After months of planning, the Jewish Priorities Conference was announced in late August at the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History.
The Oct. 22 conference was pegged to the launch of “Jewish Priorities: Sixty-five Proposals for the Future of Our People,” a new essay collection edited by David Hazony that features a long list of Jewish thinkers eying the way forward for the Jewish people. It was to “kick off a global conversation … for meaningful conversations about the future of the Jewish people, religion, identity, American Jews, the Holocaust, Israel, and many more topics.” The panelists were mostly contributors to the book.
And then Hamas attacked Israel.
Organizers went ahead with the conference and didn’t make major changes to the panel lineup, although the attacks cast a major shadow in terms of what was discussed. In addition, the conference’s subtitle was changed to “Together in Strength and Sorrow” from “A Global Conversation on the Jewish Future.”
“We decided to go ahead with this event, because some of the things we’re going to talk about are more important today than before,” Misha Galperin, the museum’s CEO, said.
Only five authors scheduled to appear canceled, including some unable to travel from Israel. But, Galperin added, interest in the conference increased in the last two weeks.
The conference began with journalist Dan Raviv interviewing Natalie Sanandaji, a survivor of the music festival attack, via satellite from Israel. And there wasn’t a panel during the in which the war and the question of what comes after that, did not figure heavily.
Liel Leibovitz and Stephanie Butnick, hosts of Tablet magazine’s “Unorthodox” podcast, moderated the day’s panels, which featured such prominent figures as Rabbi David Wolpe, Forward editor Jodi Rudoren, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, “People Love Dead Jews” author Dara Horn, American-Israeli political analyst Dahlia Scheindlin and Rabbi Shlomo Elkan, who serves as the Chabad rabbi at Oberlin College.
A wide variety of other topics were covered, including the ever-relevant question of how the Jewish community can better reach younger people.
There was serious disagreement and contention on some panels, most notably one titled, ”Promised Land: Sovereignty, Democracy and the Land of Israel.” Rabbi Yishai Fleisher, a leader of the Jewish settlers near Hebron, argued that “Jihadism has metastasized in our land” and blamed it on “left-wing policies,” while Tel Aviv resident Scheindlin retorted that the left shouldn’t be blamed because the political right in Israel “has been in power in Israel since 1977 with very few breaks.”
Columnist Stephens appeared to distance himself from the Times following the Gaza hospital imbroglio, introducing himself as “the editor-in-chief of Sapir — and I write for other publications.” Journalist Blake Flayton, known for strongly defending Israel on social media, was sharply critical of what he considered the missteps of the Netanyahu-led government.
That panel was interrupted at a couple of points by an unidentified woman in the audience, who rose to argue with Scheindlin. The woman was repeatedly warned by staff to stop interrupting and eventually was escorted out of the room. According to a Philadelphia police officer, the woman was not arrested.
That was the day’s only interruption, although fliers were posted about a block from the building with a #FreePalestine hashtag and a purported quote from Israel’s defense minister that, “We are fighting against human animals.”
Hazony explained why he and publisher Adam Bellow Hazony of Wicked Sons Books took up the project.
“The premise behind the book is that Jews in general are either focused on their subcategories, denominations and movements, or they’re focused on things that are universal, but there’s almost a blind spot in Jewish peoplehood,” he said. “And most things that discuss Jewish peoplehood as a whole are sort of top-down abstractions. We wanted to bring not sort of the big organizational leaders and politicians, but rather Jewish writers from all across the spectrum, from ultra-Orthodox to ultra-secular, from left to right politically, Israelis, Americans and other Diasporas, younger writers and veteran writers, influencers and so forth.”
What were the bounds of which views to include?
“I didn’t want people whose core identity began with the word ‘anti’-anything,” he said. “So, if somebody sees themselves as anti-Zionist as their core identity, or anti-Israel, or anti-peoplehood, or anti-Reform as their core identity, I wasn’t interested in that. But if somebody identified themselves positively — a Diasporist, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, and so forth — and they came with something positive to say that was directed to the people as a whole, then I was happy to have them.”
Indeed, the conference panels didn’t include any anti- or non-Zionists, although the range of disagreement on Israeli policy was vast.
Hazony, who lives in Jerusalem and has multiple children in uniform in Israel, had worried that no one would want to host the book launch tour in the U.S. following the events of Oct. 7. But each venue told him that they wanted to go ahead with it.
“I realize the importance of this book has only grown since the calamity,” he said. “On the one hand, we need unity, but on the other hand, we don’t want to be brushing our differences under the table anymore.”
The conference seemed to be well-received by most attendees.
“I kept thinking yesterday of the essay by Simon Rawidowicz (founding professor of Brandeis University’s Jewish Studies program, NEJS), ‘The ever-dying people,’” Leonard Saxe, the Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis, said in an email. “Throughout history, [according to Rawidowicz], anxiety about the Jewish future motivated Jews to find new ways to adapt and thrive. That seemed to be what we were doing yesterday. Lots of ideas, and even debate, but all directed toward finding ways to ensure a Jewish future.”
Stephen Silver is a Broomall-based freelance writer.