Binyanei Ha'Uma, the main convention center in Jerusalem, gave me two very different chances in the last week to be inspired by the creativity and diversity of the Jewish world. Round one came via the President's Conference, the second annual international shindig organized by Shimon Peres to get Jewish leaders and innovators discussing future challenges. Three days later, on Sunday October 18, I was back in town for an Idan Rachel concert sponsored by MASA, the umbrella organization for most gap-year programs in Israel. A double dose of soul and spirit. Hold on and here we go.
"I have learned that out of the greatest crises fascinating opportunities can emerge," Shimon Peres declared at the start of the Presidential Conference. "As we gather again to discuss the tomorrow, we must endeavor to turn this hour of crisis into new beginnings." I have been to enough splashy conferences to be wary of grand opening statements, especially when they are voiced by a politician as weathered as Peres. Nevertheless, the presence of so many innovators and activists at the Presidential Conference made for a dazzling mental delight. Speakers such as Frank Gehry, Michael Walzer, Raymond Kurzweil and Jimmy Wales (plus Hindu spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar?!) joined local figures like Stanley Fischer, Israel Aumann , Shai Aggasi and Erel Margalit to share incisive insight on a vast range of issues. Topics covered included geopolitical crises in the Middle East, the global economy and the environment, plus hip issues like artificial intelligence, the new media and Jewish peoplehood.
I only arrived for the last day of the conference, after having met a friend at a Jerusalem mixer the night before who provided me with his ID badge so I could attend in his place. Upon arriving I discovered that everyone at the conference was carrying a small card with my friend's name, picture and life story, courtesy of a Jewish Agency promotional campaign featuring my friend. Despite the fact that at any time anyone could have glanced at the ID badge I wore around my neck and immediately realize I was pretending to be someone else, no one bothered me.
The best panel I attended was entitled Israel as a Global Hub. Key figures from some of Israel's most dynamic sectors-- high-tech, digital animation, water, alternative energy and military design--discussed Israel's entrepreneurial success in the nineties and where this success could continue in the future. While high-tech innovations and the aliya of Soviet Jewry famously energized Israel's economy in the nineties, few folks appreciate the decisive role that Israel's security dilemma has played in fostering the state's entrepreneurial spirit. To withstand the isolation and threat of Arab neighbors, Israel has developed a flourishing weapons industry and poured a higher proportion of resources into R&D than any country in the world. Skills and resources developed for security purposes have proven highly transferable in the knowledge and design based economy that emerged in recent years. The panelists touched upon a related idea fleshed out in Start-Up Nation, a new book by Saul Singer and Dan Senor that describes how Israel's adversity-driven culture is responsible for the state's incredible record of entrepreneurial innovation. As Singer and Senor explain (also worth viewing is this interview with Senor on CNBC),
It was natural for Israelis to embrace the Internet, software, computer, and telecommunications arenas. In these industries, borders, distances, and shipping costs are practically irrelevant. As Israeli venture capitalist Orna Berry, formerly the government's chief scientist, told us, "High-tech telecommunications became a national sport to help us fend against the claustrophobia that is life in a small country surrounded by enemies." Because Israel was forced to export to faraway markets, Israeli entrepreneurs developed an aversion to large, readily identifiable manufactured goods with high shipping costs, and an attraction to small, anonymous components and software. This, in turn, positioned Israel perfectly for the global turn toward knowledge- and innovation-based economies, a trend that continues today.
The most powerful moment of the conference, for me at any rate, came later in the day when a speaker bared his soul to a crowded auditorium. The fact that I was likely the only one in the audience who appreciated the drama did little to detract from its emotional resonance. The grand moment came when Chinese Professor Fu Youde, sitting on a panel alongside leading educators from Israel and the United States, spoke in halting English about his desire to see the Chinese learn from the Jewish community and rekindle "their Chinese souls, a sense of cultural and spiritual Chineseness." Professor Fu is the most influential scholar of Jewish Studies in China, where his approach of applying lessons from the Jewish tradition to contemporary China is unique among the Chinese scholars pressing for a re-adoption of traditional Chinese (generally, Confucian) culture in contemporary society. We first met this summer at the Israel Studies Seminar I attended in Beijing. As wonderful as it was to see him share his unique ambition with a Jewish audience, the true pleasure was being reminded about the key roles that traditional culture and spirituality can and need to play in strengthening a community.
All talk no action is how a friend of mine on kibbutz described the conference I attended in Jerusalem. Maybe he is right. In any case, I appreciate Shimon Peres for providing me with the opportunity to re-engage my intellect and the geopolitical challenges of tomorrow. Attending the President Conference was a dramatic change of pace from kibbutz (and no doubt, army) life. While I have zero regrets about my current endeavor, it was great to rekindle that Washington feeling of getting dressed up, suffering through rounds of cocktail chatter, and feeling stirred by the occasional compelling idea to emerge from panels that, in all honesty, can at times become a pointless exercise in chatter.
Three days later I was back in the same Jerusalem convention center as Idan Raichel and company entertained hundreds of MASA participants with electric mix of Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, Spanish and African tunes. The band leader put it best when he said that his group's eclectic diversity represents the multicultural Israeli street. The Idan Raichel Project includes some seventy contributing artists and so concert goers can never be sure who will perform. In addition to the four lead singers I first saw on stage this past May in Washington, the concert tonight featured two ladies from Peru and Rwanda, both of whom sang songs in their native tongue linking Israel with their birthplace.
Idan and the beautiful lead Ethiopian songstress added to the moment by speaking movingly about their own family journeys to Israel. I closed my eyes, waved my hands and let my soul take wing for the second time in the halls of Binyanei Ha'Uma.
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