Shimon Peres celebrated his birthday in grand style last week in Jerusalem with an estimated 5,000 of his closest friends, though he doesn’t turn 90 until August. (He clearly does not believe in “the evil eye,” or tempting fate.)
World leaders in the fields of government, business, arts, science and technology were among the distinguished participants at the fifth annual Israel Presidential Conference, which has become a tribute to the drawing power of the Israeli president who, once reviled by his countrymen as a political back-biter, has outlived his enemies and transformed his persona into that of a deeply admired visionary leader. Indeed, Peres has joined the select ranks of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, who praised him at the conference, as one of the handful of active former national leaders highly respected on a global level.
Fittingly, given Peres’ emphasis on looking forward rather than backward, the theme of the conference each year is “Facing Tomorrow.” And while critics carped at the lavish opening evening birthday bash featuring celebrities like Barbra Streisand, Sharon Stone and Robert DeNiro among the honored guests, the fact is that the $11 million budget was raised from private funds. More importantly, the conference has become a Jewish Davos, attracting high-profile leaders from around the world who come to take part in discussions — private as well as public — that help boost Israel’s well-earned image as a world leader in innovations in the fields of science, technology and medicine.
A number of the plenaries and panels featured thoughtful discussions by experts on a range of topics, with an emphasis on human achievements to advance our society. What was missing, though, for an international conference in the capital of the Jewish state, was an attempt to confront major issues of the day through the lens of Jewish values and teachings. As one educator in attendance noted privately, “this is all about ‘what,’ but very little about ‘why.’”
Another educator, Mordechai Bar-Or, president and founder of Kolot, a study center for leadership in Israel, noted with “a heaviness of heart” that Jewish texts and traditions “have been pushed aside” at the conference to make way for the exploration of the future through science and new technologies. What about exploring “essential questions of Jewish existence” as well, he wondered, and seeing what Jewish writings have to say about creating a society that treats all of its citizens with dignity and equality?
No doubt the programming captured the world outlook of Peres himself. But surely there can be more balance in future conferences to include a major emphasis on the wisdom the Torah has given the world — a living text that has led to the reality of a proud Jewish state whose accomplishments, a source of great pride, are rooted in our ancient heritage.