The 2018 Jewish Media Summit in Israel, like its two previous iterations in 2014 and 2016, has now been relegated to history. This year’s conference reached out to a new group of Jewish journalists, bloggers and social media influencers rather than the more traditional group of newspaper and magazine writers.
Even the title of the summit, “Israel and the Jewish World Relationship: It’s Complicated,” referred to a well-known Facebook status that was intended to engage those under 40. Not having been a member of that age bracket for some two decades, I felt challenged to take part in this year’s summit.
But, apparently, after the initial foray into the 40 and younger group failed to garner a full complement of journalists, the more traditional group of writers and editors like me were welcome to join them in Jerusalem for the three-day event.
Nothing like being made to feel welcome.
Anxiety aside, I registered alongside several of my colleagues from the American Jewish Press Association, each of whom, one by one, elected to drop out of participating. By the time the summit was six weeks away, I had resolved to make the most of it and see what would bear fruit in such a tightly controlled environment.
On Monday night, Nov. 26, a promised video welcome from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to occur. The reason was an official state visit from the president of Chad, the first time the Muslim state had reached out to the Jewish state. The summit attendees understood his reasons so as to avert a diplomatic crisis.
But in his place, he sent Michael Oren, a fiery orator who is a low-level deputy minister in the government and the former ambassador to the United States. Oren was on the bill along with Avi Liberman, a stand-up comic, and a white-faced and white-clad a cappella group called Voca People.
After a day-long conference at historic Mishkenot Sha’namanim on a range of issues confronting Israel, attendees were whisked to Beit Shmuel and the Shimshon Center. Again, Naftali Bennett, the minister of education and Diaspora affairs, was another no-show. Talk about feeling like a red-headed step-child.
By the time Wednesday rolled around I had expected the last day to be more fluff and stuff and no real substantive discussion of issues or answers to questions that begged to be asked.
After the first of three exhaustive security clearances, we made it to President Reuven Rivlin’s residence. My worst fears were confirmed when there were only two questioners allowed to speak following the president’s address. Of those, the first was a question that was not at all controversial.
The second person was a blogger who writes about kosher food. He used the opportunity to sing the praises of the government and the people for allowing him to attend the event and to write about food. Nowhere did he feel compelled to ask a question on behalf of the group about any of the bigger issues confronting Israel, such as the influence of Iran, the situation in Syria, the dangerous possibility of an entanglement with the Russians, the lack of progress in peace talks with the Palestinians, or any fallout from the charges of corruption that have been leveled at the prime minister and his wife.
We were ushered into a party conference room and placed around a circular table obviously used for the prime minister and his cabinet or party leaders and their members to discuss or vote on items out of the chambers of the Knesset. The GPO spokesman Nitzan Chen told us to be patient. He had a surprise. The prime minister was coming.
We waited for most of the next hour, expecting it to be at any moment. The talks with Edelstein and Livni were canceled due to the lateness of the day and the call for a vote on the floor of the Knesset.
And then in walked the prime minister, bearing a grin from ear to ear.
“So what do you want?” he asked, imploring for us to ask questions.
It was then I made eye contact with Bibi. I could tell he was going to allow me to ask a question. I girded myself and asked what I thought was a pointed question about Diaspora Jews and Israel.
“Mr. Prime Minister, there is a question about the relationship between the Diaspora and Israel. The question I have and (also) a lot of people: Is there any kind of a disconnect or not? Or are we all together? Is it Am Yisrael Chai, or what?”
Netanyahu did not address the question of a disconnect at all. “My view is we are all one people. Israel should be the home of every Jew who wants to have Israel as his home. It is, in fact. It doesn’t mean there aren’t any differences. There are disturbing demographic trends. We know that, especially with assimilation, which is chipping away at our numbers.”
It was there that the prime minister decided to answer a question not asked and he elected to move onto an area of population estimates and the numbers of Jews living inside of Israel and outside.
According to the analysis by Times of Israel’s Amanda Borschel-Dan, Netanyahu’s answer to my question and the others amounted to “a game of softball.” But it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part. It’s just that Netanyahu, who is a student of television and a former NBC commentator, knows how to deliver sound bites, act charming and is skilled in the art of deflecting.
There is a reason Bibi has survived the crucible of Israeli politics and still remains at the top of the heap. He is charismatic and he knows what to say and exactly how to wrap it up. It was a fitting Chanukah gift, don’t you think?
Alan Smason is the editor of the Crescent City Jewish News, where this article first appeared.