Undiscovered commercial treasures in the Holy Land

A year after the war in Lebanon, Israel’s economy is thriving. Who is taking advantage?During the past 12 months, the Israeli economy has fought off the effects of a war in Lebanon. On the southern border, Hamas has launched hundreds of rockets into nearby Israeli towns and villages. And yet, the Israeli economy has rarely had it so good.

The country’s statisticians have just released a further stream of positive news. Unemployment is at its lowest in years. Foreign direct investment is expected to grow by 8.0% in 2007, passing $15 billion. The stock market has seen new peaks. GDP increased by 6.3% in the 1st quarter of 2007. It is growth time, and the improvements have flowed from prudent policies, overseen by finance ministers of all parties.

CNBC Europe television recently developed this theme in a series of features on the Israeli economy. Covering a range of stories on local commerce and finance, one of the main conclusions was that Israel has departed from the international axiom that only peace brings prosperity. Sure, it is preferable if your neighbors love you. However, Israel has ‘invented a technology’ that enables its industries and services to develop, even as the guns are going off.

This process started back in the mid-1980s, when the government introduced a series of banking and structural measures to free up the economy. Jumping forward to 2007 – after a couple of ‘Intifadas’ and some wars with Hizbullah – and Israel regularly features in the top rankings of countries for commercial competitiveness. As Deutsche Bank observed in its July 2007 review; “We continue to view Israel as one of the most robust economies in Europe, Middle East, and Africa region.”

Multinationals have not waited for banks to issue surveys. Motorola’s Israeli facilities are the company’s largest development center outside of the US. Kodak and Intel have similar relationships with Israel’s expanding skilled workforce. In June 2006, Boston Scientific announced an agreement with Remon Medical Technologies in Caesarea, whose value has been estimated at $380 million.

The question is whether Israel is promoting itself abroad as much as possible. True, Israel’s exports are responsible for the boom, a trend continuing into 2007. And yet, others argue that this growth is often revealed through the lead of the country’s industrial giants like Teva. It is the little guys, the small and medium sized enterprises which make up the bulk of any economy, who are at the heart of Israel’s high tech economy and who are being ignored This sector has yet to realize its full potential.

An Israeli colleague of mine has experienced this contrast at first hand. He has begun working with a new European-based consortium, focused on the possibilities offered by Israeli high tech start ups. Although the consortium represents an experienced and sophisticated team in the many facets of international trade, they have been fascinated and surprised by the range and quality of opportunities available in Israel. They have come to understand how young Israeli companies frequently possess a unique IP, but need help to punch their message through to the beckoning European and American markets.

In a parallel development, Nobska Ventures from America opened up in 2007 a $50 million Israeli focused fund to invest in new projects. By June, it had already announced a $1.2m equity investment in ClassifEye Ltd, whose fingerprint authentication software is expected to expand mobile commerce applications in the US. In Israel, the company’s size can be a poor indication of commercial possibilities.

It is significant to recall the words of Alex Ricchebuono, regional sales director for Southern Europe of Janus Capital Group Inc, which has begun operating in Israel. Recently quoted in the Israeli financial columns of Globes, he said, “The perception that Israel is a small market is mistaken. The Israeli market isn?t large compared with other markets, but it has the potential for driving deals abroad. To define the Israeli market as an emerging and undeveloped market is a mistake.”

The Israeli economic machine, as expressed in its new and smaller companies, has learnt to brand itself, in spite of the geopolitical environment. The recent entry in to the hallowed club of the OECD is another vote of confidence in what Israel has to offer: a well-educated workforce, an in-built dynamism to create yet more technology, and the strength and the sense of purpose to succeed.

The international community has been used to hearing the news on Israel reported in the context of violence. The commercial and financial reality of the new ‘milk and honey economy’ has been hidden from view. The secret of the Israeli version of a peace dividend has finally been exposed. The opportunity exists to reap the commercial benefits.

Follow Israel’s lead on fixing airport security

It’s not racism or bigotry but common sense to pay special attention to certain travelers. Have you stood in an airport security line waiting for screening and wondered how effective the procedures were? After a recent overseas trip to Israel and several domestic flights, my wife and I do more than wonder: We worry.

The Department of Homeland Security and its component – the Transportation Security Administration – have strengthened security at airports since Sept. 11. But America still needs major changes in philosophy, screening and onboard security before our airports and planes are as safe as Israeli ones.

The Israelis became the first victims of Middle Eastern aviation terrorism when an El Al flight from Rome was hijacked in 1968. Strong security measures have prevented a single El Al plane from being seized since, and no commercial airliner leaving Israeli airports has ever been taken over.

How does Israel do it? The first answer lies in philosophy. Israeli procedures concentrate more on identifying people who are threats than things that are threats. That makes them more proactive than US protocols, which remain largely reactive.

