By Alan Smason
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, put on jointly by the Government Press Office and the Diaspora and Foreign ministries, 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.
To be sure, as I learned first-hand at the Knesset, Israel is not like the United States. Yes, it has a parliamentary democracy like England and Canada, but there is no Constitution or Bill of Rights set firmly in place that guarantees freedom of the press as we enjoy. Without the luxury of freedom of the press or a responsibility on the part of journalists to be ethical, there is an opportunity for the public trust to be abused.
On 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. 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.
By the time the final day of the summit came, I had expected the last day to be more fluff. Sure, at the Knesset, we were slated to see Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and opponent spokesperson Tzipi Livni, but neither of them was a top-level minister or Netanyahu himself.
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 told us to be patient. He had a surprise. The prime minister was coming.
Soon, in walked the prime minister. The spokesman directed the first two or three questioners, but their questions were either self-serving about their home countries or were just outright dumb. “Mr. Prime Minister, should Israel keep the Golan (Heights)?”
It was then I made eye contact with Bibi. “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 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.”
While his statements were interesting, they were not an answer to my question about a schism that might exist between the Jewish state and the Jewish people.
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 knows how to deliver sound bites, act charming and is skilled in the art of deflecting.
He even shook my hand as he was leaving.
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.
Alan Smason is the editor of the Crescent City Jewish News, where this article first appeared.