By ALAN SMASON, Special to the CCJN
The third biannual Jewish Media Summit put on by Israel’s Government Press Office (GPO) has ended, but the ramifications of the November 25-28 gathering and its sensory delights will reverberate for some time to come.
The initial outreach from the GPO was to focus on the so-called “new media” – bloggers and social media influencers – but in the final analysis, it was the more traditional editors and frontline journalists from across Europe, North America and Asia who listened and shared their stories that made the gathering in Jerusalem memorable.
The attempt by the GPO to connect to the “under 40” new generation of journalists was a deliberate strategy intended to fill spaces with new faces at this year’s Jewish Media Summit. The GPO paid for the expenses incurred in housing and transporting members from the international Jewish media once the conference got underway. Invitees paid their way to and from the conference and paid for their own rooms at the Ibis Jerusalem Center Hotel off Yafo Street prior to the three and a half-day long series of events.
This gathering of 110 Jewish participants from 30 countries followed the first-ever summit for Christian-based media held in October. That conference drew 140 participants from across the globe and featured top-level ministers from the government including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.
The schedule for the Jewish Media Summit only promised a videotaped welcome from Netanyahu and a reception at Rivlin’s official residence. Naftali Bennett, who is both the Education and the Diaspora Affairs minister, was also scheduled to address the gathering.
The videotaped welcome by Netanyahu that had been promised was never shown and Bennett canceled his Monday night appearance, prompting concerns from attendees that they were being given short shrift. A Wednesday guided tour of the Knesset promised that both Speaker Yoel Edelstein and opposition leader Tsipi Livni would address the crowd. It was late in the afternoon when GPO spokesman Nitzan Chen made the surprise announcement that the prime minister would address the crowd of journalists and answer questions directly.
The gathering at Rivlin’s residence in the morning had the president giving prepared remarks with a coordinated PowerPoint presentation, but only two pre-selected members of the media were allowed to ask questions before an official photograph was taken. Referencing the attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, Rivlin’s remarks first concerned addressing issues of hate against the Jewish people. He addressed the new media journalists directly stating they are on the “frontline” daily writing blogs and reaching out through social media in a relationship that “is complicated.”
Rivlin called the Jewish people living outside of Israel as the “fifth tribe” and used his PowerPoint presentation to explain about the other four tribes that make up the State of Israel. He explained them to be secular Zionists, national religious Jews, haredi Jews and Arabs. Rivlin said the hope of the future of Israel is for all of the four tribes to maintain parity with each other and to get along.
“Israel is a Jewish democratic state, not less democratic than Jewish and not less Jewish than democratic,” Rivlin said. “The two go together and cannot be separated.”
In contrast, Netanyahu’s press conference at the Knesset was shorter and had no such restrictions, allowing the media to interact directly with him without any filters.
His answers on issues such as anti-Semitism, a declining population within Diaspora Jews due to assimilation and an increase in the secular Jewish population in Israel were frank and off the cuff.
A cocktail reception was held on Sunday night in Zedekiah’s Cave, also known as King Solomon’s Quarries. Journalists descended down a cave lit by hundreds of small candles that illuminated the way to the cavern below. There the crowd was entertained by stand-up comedian Avi Liberman and the strange white-faced and white-clad Voca People.
In addition, former Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren addressed the crowd in his role as a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office. Oren pointed out how Israel had made historic visits to Oman and Dubai and had just hosted the President of Chad on that same day in an official state visit.
“These are extraordinary times for us. Israel’s in a unique position,” Oren said. “We have in the Trump administration, and I hope this won’t be too controversial, the friendliest administration that this country has ever known since this country was founded in 1948.”
Regardless of U.S.-Israel relations, Oren pointed out, Israel will have to deal with the peace process and that means dealing with Hamas and Gaza. “We want to do it while we have this friendly administration in Washington,” he continued. “We want to do it now while we have these close relations with our Sunni neighbors in the region and to reach an understanding both with the United States and with major Arab country players about the day after, because I have no doubt the IDF (Israel Defense Force) can take care of Hamas. The question is: what happens the day after? What is the future of Gaza and how do we assure that another Hamas-like regime once again won’t take over the Gaza Strip?”
As in past summits, the emphasis on Israel’s progress as an impressive start-up economy and its troubled history with its neighbors dominated discussions and panels. Monday’s day-long session at historic Mishkenot Sha’amanim, the first Jewish settlement built outside of the walled city, dealt with a variety of issues confronting Israel.
During the sessions on Monday, Israeli politics took center court as several Knesset members (MKs) were interviewed ty Jerusalem Post journalist Lahav Harkov. The issue of anti-Semitism from both the right and left was discussed by a variety of scholars from institutions like Yad Vashem, the worldwide Holocaust Remembrance site. Recognizing bias against Israel was also discussed on a variety of topics.
Guided tours took participants to the Temple Mount, to various locations within Jerusalem’s arts district, to the security fence and to various innovation centers associated with Israel’s Start Up Nation scene.
Evening tours included tours of the Old City, the bars of Machane Yehuda Market and a viewing of a new sound and light show at the Tower of David about King David.