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As Israel reflects, luminaries look ahead

Group wrestles with key issues for nation, world

A soldier placed flags yesterday on the graves of Jews killed during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. The flags at the Mount of Olives cemetery are part of Israel's 60th anniversary. A soldier placed flags yesterday on the graves of Jews killed during Israel's 1948 War of Independence. The flags at the Mount of Olives cemetery are part of Israel's 60th anniversary. (brian hendler/getty images)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ethan Bronner
New York Times News Service / May 8, 2008

JERUSALEM - The Jewish people are marking the 60th anniversary of their national rebirth, the founding of Israel, today with the usual military flyovers, flag buntings, and televised reminiscences of aging pioneers.

But another form of celebration is planned, and its sponsors believe it says something about the national character: a three-day conference of some of the best minds from around the world on some of the biggest challenges facing humankind - and especially the Jews - in the coming decades.

"The brain enriches the pocket, not the other way around," Shimon Peres, Israel's president and the patron of the conference, said in an interview. "We are a small land and a small people, but we can become a daring world laboratory, and that is our desire and plan."

Nearly 700 guests are expected to take part next week in 35 discussion groups. They include such statesmen as Henry A. Kissinger, Vaclav Havel, and Tony Blair, but also Sergey Brin of Google, Terry Semel of Yahoo, and Rupert Murdoch, along with seven Jewish Nobel laureates and President Bush.

Given the guest list, the topics are naturally big and ambitious, including the shift in global power from West to East (and south), nuclear proliferation, and climate change. But much of the focus will also be on topics closer to home such as Islamic extremism, the rise of Iran, and sovereignty in Jerusalem.

In fact, what are billed as global challenges - terrorism, Iran - seem to be somehow especially Jewish and Israeli ones. The organizers say this is not coincidental or unusual and point as an example to Hitler, who posed an enormous threat to the world but focused particularly on the Jews.

"Cataclysms always seem to affect Jews first," remarked Stuart E. Eizenstat, a senior official in the Clinton and Carter administrations who wrote an essay that forms a basis for the conference. "Go back to the Black Plague. It was not a Jewish issue, but it had particular impact on Jews because they were blamed for it."

There will be a number of senior officials from Central Europe and Africa, including the presidents of Georgia, Poland, and Burkina Faso.

Missing from the conference will be any serious Arab representation. Political and intellectual leaders from Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian areas have been invited, but none has confirmed partly because simultaneously the Arab world will be marking Israel's 60th anniversary as a catastrophe known as "Nakba Day," which will involve their own conferences and demonstrations. The organizers in Jerusalem are still hoping a few will come.

Peres said the idea for him was to bring thoughtful Jews and non-Jews together in the perhaps idle hope of "making the Jews more worldly and making the world more Jewish."

He gave as examples Israel's innovative approach to irrigation and its strong presence in medical equipment production worldwide.

"In China, they may not know who Moses was, but they do know about our drip irrigation systems," he said.

The back work for the conference has been done by a relatively new institute known as The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, which was the idea of former Israeli journalist Avinoam Bar-Yosef and whose chairman is Dennis Ross, the former top Middle East peace negotiator for the United States. The institute seeks to incorporate strategic planning into Jewish life here and abroad and to make sure that Israel and world Jewry understand their common interests.

One significant development of recent years that will be discussed is the shift in the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jewry. For decades, Israel was the needy child depending on contributions and support from abroad as it struggled to survive.

Today, Israel's Jewish population of 5.5 million is the world's largest, just ahead of that of the United States, which is slowly declining through low birth rate and intermarriage. Israel has become the center of Jewish life and is increasingly being asked to act like the older brother to Jewish communities elsewhere.

"This imposes certain responsibilities on Israel as the center of Jewish culture, literature and religious thought," Eizenstat said. "Because Israel has been so focused on its security, it has not reached out enough in the past to strengthen the diaspora.

"Such a move also ran counter to Zionism, which foresaw all Jews moving to Israel. But that is not going to happen, and Israel is starting to understand that a weak Jewish diaspora means a weak Israel," he said.

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