Last Month, President Obama drove past my home to visit the U.S. Consulate located half a block away. For the first time, I unfurled the flag which had been handed to my mother by a United States marine after it had been draped over my father’s coffin over thirty years ago. My sons and I hung Old Glory to honor the visit of the U.S. President. (I think my dad would have approved.)
Soon thereafter, I was invited to attend a gathering of technologists with Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher and Madonna’s manager Guy Oseary who came to Israel exploring new ventures for their investment fund. I was quite impressed with them as they discussed their worldwide investments and why they had returned to Israel. You never know who you are going to meet here.
Within Israel, Jerusalem has a special character. In addition to being the spiritual center of Judaism and the capital of Israel, Jerusalem is where East and West meet. It is a hub for many things and the ultimate meeting place – with history, religion and people.
This month Jerusalem has been bustling with activity. Jerusalem streets were blocked off for a Formula One race that started at the Old Train station, rededicated this month as a restored gallery of shops, restaurants and events venue. The race circled along the Old City wall to the Tower of David and Jaffa Gate, then below the upscale Mamila outdoor mall, past the King David Hotel to the finish line at Liberty Bell Park. Jerusalem’s Old City came alive at night as the annual Jerusalem Light Festival was projected along its walls and courtyards with installations and shows by artists along three different tracks which festival goers followed in all four quarters of the ancient capital . Modernity met history. At the same time the annual Hebrew Book Week brought vendors exhibiting their publications to one of the world’s most literate audiences.
The month culminated in what has been called the ultimate networking event: The Fifth Israeli Presidential Conference bringing together leaders in all disciplines to discuss the human factor in shaping tomorrow. World leaders including President Clinton, Tony Blair, and Prince Albert of Monaco joined lesser known leaders such as President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, former President of Mexico Zedillo and the President of Albania. Entertainment superstars Barbara Streisand, Sharon Stone, Dr. Ruth and Robert De Niro appeared with industry leaders from Cisco, HBO, AOL, Salesforce, PayPal, Microsoft, Imax, Goldman Sachs and Google. Together with thought leaders in science, technology, communication, law, finance and education, five thousand amazing people (more than half of whom came to Israel from over twenty countries) exchanged ideas and marked the 90th birthday of President Shimon Peres.
Among those who joined us in Jerusalem was Dr. David Agus who grew up in Cherry Hill. Dr. Agus’ first book, The End of Illness, is a New York Times #1 best seller and was also the subject of a PBS series. Dr. Agus is a Professor of Medicine and Engineering at USC and as one of the world’s leading cancer doctors, he heads USC’s Westside Cancer Center and the Center for Applied Molecular Medicine. He is also the co-founder of two pioneering personalized medicine companies, Navigenics and Applied Proteomics.
Throughout the conference there seemed to be several themes that were reinforced across all disciplines.
President Clinton framed his speech around the concept that “all of human history can be summed up as redefining who is us and who is them.” He called upon us to expand who we include in “us.” As Dr. Agus put it, “This needs to be the decade of convergence.” Scientists called for interdisciplinary teams, more than just collaboration, politicians called for inclusion as did economists. Hon. Tony Blair put it most eloquently:
“The great political divide of our time is less between traditional left and right and more between the open minded and the closed minded. The open minded see a world in which different faiths, races and cultures mix and mingle, as an opportunity; the closed mind sees it as a menace. Yet globalization, an unstoppable force driven by technology and people not Governments and laws, pushes us together. We live interconnected and interdependent. Such a world only works through respect for difference. You may have your faith and I mine but my faith does not make me superior to you or you to me. Those who use religion as a badge of identity in opposition to those of a different faith put our world at risk….Education the world over for an open mind could be the single best investment in our future security we could make.”
To sum up, as Prof. Dan Gilbert from Harvard put it, “Education is the magic bullet.”
Finance Minister Yair Lapid pointed out that the inclusion of the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students into Israel’s workforce will boost Israel’s economy. Integrating those who are trained in thinking with Israel’s ability to change and innovate will be an economic benefit in the information age, just as the absorption of one million Russians fueled the start-up economy. Israel, Lapid said, knows what, when and how to reinvent itself from survivor to warrior, from a nation that made the desert bloom with kibbutzim to the start-up nation. “Successful societies,” he said, “know how to change.” Rahm Emanuel who served two US presidents and is the current mayor of Chicago put it this way: “Change is the only constant. Nothing ever stands still.” He posed the question to leaders, “Can you make change a friend instead of a foe?”
Many leaders spoke of failure. Rahm Emanuel pointed out that “every leader fails. The real question is do they learn from their failure.” President Clinton spoke from the heart recalling one of his failures: His obsession to stop the slaughter of Muslims by Europeans in Bosnia which focussed his attention away from the genocide in Rwanda. With the Rwandan president sitting right in front of him, Clinton referred to his public apology and the lessons learned from his failure to prevent the massacre of 10% of Rwandans in ninety days.
There is much to learn, but we have to start listening. Dr. Agus reminded us that our bodies are talking to us all the time, we just haven’t been listening. In a session about brain research, we were introduced to the Human Brain Project which is seeking to “Googlize” human brain data by keeping it open to research but anonymous to protect privacy. By gathering this information and working in an interdisciplinary team, the Human Brain Project hopes to simulate the human brain. Listening and ingathering of the information available to us will teach us much. But, according to some, the world’s leaders must listen more attentively to their constituencies. Ms. Ayan Hirsi-Ali (whose story is too incredible to detail on here – look her up!) reminded us that while the Arab Spring erupted when leaders oppressed their people, those who replaced the deposed leaders will likely be replaced through the same process until true democratic leaders representing the will of the people are put in their place. President Shimon Peres challenged the leaders of tomorrow saying that they should not lead the people in the same way of previous generations. Peres called on the next generation of leadership to be the people’s servants and to listen to what their people want.
The message that through inclusion and education humanity will adapt to change by listening and answering with innovation seemed to emanate from every session. The future may get worse before it gets better, but the conference had a realistic and optimistic message for tomorrow.
Oren Nahari, the foreign news editor of the Israel Broadcasting Association challenged us to put ourselves back at the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur. Who would have thought that twenty years later the Soviet Union would have collapsed, he asked, and Israel would be thriving – absorbing one million Soviet Jews who chose a better more prosperous life in Israel.
We can not tell what tomorrow brings, but as Professor Gilbert taught us in his talk on happiness, human behavior is predictable. “We are more alike than different,” he said, amazed that humans are the only animals who can live together in a community with non-family members. Quoting the wisdom of Spinoza, Professor Gilbert reminded us that everything we do is in the service of our own happiness. With that in mind, the outlook for tomorrow is good because as human beings we are building a better future as we come together and include each other exchanging ideas and implementing them.