Saving Jerusalem

It’s time to turn Jerusalem into a city that can lead the world – in innovation, culture and growth.Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, is the curator of many historical treasures and a focal point that attracts Jews and non-Jews alike throughout the world. Jerusalem also serves as the seat of Israel’s governmental authorities and national institutions, and a center for research and philanthropic institutes from all over the world. Jerusalem is characterized as a “scholar’s city”, a center for higher education and scientific research, with special emphasis placed on medicine and biotechnology. In spite of these advantages, of all Israel’s larger cities, Jerusalem is the poorest and its public image is on a downward spiral.

The city’s deteriorating economic situation over the last three decades is the key reason for the negative migration of its Zionistic, younger and stronger population, which in turn has aggravated the economic situation and developed into a vicious circle. Just between years 2003-6, the balance in negative migration has stood at 24,000 and a total of 64,900 people have left the city during these years.

It is important to note that most of those leaving the city are well-educated young adults up to the age of 34, both secular and National Religious and belonging to the middle-to-upper socio-economic level. The main reason for their departure is a lack of employment options. Their departure is an influencing factor in the lowering of the general standard of living.

Despite the comparative prosperity enjoyed by many Israelis over the last few years, the continuing economic weakness of Jerusalem indicates that urgent and vigorous action is needed to reverse the existing trend and to develop the economy of the city. This will help halt the negative migration of the more established families and will encourage young people and public servants to make the decision to live in the city and its surroundings.

Not only a city, a metropolis

So what should be done to change these current trends in the status of Jerusalem? In my opinion, we have to focus on employment development and on perceiving Jerusalem not only as a city, but as a metropolis.

The Jerusalem metropolis is comprised of Gush-Etzion to the south of Jerusalem, the Edumim area to the east, Mevaseret-Tzion and its surroundings to the west and of the area to the north of the city. Viewing these areas as part of the metropolis can enable new solutions to two of the main problems the city is currently facing. First, it will increase the city’s land reserves, thus lowering the skyrocketing housing prices and increasing the reserves for industry and tourism. Second, it will create more employment options for young people.

Regarding Employment Development, we need to specialize in three clusters in which Jerusalem possesses a competitive advantage: tourism and culture, medicine and biotechnology, and outsourcing.

Jerusalem possesses unique historical assets that are over 3,000 years old which have the potential for economic development. Therefore, Jerusalem has to re-brand itself as a magnet to tourists and as a source of inspiration to the Jewish nation – as a “light unto the nations”.

A “brand” like Jerusalem can bring more than 10 million tourists annually within a decade, but in order to achieve that, the city must develop suitable infrastructure. Also, it has to develop unique and unforgettable tourism experiences, which are ideological, spiritual and historical and that connect the past, present and future. This can be achieved by significantly increasing the city’s investments in arts and crafts, improving and upgrading the services available to tourists, and supporting international conferences in those spheres where the city has a competitive edge, and by re-planning ancient Jerusalem.

In the fields of medicine and biotechnology, Jerusalem has to brand itself as a city that is a world leader in specific medical areas where there is a clear competitive edge. This can be achieved by development in fields like: stem cell research, cardiology, fertility, cancer research and orthopedics.

In addition, there should be development in specialist fields. This should include importing leading international medical specialists, supplying government and municipal incentives that will translate into significant investments, and developing medical tourism and medical conferences in these fields.

Jerusalem can develop a flourishing industry built around outsourcing, a sphere in which the city’s population certainly has an international competitive edge. Outsourcing has huge employment opportunities, with enormous potential for future growth.

Develop jobs

Jerusalem is blessed with quality manpower which can offer competitive prices in the international arena, but first we need to develop 20,000 jobs for a wide range of Jerusalem’s population who are multilingual.

Secondly, we need to assist in stabilizing Jerusalem’s economy at a time of crisis. This can be achieved if we will focus on three areas: setting up an outsourcing center in the following niche markets: medicine, finance, law, accounting, computer programming, etc; aligning government incentives with employer and entrepreneur requirements in order to set up outsourcing centers in Jerusalem; marketing Jerusalem internationally as a preferential place for outsourcing.

