Petra, Jordan — At a conference here one day last week I had informal, friendly chats with more than a dozen people, including an American Nobel laureate in chemistry; a young man from Saudi Arabia in full native dress who is a student at MIT; the former headmaster of the New England prep school that King Abdullah II of Jordan attended (who is now, at the request of the king, heading a new boarding school in Jordan modeled after the American one); a British expert on mapping the mind; and a veteran columnist for Al-Hayat, a major Arab daily owned by the Saudis. (I was too intimidated to go over and introduce myself to the Dalai Lama, though he seemed most approachable and cheerful.)
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the fourth annual Petra Conference of Nobel Laureates, billed as a two-day international gathering of 250 of the world’s leading thinkers (including 30 Nobel winners) and held in this spectacular, ancient locale, is how natural it felt to be shmoozing with fascinating people one would never otherwise meet.
Indeed, the great achievement of the conference, convened by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity and the King Abdullah II Fund for Development, was to create an environment where it was comfortable for Arabs, Israelis, Americans and representatives from Europe, Asia and Russia to meet and discuss common goals, and specifically to address the worldwide hunger crisis, the global economy and the media as a force for change.
The conference was a grand and impressive event, one some might perceive as overblown with a sense of self-importance. There were lavish meals served in exotic settings amid discussions of starving children, and there was an elegant outdoor black-tie gala dinner staged with the floodlit and remarkably well-preserved remnant of a 2,000-year-old Nabataean temple as a backdrop, complete with sterling performances by opera star Renee Fleming and the Zukerman Chamber Players.
The conference program made a determined effort to avoid conflict and to focus on the pragmatic and the positive, looking to future solutions rather than past grievances. But given its Mideast locale and makeup, it was not surprising that politics, and most notably Arab-Israeli politics, crept into the discussion, dragging us back to the real world, if only momentarily, and reminding us of the powerful challenges at hand.
The incident that attracted the most media attention at the conference was a tiff between Israeli President Shimon Peres and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa at lunch last Wednesday. Moussa took offense at Peres’ remarks on how Israel made peace with Egypt and Jordan, during which the Israeli leader had high praise for Anwar Sadat and King Hussein for stepping up and negotiating with Jerusalem.
Moussa, who was not scheduled to speak at lunch, insisted on responding, angrily taking the podium and charging that Israel has been unwilling to deal forthrightly with the Palestinians while continuing to build settlements and demolish Arab homes.
“You are a master talker,” he said angrily to Peres, “but please, we cannot be taken for granted.”
Many in the audience, made up primarily of Arab participants, applauded loudly.
Peres, maintaining his composure, rose to respond briefly, pointing out that Israel dismantled all of its Gaza settlements and left, “so why is Gaza shooting” Kassam rockets almost daily?
He urged the representative of the Arab League to come to Israel and make his case to the Knesset, and “tell us how you can guarantee an end to the shooting.”
Another public flare-up took place the next day at the closing session, which featured five representatives of a contingent of 50 young men and women in their 20s — Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and other Arabs — reporting on the workshops they had participated in the day before.
Ostensibly summarizing a session on the use of water, a woman who identified herself as a resident of “occupied Palestine” used the opportunity to launch a tirade against Israel, asserting that “Israeli settlers” consume more than four times as much water as Palestinians and charging that Israel’s “illegal wall” and “confiscation” of water supplies are part of the Jewish state’s “collective punishment [that] creates a humanitarian crisis.”
Her remarks were greeted enthusiastically.
A few moments later Elie Wiesel (Peace Laureate, 1986) responded by noting calmly that he understood the woman’s anger, adding: “I had all the reasons in the world to be angry at the world, at God and at the Other.” But he said he channeled that anger into his writing and teaching, and hoped the woman, who was no longer onstage, would use her anger “for good, for someone else’s benefit.”
“I don’t believe in hatred,” Wiesel said, describing the emotion as a cancer that invades and destroys.
Addressing World Hunger
Clearly, it is Wiesel’s commitment to peace and his stature as a moral conscience that forms the backbone of the conference, attracting fellow Nobel laureates as participants and the Jordanian monarch as a sponsoring partner.
Calling himself “a matchmaker” and pledging to do whatever he can to bring together Israelis and Palestinians, as well as Jews, Muslims and Christians, Wiesel told the assemblage that “condoning another’s pain is not an option,” and that despite the wars, hatred and injustices that are prevalent in the world today, “there is always something we can do, and must do.”
At the plenary on the hunger crisis, after poignantly noting that “those who were never hungry will never understand hunger,” Wiesel proposed that a delegation of Nobel laureates join him in visiting “lands of hunger” to call attention to and speak out against the world hunger crisis.
