Author and former politician Michael Oren addresses the Jewish Media Summit, which took place in Jerusalem Dec. 19-22. (photo by Dave Gordon)
The Iranian threat, the new Israeli government, BDS, terrorism, and the challenges of aliyah, were just some of the discussion topics last December, at the fifth annual Jewish Media Summit, which took place in Jerusalem Dec. 19-22.
The nearly 100 attendees hailed from Israel and across Europe, as well as from South Africa, South America and North America, and included the Jewish Independent. Most panels and keynote addresses consisted of official spokespeople, politicians (incoming and outgoing) and organizational heads. The conference was organized by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Government Press Office.
Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Michael Oren spoke about one of his pet projects. Oren is a former member of the Knesset and the author of several books, including Ally: My Journey Across the Israel-American Divide.
Several years ago, when Oren was a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, he proposed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Israel have a blueprint leading into the state’s 100th birthday – Oren’s book Israel 2048 will be published in April.
To write the publication, Oren investigated different areas of Israel’s future: social, education, health and foreign policies; Israel-Diaspora relations; Palestinians, Arabs. “We found experts in every field. It was a tremendous undertaking,” he said. “I would not shy away from any issue, controversial, even explosive.”
About Israel, he noted “we don’t have sovereignty over large areas of our territory,” referring to the 60% of the country that is the Negev Desert. As an example of what this means in terms of governance, he said there’s no application of Israeli law regarding housing there and so there are some 400,000 illegal Bedouin structures in the Negev.
“But if I built a two-millimetre addition to my balcony in Tel Aviv, I have a police car there, within seconds, giving me a big ticket,” he said. Additionally, he said there’s “an inability to enforce [other] Israeli laws” there, so there’s no control over guns, drug or human trafficking, and polygamy is rampant, despite it being illegal.
Of concern, he said, is that more Bedouin are being influenced by Islamic extremism and the Palestinian narrative.
“It’s critical that the 2048 initiative is not the initiative of religious people, of secular people, of right-wing, left-wing, Ashkenazim, Mizrahim. It’s everybody together,” he said. “If you want Israel to have a second great century … we have to work on it. And we have to work at it by talking to one another, about real solutions.”
Oren spoke with the Jewish Independent about how he thinks Israel will ease challenges to aliyah.
“What shocked me is that large segments of the population are no longer interested in large-scale aliyah,” he said. “I couldn’t get people in Israel and [in the] Israeli government to be very interested in encouraging aliyah from France.”
The predominant reason for this lack of interest in welcoming new immigrants from France or any other country in the Diaspora, he said, is that Israelis are becoming increasingly angry at how the many costs of new olim (immigrants) are offset by the state.
“This is going to play out now with Russia and Ukraine as well,” he noted. “So, while everyone’s focused on the grandfather clause [of the Right of Return], I asked a deeper question: to what degree is aliyah still a central tenet of our raison d’être of the Jewish people? Because, from my perspective, if we are not encouraging large-scale aliyah, we’ve lost a big sense of why we are here. And I see this as a danger.”
The largest section of Oren’s new book, however, deals with the Palestinians. Oren said he was involved in one way or another with “every peace initiative since 1993.”
On another topic, Oren noted that Benny Gantz, then-minister of defence, proposed a solution to the Iranian threat: “force our international partners” into offering “military intelligence and diplomatic cooperation.”
“Our actions must be preventative, before it is too late,” said Oren.
On a tour of the Tz’elim IDF base, a 10-minute drive from Gaza, Gen. Bentzi Gruber spoke about the ethics of combat, stressing that the army makes enormous effort to minimize innocent casualties. In contrast, he said, only two Hamas rockets hit the base, while thousands hit civilian areas.
Gruber added that he fights a psychological battle, too.
“I fight all my previous wars every night in my sleep. My wife wakes me up when I’m yelling,” said the deputy commander of the IDF armoured division. “Every soldier that fought in a war carries the scars with them. If you killed a terrorist or a civilian, that never leaves you.”
The tour included a mini-Gaza mockup city, a training area for the Israel Defence Forces.
Kibbutz Nirim, a few hundred metres from Gaza, has been hit by rocket fire from Gaza in recent years. The kibbutz’s spokesperson, Adele Raemer, who addressed the United Nations Security Council in 2018, said the village had to build safe rooms, as residents have just a few seconds to get out of harm’s way. One terror tunnel discovered nearby was 75 feet deep, 1.1 miles long, and made of 500 tons of cement.
Still, she said, she “has nothing against ordinary Gazans,” and locals participate in Project Road to Recovery, where Jews shuttle Arab patients to local hospitals “because we care about our neighbours.”
President Isaac Herzog encouraged Jews around the world to fight the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) movement, whether espoused by foreign governments or the media, on college campuses or elsewhere. He commented on those who disagree with Israel’s new government.
“Israeli democracy is vibrant and strong,” he said. “The many voices that compose us do not point to the weakness of our democracy, but our strength. The rule of law, freedom of speech, human and civil rights, these have been and always will be the wall of our democratic state.”
In a non-political talk, Neta Riskin, who plays Giti Weiss in Shtisel, spoke about the surprise hit, which has run three seasons. At first, the show’s publicist told them “there’s nothing to work with” and it wouldn’t last, but word of mouth and good reviews bolstered the show, she said.
For her, Shtisel “has nothing to do with religion. It has to do with people – longing, hope and people’s desires. The cultural restraints of the show made it more interesting. No dead bodies. No sex.” She said she was pleased that women’s stories were also being told in the show.
Shtisel is popular in the Haredi community, with people watching it on their phones, according to Riskin. “The show managed to bridge an un-crossable bridge,” she added, noting how popular it was among all stripes of Jews and non-Jews alike.
Dave Gordon is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world. His website is davegordonwrites.com.