For many years, too many people have been discussing how we should divide Jerusalem. I have always believed – especially in light of the fact that we have no real partner with whom to discuss peace – that the discussions about Jerusalem should not be about how to divide the city, but rather how to build and strengthen it.

The Jerusalem of today and of future generations must be a city that can lead: as a leader in innovation, a leader in culture and a leader in growth. Jerusalem’s ability to successfully meet the challenges it faces is largely dependent upon developing the city’s economy, and our ability to make the city flourish.

We all have an obligation to help Jerusalem stride forward, to turn the city into a model to be emulated by other cities, for “out of Zion shall the Torah come forth”. We are committed to making the city’s growth our top priority and to helping develop its unique qualities and resources.

Looking at tomorrow, Israel moves from 60 to 120

The recent President’s Conference in Israel was more than just a birthday gala, it was a frank discussion of how to solve some of the country’s most pressing social problems.The recent Israeli President’s Conference, convened and masterminded in Jerusalem by Shimon Peres, was an extraordinary event. Subtitled “Facing Tomorrow” – or in Hebrew, simply Hamachar, Tomorrow – it followed the festivities for Israel’s 60th anniversary and celebrated the country’s myriad accomplishments in many domains.

World leaders, presidents and high-ranking officials of many nations gathered in respect and friendship.

But the conference was more than simply congratulatory. Beyond the exhilaration of the moment, beyond the hoopla of a birthday gala, it was a gathering of brainpower to look toward the future – as the presenters took to repeating – from 60 to 120.

Most impressive were the open and in-depth discussions about the problems that Israel faces in this new century. While security remains an ongoing concern, it was the soul of the country that many of the participants – writers, political scientists, lawyers, professors, politicians – addressed, on many levels and in different realms. Without diminishing the complexity of what was discussed, I would say that two themes emerged as central: poverty and solidarity.

At the start of the conference, writer Amos Oz recalled a news report in the 1950s about a little girl who said she went to bed hungry at night. The country, Oz remembered, was shocked. Hunger? In Israel? A hungry child? How could that be? How could we allow it? The Knesset, the media – simply everyone, as Oz remembers it – became preoccupied with resolving the problem of poverty in Israel, a crushing poverty that sent children to bed with empty bellies.

Today, Oz noted with sadness, many go hungry, but no one feels shocked. The gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps widening, and the ethos of care – the sense of responsibility for the have-nots – seems to have diminished. The solidarity that defined Israel in the 1950s – an Israel far less materially endowed than today’s nation – seems to have given way, in more affluent times, to special interests and self interest.

This dual focus – responsibility for eradicating poverty and its attendant problems, and reinvigorating a sense of social solidarity – was echoed throughout the three-day conference, from many angles and by many speakers, from educators and philosophers to politicians and high-ranking government officials. Indeed, it was reiterated by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the closing session of the conference.

To be sure, Israel in its second half-century is different from Israel in its first decades. Then, it was easier to maintain the sense of cohesion and belonging in a small and more homogeneous population, especially with the very creation of the state in living memory of most of its inhabitants. Today, Israel is blessed and challenged with a booming population, and one of increasing diversity. Not only have Jews from a vast array of cultures made aliyah, but Israel is home to foreign workers separated from loved ones by thousands of miles, and it’s a haven to refugees from genocide and persecution in places such as Darfur.

None of the conference participants suggested that renewing social solidarity was an impossible goal, a pipe dream, a child’s idyll. Rather, the responsibility for one’s neighbors was seen as integral to the deep ethos of the country and profoundly Jewish. While it may sound like an ethereal goal compared with the more practical and tangible problem of poverty, it’s the ethical commitment that underlies resolving other concerns.

Many tourists visit Israel without ever facing the country’s poverty head-on. Dazzled by the country’s spiritual, natural and physical richness, and awed by its progress in so many industries, most visitors never venture into an overcrowded classroom, an inadequate apartment, or foreign workers’ quarters. And most countries, celebrating a significant milestone with international dignitaries and other invited guests, would not draw attention to such things.

