It was the first night of the Jewish New Media Summit in Jerusalem. I had been invited as one of 160 journalists and bloggers from around the world to attend a three-day event hosted by the Israel Government Press Office for an up close and personal look at issues impacting Israel and the Diaspora. As both an American writer and liberal Jew, I was both anxious and curious to attend this Israeli Government sponsored event.
When I received the invitation last fall, I was pleased to be recognized as an American Jewish writer that made sense to invite to this prestigious conference. I had been concerned about the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora since Donald Trump had been elected, if not before, and the summit’s theme “It’s Complicated” called out to me.
The night started off on a good note We were in a beautiful setting – Zedekiah’s Cave, an underground limestone quarry under the Muslim Quarter in the Old City. I was drinking cocktails, meeting writers, and ignoring any signs of jetlag.
Then the night’s presentation started and I heard Trump’s name repeatedly which I’m not supremely used to hearing often in New York except on the news (which for me is generally CNN or MSNBC). The POTUS mentions started with Michael Oren, Former Israel Ambassador to the United States, who called upon Trump’s administration as the friendliest Israel has ever known. He pointed out that we can’t lose focus that the Trump administration wouldn’t be in the White House forever.
Oren cautioned that although President Trump heads “the friendliest administration this country has known since its founding in 1948, we can’t lose track of the fact that this administration will not be in the White House indefinitely.” When he said that, my heart skipped a beat and nearly fell out of my heart. As a Democrat, all I think about is the day we will no longer be in this position in the U.S. and that Trump will be soon led out of the White House in handcuffs.
Then a few moments later, David Friedman, U.S. Ambassador to Israel spoke about Israel’s ties with Trump. He said, “We are blessed to have a president who embraces the truth, whether with regard to Jerusalem, with regard to Iran’s malign activities or with regard to the anti-Israel bias at the United Nations.”
I was not sure, but it felt like all 159 writers in the room present cheered with joy. Friedman called us all vanguards of the truth, but I wasn’t hearing my truth on the stage and I feared the summit would abandon a liberal Jew like me. Fortunately, my friend, the comedian Avi Liberman went on soon after that and made me and everyone laugh. I put my worries behind me momentarily.
On the first day of the conference, all 160 writers stood together around a Jewish star in the shape of the number 11 to commemorate the victims of that awful tragedy, and I instantly became concerned that the photograph would be used as part of right-wing Israeli propaganda. But I had hope in this summit. I went in knowing that things in Israel are complicated but was hopeful I’d find my place in this group of traditional and new media.
Fortunately, the summit picked up a more balanced tone the next day with sessions about Anti-Semitism, about how Israel is portrayed in global media, Israeli politics, and the incitement of freedom of speech. We heard from both right and left wing journalists and politicians, the most memorable speakers for me being Anshel Pfeffer, a correspondent for the left-wing Haaretz, and Matti Friedman, an award-winning Israeli author who made headlines a few years ago in calling out Associate Press as displaying bias against the Jewish state, and Knesset members from various parts of the Israeli government talking about our role as members of the Diaspora.
Mixed into our education were treats anyone visiting Israel is lucky to experience: the Sound and Light Show at the King David Museum, lunch at the Montefiore Restaurant. On the second day of the summit we were allowed to choose a track: Start-Up Nation technology; a visit to the security barrier in the West Bank; an art and culture tour of Jerusalem; and a walking tour of the Old City, including the Temple Mount and the Jewish Quarter. I opted for a combination of two and went on the art and culture tour as well as Temple Mount. I admittedly should have gone to the security barrier but was concerned the point -of-view reflected would not be similar to mine. That was a mistake though I thoroughly enjoyed my day.
On the last day of the program, we were taken to President Reuven Rivlin’s residence. Rivlin is a member of Likud but he argues for a Greater Israel that would embrace all people and give the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza full Israeli citizenship. His words were welcoming, if nothing else, but they seemed to gloss over the complications Israel is facing. “There is so much here that we are proud of what we want you to see and what we want you to share. Not just the advances in science, technology, and innovation; not just a secure state in the face of great enemies,” he said.
He was definitely going after the new media writers in the group. “We are also proud of the values that we work hard to protect. Israel is a Jewish, democratic state where the two go together and cannot be separated,” he said. “Show people what life is like here, picture by picture, tweet by tweet, face by face.” He concluded by saying, “Like it or not, the Diaspora and Israel are all in it together with the same goals, same needs.”
And so I did tweet and Instagram. I always do when I’m in Israel. It’s a place I love and am proud to be a part of. It was clear that the Israel Government Press Office had briefed Rivlin on the amount of influence that was in the room. And who can blame him for that? Once again, a photo was taken for press purposes, and influencers were given a chance to shoot a photo to send to their followers. Somehow, I was sat right in front of the President in the photo, this time looking down at my phone deep in thought.
Then we were taken on a tour of the Knesset, which was really interesting, and we even sat in on a session where a major vote was taking place. We weren’t exactly sure Netanyahu was going to give our group the time of day after a video appearance was called off the first night, but we knew that he had graced the presence of previous Jewish Media Summits so an appearance was inevitable.
Suddenly we were all in the room with Netanyahu for what was introduced by our hosts as a 15-minute Q&A. As the minutes ticked during the session, it became increasingly obvious that the questions were not only pre-planned but only certain journalists would be called upon. None of the questions made complete sense to me. They were all easy. One could tell even the Prime Minister knew he was getting off easy. No one asked about the Palestinian conflict or about his relationship with the U.S. President. He shrugged off the issue of dealing with an anti-Semitic leader such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. His comfort zone was the topic of Anti-semitism, Iran, the Golan (which he said, of course, Israel will keep). When one journalist asked him about the disconnect between Israel and the Diaspora, he shrugged and moved onto the next question. He laughed a
After that, we were taken to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs where we had lunch and heard a few lectures before the summit wrapped up. Israeli Diplomat Emmanuel Nahshon told us that “the State of Israel belongs to all Jews around the world. So if you don’t like some policy of the state of Israel, fair enough. You don’t like this or that policy, that’s quite alright. And not only is it your right to express your dislike but in a way, it is also your duty because you are a shareholder.”
Okay, so the State of Israel belongs to all of us and they want me to express my truth. My truth is, as I learned at the Summit, it is more complicated than I ever realized.
However, I met truly informed and interested people at the Summit who want nothing more than the truth to be told about the State of Israel, no matter what truth that is. That, for me, was my greatest gift from the summit, and I came home with Jewish journalist friends from all over the world who I believe will continue their quest for the truth. I plan to learn from each and every one of them. Whether we are on the same side politically makes no difference – it’s about the stories that must be told. Israel is a story unfolding that is very complicated, and that is a simple and honest fact.
So, I’ll continue to write about Israel. Most likely it will be a travel or culture oriented piece, as I am working on a few stories that came out of this very trip on multiple travel sites. That is what the Israel Government Press Office hopes that I will do, I reckon, along with the other lifestyle bloggers who attended the Summit. Many of the more traditional journalists wondered why we had been invited. There were Kosher food, travel, culture, and other types of bloggers who attended the Summit. It even angered a few of them. But if Rivlin and Netanyahu understood our presence at the Summit, why couldn’t they?