The Dalai Lama (Peace Laureate, 1989), speaking with characteristic humility, said he was more interested in listening to others than in speaking himself. He attributed the world food crisis to “a lack of compassion” and morality, noting that when people read of children starving, they “feel sad for a moment” but not enough to take action.
The session’s other panelists were Croatian President Stjepan Mesic, who said governmental policies must be changed to “feed rather than waste,” and Nobel Peace Laureate David Trimble (1998), who advocated the use of genetically modified food to ease the crisis.
At the plenary on the global economy, Nobel Laureate Eric Maskin (Economics, 2007) pointed out that while globalization is a positive trend, it has widened the gap between the affluent and the poor, particularly in developing countries. The ensuing discussion focused on future efforts to improve the economic outlook, with agreement that the next U.S. president will have a key role to play.
Earlier, in his charge to the conference, King Abdullah II called on the participants to harness their intellect and abilities toward “innovative new approaches” to counter the “extremism” that threatens the world in general and the region in particular. “Success is the strongest answer to those who preach cynicism and destruction,” he said, calling attention to the Middle East Science Fund, which he initiated at the conference last year, and which will begin funding graduate student research projects in the sciences in the region, including in Israel, starting this fall.
Pessimism About The Media
The fact that the annual Petra conference, first held in 2005, has attracted relatively little media attention despite its high-profile participants and lofty goals can be attributed, at least in part, to the sense that the Jordanian leadership is ambivalent about promoting the event.
Insiders say the king is fully behind the effort but that Amman is concerned about how a partnership between Abdullah and Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Jew, one with Israeli participation, will be perceived in other Arab capitals.
As one of four panelists at the plenary on the impact of journalism, I brought up another reason why the conference does not make headlines: the media (reflecting human nature) thrives on conflict and tension rather than positive stories about cooperation.
I noted, as an example, that what attracted the most media attention from the conference was not the science fund or efforts to alleviate hunger or bridge economic gaps but the Peres-Moussa exchange.
The panel was generally pessimistic about media trends for the future. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who won a Pulitzer Prize into 2006 for his persistent and probing coverage of Darfur, said “we’re not good at being a force for change,” suggesting that the media does a far better job of reporting on things that happen in a given day, like hurricane damage, than things that happen every day, like the issue of climate change.
He predicted that news coverage would decline over the next five years due to economic pressures, increasing politically partisan reporting (especially on television) and the desire to entertain.
“It’s easier” to broadcast two pundits “yelling at each other than to do the hard reporting,” he said, envisioning a future of “more laziness and shouting.”
Nahum Barnea, the Yediot Achronot columnist who won the Israel Prize for communication last year and is one of his country’s most admired journalists, said that with the emphasis on new media, the Internet and blogs — he defined a blogger as “a columnist without information” — traditional news providers are losing their clout.
He asserted that “cameras lie” in reporting the news because they focus on violence to a degree that distorts reality.
Jehad Khazen, a veteran writer for Al-Hayat, the London-based and Saudi-owned daily, was highly critical of Arab governments and the Arab media, charging they lack transparency and a commitment to human rights. What they have in abundance, he said, is “corruption.”
He backed off a bit after being challenged by members of the audience, concluding that the Arab media strives to be objective. But he injected a jarring note of Mideast politics at the close of our session by citing statistics from B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, in attempting to prove that Israel inflicts more casualties on Palestinian children and other civilians than do the Palestinians on Israel.
The moderator, Jordanian journalist Ayman Safadi, then asked me if The Jewish Week would publish such reports.
I replied that we do, and added that I look forward to the day when the Palestinians will establish their own organizations like B’Tselem, monitoring their people’s conduct toward others.
The exchange was another sobering reminder that the Arab-Israeli conflict is never far from the surface, even at a conference stressing good will and cooperation among participants.
In the end, what will come out of Petra IV? There is the science fund and the planned campaign to highlight world hunger, but for most participants it is probably the networking and establishment of personal relationships that will be most lasting.
“I believe in [the power of] personal contacts,” Wiesel said after the conference, adding that he was particularly moved by the angry young Palestinian woman and hoped his response would resonate with her.
It will take a lot of what Wiesel calls “the Petra spirit” to undo the deep-seated anger, prejudice and hatred that plagues much of the world, and certainly the Mideast. But the point is to start somewhere, and that’s what the conference is all about.
Gary Rosenblatt was a guest of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan at the Petra Conference, which subsidized travel and lodging for its participants.