But this conference demonstrated that Israel is not like most countries. At 60, Israel can rightly revel in its achievements – the creation and maturation of the state itself, against great odds; its inventiveness in areas such as agriculture, high tech, renewable energy sources, medicine; and its literary and cultural production. At the same time, its highest office encourages and fosters open, public and transparent discussions of problems and challenges that need to be solved.

In hosting, Peres brought honor to the office of the president and established his legacy for generations to come.

Reprinted courtesy of the Canadian Jewish News.

Israel and the Hulk

What do a great big green giant and Israel have in common? A great deal it seems.Years ago, whenever I would ask my summer camp bunkmate Chanan Beizer, expert on all things comic books, who would win in a superhero fight, the answer would always be the Hulk.

“Spiderman’s webs would be torn to shreds,” he would reply to my query.

“Iron Man would look like he came out of a trash compacter,” he would retort.

“Captain America would be wearing his shield on his kepele like your mother’s floppy beach hat.”

About 30 summers later, after recently watching the latest incarnation of the Hulk (The Incredible Hulk, starring Edward Norton), I was again fondly reminded of the sheer brute strength that the green monster possesses – and of how it’s a universal Jewish allegory of a misunderstood young geek longing for greater power over his life.

It’s no secret that the Hulk and his fellow comic book cronies were born of Jewish creators and like the Golem, were molded to protect us. The Hulk was born years after Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster created Superman and the superhero genre. He came to life in the 1960s, at a time of change for Jews – at a time when Israel, already nurtured out of the desert, again had to do battle against an army of Arabs, who were bent on destroying it.

Seeing the latest version of the Hulk in today’s context, I couldn’t help but wonder how germane the tale still is today.

For much of the world Israel is the Hulk, because that’s the only side of Israel the world sees. It doesn’t get to see the scientist, Bruce Banner, quietly working and creating Nobel Prize-winning experiments and amazing technological breakthroughs for humankind. Much of the world sees this big green monster throwing tanks and creating havoc.

They don’t see the cause that turns Banner into the Hulk. They don’t notice that Banner doesn’t like turning into the Hulk and does everything humanly possible to suppress his alter ego and the destructive transformation.

Pesky bullets and tiny rocket launchers have a minimal physical effect on

the Hulk, just as the stones Arab kids throw have little impact on the Israel Defense Forces . It all looks so harmless, until the giant arises and hurls back with a mightier and greater force, so that the provocative aggressors become the victims.

In one scene in the new movie, the Army general Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (played by William Hurt) corners Banner in front of his daughter (Liv Tyler) and launches gas canisters at him saying, “Now she’ll see what he’s like.” The Hulk is purposefully provoked to change because he’s being attacked. And once the Hulk appears, the cameras roll and he is to most everyone, including his daughter, a monster.

The Six-Day War created a perceptual change in the world’s eyes of Israel, which had been surrounded and attacked by Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Ever since Israel won that war and became the victor, the world has not seen Israel in the same light.

During that same era, and throughout his time on the pages of Marvel Comics, the Hulk too went through a number of character changes. (Did you know that in the first issue the Hulk was gray?)

But from the earliest stories, the Hulk has been concerned with finding sanctuary and quiet. Only when incited did he react emotionally and flare up.

While the Hulk is a comic book character, the fact that he, and so many others, from Iron Man and Spidey to the Caped Crusader, are still relevant today – outlasting plenty of other heroes (super and not) – speaks volumes about their influence and importance as iconic symbols of pop culture.

Their everlasting appeal and annual return helps me remember summer camp so well, when Chanan Beizer and I saw the world through the pages of comic books. Those hot months seemed to bake and leaven our teeming teen muscles like the radiated ones in Bruce Banner, emitting forces previously unknown as we attained the zenith of physical strength.

Alas, that was 30-odd years ago.

Peres sees the light

The President’s “Tomorrow” conference launched several complex initiatives whose success depends on public and private sector cooperation. Can he make it work?The impressive “Tomorrow” conference that President Shimon Peres gathered for Israel’s 60th anniversary was a great public relations coup, no mean achievement considering Israel’s dismal image abroad. But the ever-so-ambitious Peres had more than just public relations in mind. He wanted no less than to chart Israel’s future by studying almost all the challenges facing Israel, the Jewish people and even the world and then framing a comprehensive agenda for tomorrow.

