Israel: from 60 to 120

The recent Israeli President’s Conference, convened and masterminded in Jerusalem by Shimon Peres, was an extraordinary event. Subtitled “Facing Tomorrow” – or in Hebrew, simply Hamachar, Tomorrow – it followed the festivities for Israel’s 60th anniversary and celebrated the country’s myriad accomplishments in many domains.

 World leaders, presidents and high-ranking officials of many nations gathered in respect and friendship.

But the conference was more than simply congratulatory. Beyond the exhilaration of the moment, beyond the hoopla of a birthday gala, it was a gathering of brain power to look toward the future – as the presenters took to repeating – from 60 to 120.

Most impressive were the open and in-depth discussions about the problems that Israel faces in this new century. While security remains an ongoing concern, it was the soul of the country that many of the participants – writers, political scientists, lawyers, professors, politicians – addressed, on many levels and in different realms. Without diminishing the complexity of what was discussed, I would say that two themes emerged as central: poverty and solidarity.

At the start of the conference, writer Amos Oz recalled a news report in the 1950s about a little girl who said she went to bed hungry at night. The country, Oz remembered, was shocked. Hunger? In Israel? A hungry child? How could that be? How could we allow it? The Knesset, the media – simply everyone, as Oz remembers it – became preoccupied with resolving the problem of poverty in Israel, a crushing poverty that sent children to bed with empty bellies.

Today, Oz noted with sadness, many go hungry, but no one feels shocked. The gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps widening, and the ethos of care – the sense of responsibility for the have-nots – seems to have diminished. The solidarity that defined Israel in the 1950s – an Israel far less materially endowed than today’s – seems to have given way, in more affluent times, to special interests and self interest.

This dual focus – responsibility for eradicating poverty and its attendant problems, and reinvigorating a sense of social solidarity – was echoed throughout the three-day conference, from many angles and by many speakers, from educators and philosophers to politicians and high-ranking government officials. Indeed, it was reiterated by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the closing session of the conference.

To be sure, Israel in its second half-century is different from Israel in its first decades. Then, it was easier to maintain the sense of cohesion and belonging in a small and more homogeneous population, especially with the very creation of the state in living memory of most of its inhabitants. Today, Israel is blessed and challenged with a booming population, and one of increasing diversity. Not only have Jews from a vast array of cultures made aliyah, but Israel is home to foreign workers separated from loved ones by thousands of miles, and it’s a haven to refugees from genocide and persecution in places such as Darfur.

None of the conference participants suggested that renewing social solidarity was an impossible goal, a pipe dream, a child’s idyll. Rather, the responsibility for one’s neighbours was seen as integral to the deep ethos of the country and profoundly Jewish. While it may sound like an ethereal goal compared with the more practical and tangible problem of poverty, it’s the ethical commitment that underlies resolving other concerns.

Many tourists visit Israel without ever facing the country’s poverty head-on. Dazzled by the country’s spiritual, natural and physical richness, and awed by its progress in so many industries, most visitors never venture into an overcrowded classroom, an inadequate apartment, or foreign workers’ quarters. And most countries, celebrating a significant milestone with international dignitaries and other invited guests, would not draw attention to such things.

But this conference demonstrated that Israel is not like most countries. At 60, Israel can rightly revel in its achievements – the creation and maturation of the state itself, against great odds; its inventiveness in areas such as agriculture, high tech, renewable energy sources, medicine; and its literary and cultural production. At the same time, its highest office encourages and fosters open, public and transparent discussions of problems and challenges that need to be solved.

In hosting, Peres brought honour to the office of the president and established his legacy for generations to come.