Thursday, June 27, 2013

Peres Presidential Conference -- Day 1 -- Part 1

This marked the second year that I have had the amazing opportunity to attend the Shimon Peres Presidential Conference, which is itself in its 5th year.  Susan and I attended last year, when I received an invitation as President of the Cantors Assembly.  (THIS year, I'm a has-been -- I became Immediate Past President in May -- but managed to get the invitation anyway. . . and my daughter Addie, a graduate student at the University of Haifa, also received an invitation.)

Above, a panel discussion at the opening plenary -- That's Israel Channel 2 Weekend News Anchor Dana Weiss in conversation with. . . Tony Blair, Rahm Emanuel and Shimon Peres (!!).

The Conference took place in Jerusalem at Binyanei Ha-umah, the Jerusalem Convention Center, a venue dating back to the 1950s (though not completed until the '60s) where the World Zionist Congress and other important gatherings take place.  (I got to attend the World Zionist Congress in 2010 -- and one of the thrills for me was sitting down near the front and actually being there when Peres came into the room.  He walked by me -- I don't honestly remember whether I got to shake his hand or not --but it's one of those times in your life when you feel you are close to a great and important person.  It was cool just to make eye contact, and takes me back to when I was a boy and my dad managed to get us in to see Sen. Robert Kennedy.  I remember our taking a picture with him -- with his hand on my head.)

The subject of the opening Plenary was Leadership That Makes A Difference -- and Bill Clinton received the President's Award.  (At last year's conference, that award was presented to Henry Kissinger.)

Some of the things said by the participants follow below. . .

Tony Blair pointed out that the skills to be elected are not necessarily the same skills needed to govern effectively, and that this is making it difficult to have reliable or inspiring leadership in democratic countries.  "Leadership is about taking responsibility when others aren’t ready to.  Taking the heat.
In this part of the world (the Middle East),  leadership is especially tough.  We live in a world of “uniquely low predictability.”

“I’ve learned since leaving office that it’s a lot easier to give the advice than to make the decision.”
"The conventional wisdom of today may turn out to be the foolish idea tomorrow."

In his admiration for President Peres, he quoted him:  “A leader must decide whether he wants to be in the history book or the guest book.”

Blair further said -- The Two State Solution is the solution.  The door won’t be open forever.  A One State Solution is unsustainable.

And finally -- The great divide today is not between the left and right, but between the open mind and the closed mind.

Rahm Emanuel -- formerly of the Obama White House and currently Mayor of Chicago -- spoke next.  

Among his observations -- "I’m proud to have brought my daughter for her bat mitzvah – to meet a man (Peres) who has lived a life worth living – which is a rare thing."

"The first thing I think about in leadership is failure.  Every person in leadership fails sometimes.  Do they learn from their failures?"

"What is the opportunity in every challenge?  Never allow a good crisis to go to waste.  It’s always an opportunity to do the things you thought you couldn’t do before." 

"Change is the only constant.  Nothing stands still.  Can you make the public accept it and welcome it?"

"A leader must convey three things--

"Being Mayor of the city of Chicago is the best job I’ve ever had in public life:  Many countries aren’t functioning effectively.  100 cities are driving the world.  Chicago is one of them and I want to make sure that it will be one of them in the future, too."

Emanuel chose to end his remarks with a baseball metaphor -- acknowledging that it might not have quite the resonance to an Israeli audience as to an American one.  "A leader needs to keep pitching."  In other words, when you're in a jam, if the bases are loaded and you've got a one run lead, you can't win the game by walking away.  You COULD lose -- but you're not going to win without seeing it through.

Shimon Peres (looks great, doesn't he? he's turning 90 in August) spoke next.  I remember at last year's conference, I worked hard to keep up with the wisdom when he spoke.  It was like Kohelet -- the wisdom of Solomon.  He had plenty of wisdom this year too:

I wouldn’t recommend to anyone to follow the leaders of the past.
All known ideologies have opposition.  A new ideology has a chance. . . for a while.
Leaders today should not lead.  They should agree to be led by the people.
                The public squares today are stronger than the camps, the parliaments.

You have to have a majority to do right things.  But you don’t need a majority to do the wrong things.  A small group of people can destroy our lives. 
                2 people can paralyze Boston
                15 people can come to the U.S. and kill thousands of people.

Next. . . Bill Clinton received the President Award.

A moving video was shown of the accomplishments of President Clinton and the depth of his relationship with Rabin, with Peres, with Israel.