The conference did indeed launch several initiatives – from planning the course of the Jewish people to digging a Peace Canal between the Red and the Dead Seas; but whether even some of these ambitious plans will actually materialize remains to be seen. Not only because they are immense, complex and objectively hard to “plan” and execute, but because their implementation largely depends on government and public sector cooperation with third way NGOs and/or private sector enterprises, a blend that has never worked successfully.

We know how well governments perform, world-wide and especially in Israel, where the role of government is so overwhelming and so anti-productive. Over 75% of Israeli government resolutions are never implemented, some would say mercifully so, because when they are, the results are dismal. Just look at what happened to the Galilee and the Negev or for that matter to all development towns, even to Jerusalem, all those places that governments tried to “develop.” Billions later they are usually worse off because governments, left or “right,” are not productive entities. They are focused, as they apparently must be, on discriminating and anti-productive political work, and they cannot implement their plans without fostering huge bureaucracies.

It is not accidental that all government-generated five- and 10-year development plans have universally failed, not only in Communist or Socialist regimes but also in so-called “mixed” (more accurately mixed up) economies such as Israel’s. The many plans for overcoming poverty and the “income gap,” costing billions and wasting precious resources, all failed. They also misdirected resources from market-generated productive activities, such as small businesses. Instead of economic growth, these government plans generated anti-productive and corruption-enhancing bureaucracies that abuse their power and make it impossible for productive enterprises to thrive.

A little late in his life (but as the saying goes “better late than never”) – and painfully late in the history of the state of Israel – Peres has been recently singing some really new tunes. After decades of employing massive state intervention to implement his visions, at high costs and very poor results (it worked once – we do not know at what cost, of course – when the far-sighted Peres helped Israel enter the atomic energy club), Peres recently started lauding the role of private enterprise in various developments projects. In his inimitable way, Peres claimed that industrial parks and hotels could better secure the peace in disputed border areas such as the Golan Heights and the Arava than fortifications and armed brigades. He neglected to mention, however, that in the foreseeable future, industrial parks and tourism in such contested areas will need the protection of a very strong force to survive, or they will meet the fate of the industrial parks and the hothouses that have been looted and set on fire by some of our neighbors who do not share yet Peres’ admirable understanding of the link between economic prosperity and peace.

Peres went even further. He lauded international trade and globalization for generating development and peace, making governments and their efforts look puny if not irrelevant. A really remarkable change of heart for a man who spent his entire life in politics and in government generated development schemes and who only recently branded the market economy as “piggish Capitalism”.

Even more remarkably Peres suited action to words and appointed one of Israel’s most remarkable entrepreneurs, Yitzhak Tshuva – a man known for his daring and flare, but more importantly a man with the ability to translate his bold visions into reality – as the chief implementer of his major project, the Red-Dead Sea Canal. If there is a person who could conceivably cut through the tangled ticket of bureaucracies that could block a project that is dependent on the cooperation of not only the notoriously uncooperative and resistant Israeli bureaucracy but also on the not less “talented” Jordanian bureaucracy (at least in Jordan there is someone – the king – who can keep the bureaucracy in check sometimes) it is a person like Tshuva. It is a stroke of true creativity on the part of Peres to have entrusted this project in his capable hands.

That said, the jury is still out on the fate of all projects that involve deep cooperation between the public and the private sector. Getting the two to cooperate is like mixing water with oil. It will take some doing to get a good working relationship between an entrepreneur that understands the economic opportunities and constraints of such projects, that knows to assess risk and to manage it, a person who has the flexibility and knowledge to deal with unforeseen contingencies, and the politically-rather-than-economically-oriented, risk averse and rigid bureaucracy.

We can only pray and hope that Peres’ vision of tomorrow will not turn out into another manyana.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post.

