westchester, told The Jewish Week that he and other Westchester leaders came up with the theme after discussing “how ironic it is that Israel gives so much to the world on a daily basis and yet, at the same time, endures more UN resolutions against it than any other country. … We wanted to celebrate Israel’s innovation while noting the dichotomy.”

Aharoni offered one reason for why Israel has found itself so isolated at times, saying the nation’s leaders “developed a mystical belief in the power of advocacy.” What they forgot, he added, “is that in the new world — in this new, ever-changing technological environment — the task at hand is not necessarily to win debates, but rather to build relationships.”

In the process, he said, Zionism — a movement that was all about optimism, self-growth, self-sufficiency and “the promotion of goodness — was reduced to the conflict with its neighbors. … For many years, we failed to celebrate Israel’s creative dimensions.”

Aharoni identified six areas in which he said Israel “possesses a relative advantage” over other countries: its leadership on environmental issues, including renewable energy, desert agriculture and water management; high-tech and medical technology; lifestyle and leisure; the society’s ethnic and religious diversity; the scope of its international aid programs; and culture and the arts. Speaking of the latter, Aharoni noted that Israel “is one of the largest producers of content in American television today.”

In the panel discussion, moderated by AJC’s national president, Robert Elman, Harris and Makovsky discussed American efforts to revive the peace process and how to address the continuing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program.

In regard to the peace process, Makovsky said he fears Secretary of State John Kerry won’t be successful in his efforts. As Makovsky sees it, the problem that exists now is that Israelis and Palestinians have become more and more polarized, leading to fatigue and cynicism. People on both sides say they favor a two-state solution, he said, but neither side believes the other is committed to that goal. Meanwhile, he added, leaders on both sides are afraid of getting too far ahead of their own people.

Speaking more generally, Harris said he believes that supporters of Israel have most of the “compelling arguments” on their side. But the object for anyone who cares about Israel is not to win an argument, he said, but to “aspire to peace.”

The danger in saying that peace is never possible, as many of Israel’s supporters do, is that it could become “a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Harris said. He added that Israel’s supporters have to explore “every avenue” for peace and shouldn’t be the ones to condemn an initiative “before it even gets off the ground.”

[Kerry spoke Monday to AJC’s annual global forum in Washington, where he called a two-state solution critical for Israel’s future, warned that this might be the last chance for a two-state solution and urged American Jews to play a role in advancing peace talks, the JTA reported.

“No one has a stronger voice in this than the American Jewish community,” Kerry said, giving his first address to the organized Jewish community since becoming secretary of state in February. “Leaders will take both steps only if their people push them to.”]

Speaking about Iran’s nuclear program, Makovsky repeated the points he and Dennis Ross, the former diplomat who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, made last week in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

The time for diplomacy is running out, he said, and it’s no longer enough to talk about a “red line.” Iran “has become more adept at manipulating that red line to its own advantage.” Instead of a confidence-building, “step-by-step” approach to the talks, the United States should “think bigger,” defining an acceptable civil nuclear capability for Iran.

Addressing the same subject, Harris said he suspects that despite President Barack Obama’s language — “good language” — the Iranians don’t believe that he or the country have the “gumption” to follow through.

“Unless we can convince the Iranians that we mean what we say … in the Farsi equivalent of their kishkes, we may find ourselves drawn into a conflict that no one actually seeks.”