It was moving for us -- and it was clearly moving for Clinton as well.

He began by quoting Peres from the Peres Birthday Celebration -- nationally broadcast the evening before:  

"The Two State Solution isn’t a fantasy.  Any other solution is a fantasy.”
 “You became a leader of humanity by inspiring, not imposing.”

(More of Clinton's remarks below. . . )

President Clinton spoke at some length -- movingly, inspiringly.  Some highlights:

"The search for peace isn’t easy in a small time frame.  It is a way of life.  That’s why Shimon Peres has survived 90 years.  He gets up every day and focuses on today and imagines tomorrow and only thinks of yesterday to the extent that it’s relevant."

"In a world of increasing interdependence, we not only have to repair the breach (in tikun olam) but have to expand the definition of that community.  The limitations are many.  We live in a time when old barriers are being torn down and new ones being erected."

"There is a constant struggle to redefine those to whom we feel the obligation of tikun olam. Who’s in our group and who lies outside it?  Should we be trying to put everyone in it?"

President Clinton spoke about his experiences in Rwanda, which he acknowledged as one of the biggest mistakes of his Presidency -- not seeing what was happening there fast enough, not reacting strongly enough, not doing enough.  He has focused a lot of effort SINCE his Presidency on working with Rwandans as they carry their country forward.

"One of the greatest examples of overcoming past conflict is represented here by the President and 1st Lady of Rwanda – also one of the greatest examples of my neglect as President.  In Rwanda, 10% of the country was slaughtered in 90 days.  I went to Rwanda in 1998 and publicly apologized for the US not having acted better sooner.  In 2001, I saw a stunning example of what the President of Rwanda accomplished in changing the us/them dichotomy.  The press sought to find people who said “What’s Clinton doing here?  He screwed up?”  A Rwandan cab driver said to a reporter “I’m GLAD he (Clinton) is here.  Nobody came to help us and he’s the only one who said he’s sorry.  He didn’t make us kill each other.  We had to assume some responsibility for that.  And as our President keeps telling us, we need all the help we can get.”

"Every one of us will face challenges and we won’t meet them all.  The lesson of President Peres’ life is to get up and go on."

"It’s nice to receive an award.  It's nice for a country to have its monuments.  But there are no final victories, perfect warriors for peace, flawless leaders.  Every day inside every person the battle begins as the morning breaks.  Every one of us when we wake in the morning has inside a scale.  Hopes and dreams vs. fears and resentments, angers and disappointments.  Every day when we get up, the balance between the bright side and the dark side is a little difference, isn’t it? 

"We HAVE to let go.  We need to expand the us and shrink the them.  We don’t get to stop.  We have to show up and go on.

"The most moving person I met when I went back to Rwanda and met victims of the genocide.. . . she screamed to God in anger when she was spared after the murder of her husband and 6 children.  But she decided their MUST be a reason.  So she ran an orphanage.  

"On a subsequent trip, I met a young man who guided me around, showing me the progress in institutions and national reconciliation.  73 people in his family had been killed, but he felt that showing me all the good things was therapeutic.  When I told him about the woman I met who had inspired me on the previous trip, it turned out it was his aunt."

"Now. . . as to the Palestinians. . . there are lots of reasons you can’t move forward.  The one thing I know is. . . the lesson that has been driven home. . . and I can give you 100 examples. . . If you are compelled to share the future, you have to decide what the sharing’s going to be.  If it’s too much for you and not enough for them, there will always be scales to correct.  There’s no perfect answer.  There is simply the perfect obligation to expand the definition of us and shrink the definition of them.  I ask you to think about that."

"In Rwanda, I learned that the answer to "Hello Good Morning How Are You" is "I See You."  President Peres always tries to see everyone. All the people that we sometimes don’t see are going to be part of our future.  We must strive to expand the definition of us and reduce the definition of them.

Israel should always be seen in a state of BECOMING. . .The whole region can be in a state of BECOMING.

Do you have to be strong and defend?  Yes.  But in the end we will be judged whether we expanding the definition of us and shrinking the definition of them.

Stay on the path.  Keep looking.  Keep working.

It was worth it going to Israel JUST for the Opening Plenary.  There was much more -- and I'll write about it subsequently.  

But I hope that you'll join Bill and Shimon and me in trying to make the world more us and less them -- in continuing to move forward to achieve the possible in the face of too many people declaring the necessary to be IMpossible.

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