People vs. Dinosaurs

Who would you put your money on? Warren Buffett or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?Tefen Industrial Park, Israel

Question: What do America’s premier investor, Warren Buffett, and Iran’s toxic president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have in common? Answer: They’ve both made a bet about Israel’s future.

Ahmadinejad declared on Monday that Israel “has reached its final phase and will soon be wiped out from the geographic scene.”

By coincidence, I heard the Iranian leader’s statement on Israel Radio just as I was leaving the headquarters of Iscar, Israel’s famous precision tool company, headquartered in the Western Galilee, near the Lebanon border. Iscar is known for many things, most of all for being the first enterprise that Buffett bought overseas for his holding company, Berkshire Hathaway.

Buffett paid $4 billion for 80 percent of Iscar and the deal just happened to close a few days before Hezbollah, a key part of Iran’s holding company, attacked Israel in July 2006, triggering a month long war. I asked Iscar’s chairman, Eitan Wertheimer, what was Buffett’s reaction when he found out that he had just paid $4 billion for an Israeli company and a few days later Hezbollah rockets were landing outside its parking lot.

Buffett just brushed it off with a wave, recalled Wertheimer: “He said, ‘I’m not interested in the next quarter. I’m interested in the next 20 years.’ “Wertheimer repaid that confidence by telling half his employees to stay home during the war and using the other half to keep the factory from not missing a day of work and setting a production record for the month. It helps when many of your “employees” are robots that move around the buildings, beeping humans out of the way.

So who would you put your money on? Buffett or Ahmadinejad? I’d short Ahmadinejad and go long Warren Buffett.

Why? From outside, Israel looks as if it’s in turmoil, largely because the entire political leadership seems to be under investigation. But Israel is a weak state with a strong civil society. The economy is exploding from the bottom up. Israel’s currency, the shekel, has appreciated nearly 30 percent against the dollar since the start of 2007.

The reason? Israel is a country that is hard-wired to compete in a flat world. It has a population drawn from 100 different countries, speaking 100 different languages, with a business culture that strongly encourages individual imagination and adaptation and where being a nonconformist is the norm. While you were sleeping, Israel has gone from oranges to software, or as they say around here, from Jaffa to Java.

The day I visited the Iscar campus, one of its theaters was filled with industrialists from the Czech Republic, who were getting a lecture – in Czech – from Iscar experts. The Czechs came all the way to the Israel-Lebanon border region to learn about the latest innovations in precision tool-making. Wertheimer is famous for staying close to his customers and the latest technologies. “If you sleep on the floor,” he likes to say, “you never have to worry about falling out of bed.”

That kind of hunger explains why, in the first quarter of 2008, the top four economies after America in attracting venture capital for start-ups were: Europe $1.53 billion, China $719 million, Israel $572 million and India $99 million, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Israel, with seven million people, attracted almost as much as China, with 1.3 billion.

Boaz Golany, who heads engineering at the Technion, Israel’s M.I.T., told me: “In the last eight months, we have had delegations from IBM, General Motors, Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart visiting our campus. They are all looking to develop R&D centers in Israel.”

Ahmadinejad professes not to care about such things. He was – to put it in American baseball terms – born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. Because oil prices have gone up to nearly $140 a barrel, he feels relaxed predicting that Israel will disappear, while Iran maintains a welfare state – with more than 10 percent unemployment.

Iran has invented nothing of importance since the Islamic Revolution, which is a shame. Historically, Iranians have been a dynamic and inventive people – one only need look at the richness of Persian civilization to see that. But the Islamic regime there today does not trust its people and will not empower them as individuals.

Of course, oil wealth can buy all the software and nuclear technology you want, or can’t develop yourself. This is not an argument that we shouldn’t worry about Iran. Ahmadinejad should, though.

Iran’s economic and military clout today is largely dependent on extracting oil from the ground. Israel’s economic and military power today is entirely dependent on extracting intelligence from its people. Israel’s economic power is endlessly renewable. Iran’s is a dwindling resource based on fossil fuels made from dead dinosaurs.

So who will be here in 20 years? I’m with Buffett: I’ll bet on the people who bet on their people – not the people who bet on dead dinosaurs.

Reprinted by courtesy of The New York Times.