I’ve flown to Jerusalem to cover a three-day symposium on public policy in Israel started in 2009 by Israeli President Shimon Peres. This year’s version of the Israeli Presidential Conference is entitled “Facing Tomorrow,” but its first plenary session probably had some attendees wondering if tomorrow could come soon enough.
The first guest to speak in the session was Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, whose speech I mainly missed as I arrived a few minutes late to the start of the conference. In his final five minutes, Wales spoke about how the Internet has undermined dictators and accelerated people-power revolutions and expressed hope that the Wiki model could spread to force even representative governments to change — which is a fine aspiration, but has already been happening for a few years in the West.
The second guest was pop-singing star Shakira, whose presentation could easily have become a fluff entry. Surprisingly (at least for me), the Colombian singer came prepared for her appearance. She gave an impassioned and heartfelt explanation as to how early education can prevent radicalization, and used the example of the schools that the Colombian singer funds in South America. Shakira told the audience that “I firmly believe that it [education] is the very substance of peace,” and if she came across as naive at times, no one could doubt her sincerity in expressing her beliefs. She also wisely stuck to policy, albeit in general terms.
The same cannot be said of Sarah Silverman, whose appearance at the close of the segment was both puzzling and almost entirely empty of both comedy and serious policy. That wasn’t entirely Silverman’s doing, however. Thanks to a problem with the stage monitors, it became clear early that Silverman couldn’t quite hear the questions and that the moderator couldn’t quite hear her answers. The moderator seemed intent on doing a comedy routine with Silverman, insisting at one point that the comedian discuss why some Jews in America hate her. She finally erupted in frustration, “Aren’t we supposed to be talking about a better tomorrow instead of why people hate me?”
Unfortunately, Silverman’s weak attempts at serious conversation didn’t help much either. She repeatedly said that having Palestinians and Jews work together on solar power would solve the Middle East peace crisis like “a Hollywood buddy picture.” Silverman also took a couple of de rigueur shots at the Tea Party on “marriage equality” and emphasized her “blind faith” in Barack Obama. She then twice asked no one in particular why she gets cold when her bladder gets full, and that more or less ended her appearance. One woman next to me turned to her friend and said, aghast, “You think she’s funny?” Her friend replied, “Well … usually.”
If the start got off on awkward and insubstantial footing, the second plenary session provided plenty of substance — with Tony Blair, Shimon Peres, and Bernard-Henri Levy. I’ll write more on that later.
Note: The Israeli Presidential Conference is covering my travel expenses.