Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Israeli Presidential Conference: Take One

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem as a blogger, where I had the opportunity to speak to some amazing minds about topics that were important to me like conversion, Jewish peoplehood, and the future of the State of Israel. This year, I'm here as a regular ol' blogger with the fun privilege of getting to sit in the PRESS section and attend special sessions just for those of us in the press and blogging world (yes, tomorrow I get to get up close and personal with Sharon Stone)!

So far today I've attended some fascinating sessions and some really disappointing and poorly thought out sessions like the one on the media and another on technology in education -- both neglected to have anything remotely to do with technology, social media, or new media. Fail.

The day started out with a session that was geared toward honoring President Bill Clinton with the Israeli Presidential Medal of Freedom, but it started out with Tony Blair, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and Rahm Emanuel talking tachlis about what makes a good leader and what we need most now in the realm of leadership. Tony Blair regaled the crowd with some very sweet stories, wisdom, and inspiration words like "Do what is right, not what is popular," "Isreal's security is our security in the whole of the western world," and "Democracy means religion has a voice, not a veto."

Unfortunately Rahm Emanuel spouted out lots of ad material about Chicago, trying to sell us all on the glory of the city based on improvements in parks, airports, and transit! I will give him credit for one thing he said: "Never let a good crisis go to waste." That's sort of the Number 1 rule in marketing and social media.

And then, of course, you had the illustrious and wisdomful President Peres, who said, "I never thought in my time that fresh air would become a commodity." He also shocked the crowd by saying that he thinks that our new leaders shouldn't model themselves after the great Israeli leaders of the past like Sharon and Ben-Gurion, because our  new leaders must embrace a new world with an open mind and that our leaders must not lead people, but be led by the people. A beautiful sentiment.

Just as I was jazzed by Tony Blair, President Clinton also really blew me away. I've never heard him speak in person before, but he has such an air of confidence and wisdom about him. He spoke about successes and failures in his presidency, focusing on the failure to act in time, but the success in acting at all when the rest of the world turned a blind eye to what had happened. "Don't give up or give in," he said, "but get up and go on!" He also spoke about how we build a successful future, saying, "We have to stop seeing ourselves as victims and claim our future" while also stressing how we need to move away from the "us" and "them" concept. This sentiment, of course, made me think about the Palestinian issue and the existence of a peoplehood in the state of victimhood. He concluded a really moving (I almost cried) acceptance speech by saying, "I accept this award because I feel like a poor pilgrim on the journey to expand the definition of us, not them."

Then there was an economic session that didn't float my boat at all, but the next session was probably my favorite because it highlighted tomorrow -- the conference's namesake. There were three speakers, but two of them really jazzed me: Dr. David Agus and Professor Dan Gilbert. The former spoke about gene mapping and our responsibility to the global community and healthcare to know what's going on inside our bodies and the latter spoke about our brains, happiness, and how we respond to danger. Prof Gilbert spoke about how we react to things that involve intentionality, immorality, imminent danger, and instantaneous impact the most aggressively, because it's right there (like terror). But things that don't hit those categories (like global warming) we don't react to as quickly. It's why we're more upset about kidnappers than obesity when the latter is so much more dangerous and deadly. Why? Because the part of our brain that thinks about tomorrow is very small. Then he said this, which made giggle:
"If a bad man with a mustache were waging the war of global warming on us, we'd react."
So wow. What a day? I want to pick up Gilbert's and Agus's books because they sound amazing. These guys were super compelling speakers.

And now? More conferencing and then a party! It's going to be a long night ...