The kickoff session at the Third Israeli Presidential Conference may have surprised even its organizers. Sarah Silverman, irreverence personified, stole the show with her unexpectedly serious and specific ideas about current issues. Her spontaneous “Recipe for a Better Tomorrow,” as the title put it, was to “look inward, not define yourself by outside forces.” What matters more, she asked, “the acreage of where we live, or the values of how we live?”
When asked how she would deal with the conflict in the Middle East, her Hollywood-style solution was the “buddy-movie formula – you take two enemies, they’re forced to work together on a common goal, and they realize they’re not that different.” What common goal? “How about solar power? Take us off gasoline, coal, nuclear power plants. The sun can be harvested and make the whole world a better place.” She should know: her sister’s husband is Yosef I. Abramowitz, whose Arava Power Company recently announced its first commercial solar field. Silverman also struck a blow for gay marriage, saying “I don’t want to get married when there’s no marriage equality.”
The singer and education advocate Shakira reflected that her native country, Colombia, “has undergone decades of conflict. Access to universal education is one of the few options as an antidote to violence and poverty. Investing in education is the best strategy for global peace.” This needs to begin with “early childhood nutrition and health care to develop the physical means to learn.” A first-time visitor to Israel, she added, “I believe this the perfect place to talk about how urgent it is to make education a priority; it is a melting pot. We are all inheritors of an Abrahamic culture, therefore we are all Israel.”
The other three participants struck a different tone. Sir Martin Sorrell, one of the world’s leading executives in advertising, marketing, and branding, quoted facts and figures pointing to a need for newer and more efficient urban infrastructures. With 70% of the world population likely to be living in cities by 2050, he says, the management of traffic, energy, public transport, water, health, education, and social services becomes more urgent than ever. Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales spoke mostly about Wikipedia, adding that “moving society forward takes a lot of dialogue and debate.” Israel native Dan Ariely, an expert on economics and irrational behavior, anecdotally explained why people do things in the short term that are harmful in the long term even when they know the consequences.
Later in the day, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair cautioned against simplistic oppositions: moral versus pragmatic, values versus self-interest, idealism versus realism. In an interdependent world, he said, values can represent interests. “Supporting freedom goes with the grain of human progress,” he declared. “The future will belong to the open-minded.”
The French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy made the case that Israel has little to fear from the “Arab spring.” Citing Montesquieu and Tocqueville he argued that democracies never make war against democracies. As for stable dictatorships, he argued that there is no such thing: “they are always overthrown.”
The politically engaged novelist Amos Oz, long an advocate of reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, articulated what he called a categorical commandment: “thou shalt not inflict pain.” He urged moving past simple questions of right or wrong, because in effect both sides are right and both sides are wrong. Observing that “some of the worst conflicts are between two victims of the same oppressor,” he sees both Israelis and Palestinians as victims of Europe—Israelis see Palestinians as Nazis, and Palestinians see Israelis as colonialists. As with victims in an automobile accident, said Oz, the important question is not who was at fault; it’s how to help the victims.
The Israeli Presidential Conference continues on Wednesday and Thursday. Sessions are streamed live at http://www.presidentconf.org.il/en/minisite2011_en.asp and available afterwards through the Video on Demand feature.
Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem, also blogs regularly for eJewishPhilanthropy.com.
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