Israeli security staff appear better trained and more alert than American staff. They earn better salaries and have higher educational levels. We noticed that whereas TSA personnel often chat with one another at checkpoints, Israeli personnel focus consistently on evaluating the passengers.

When we passed through security at La Guardia Airport in New York, TSA staff were so engrossed in their own conversation that no one watched the X-ray monitor for onboard luggage. The line ground to a brief halt until an agent noticed and resumed scrutiny of the screen.

In contrast, multiple layers of El Al security began with several rings of armed personnel and progressed to individual interviews by questioners trained to notice body language as well as verbal answers. Such vigilance detected the threat posed by Anne-Marie Murphy, a 32-year-old Irish woman at Heathrow airport in 1986.

Without her knowledge, her fiancee – a Palestinian terrorist – had hidden in her carry-on bag a bomb designed to explode in flight and kill 375 passengers, including Anne-Marie.

TSA staff would have trouble stopping such a plot not only because of the greater number of passengers that they must cope with, but also because federal rules prohibit profiling, a technique that is widely used abroad.

Yet all 19 terrorists on the Sept. 11 flights were Middle Eastern males in their 20s and 30s. It is not racism or bigotry but common sense to pay special attention to such travelers. As an Israeli acquaintance sardonically said, “We Israelis want to stop terrorists, but you Americans want to be politically correct.”

Harsh words, but they make you think.

They do so particularly because Israeli screening for weapons and dangerous devices succeeds better than our own. The TSA’s figures show that in 2002 American screeners missed 70 percent of knives and 60 percent of false explosives sent through X-ray machines by testers.

Improvement is slow. NBC News reported last year that federal agents smuggled materials needed to make homemade bombs through security checks at 21 airports. Six months ago, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that 20 out of 22 weapons got by screeners at Newark’s Liberty International Airport.

Onboard security provides a third area for improvement. All El Al flights have reinforced steel doors at the cockpit, and those doors remain locked while any passengers are on the plane. In contrast, the doors remain wide open during boarding of most US flights. And all Israeli flights carry more sky marshals than American ones.

Finally, the Israeli procedures make obvious sense to the public and are carried out with more politeness than we routinely experience in American airports. Nor did we hear the shouting there that we routinely do in our own country.

Without improvements, our system will produce more absurdities like the hour-long detention in June of former Secret Service officer Monica Emmerson. She annoyed TSA personnel by spilling water from her toddler’s sippy cup at Reagan International Airport in Washington. TSA insisted that she clean it up as well as go through their procedures all over again and so missed her flight.

It’s hard to see how that made our skies any safer.

(Originally appeared in the Detroit News)

Activists told focus on Israel beyond the conflict

Activists told focus on Israel beyond the conflict

Thursday, July 26, 2007

by Eric Fingerhut

Staff Writer

The women dress in burkas and are subservient to men. There’s no grass or green anywhere, but lots of barbed wire. Everyone is ultrareligious.

That’s the image many Americans have of Israel, according to focus group research. And Larry Weinberg wants to change that.

“Israel is defined by two lenses – the eternal conflict or [religious] Orthodoxy,” he told about 30 local Jewish activists on Wednesday of last week at the Embassy of Israel in the District. “We need another lens,” a “human” one that focuses on technology, health and culture, he said.

Americans, he added, need to know that Israel is helping to make their lives “easier, safer, more efficient and healthier,” he said.

Weinberg is executive vice president of Israel21c, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization whose aim is to provide Americans with news and information about Israel “beyond the conflict.” He was in town last week to offer what he calls a “new paradigm” for pro-Israel communications at an “Israel Branding Summit” for invited guests, both in the morning at the embassy and later that evening at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville.

Similar events have been held eight times in various American cities during the past year, including San Francisco, Miami and Boston.

Israel21c uses research from focus groups that had been convened by the Brand Israel Group, marketing professionals concerned about Israel’s image, according to Weinberg.

He said that Israel is a “ubiquitous positive presence in the lives of all Americans.” As evidence, he pointed out that Israeli-made computer chips and other technological advances help power such everyday products as cellphones, satellite television and MRI machines.

“Why don’t people know this stuff?” he asked. “We haven’t been telling them about it.”

Weinberg said the recent controversial photo spread of female Israel Defense Forces soldiers in sexy poses in the men’s magazine Maxim was a “superb” example of strategic communications, because it exposed millions of young American males – a demographic that knows the “least information about Israel” – to the Jewish state and “gets them to think differently” about the country.

“Pro-Israel communication should be like a well-balanced meal,” Weinberg said. News about Israeli technology and culture “is not dessert, not something you do when you have room,” he said. “It may not be the steak, but it’s got to be the peas and mashed potatoes that come with it.”

One attendee cautioned that altering public opinion on Israel will not be easy.

Norman Goldstein, vice president of Israel and overseas for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, said he strongly favors the idea, but noted that “there is a presupposition that everybody really cares” intensely about Israel.

While everyone in the room last week did so, it’s not something regularly on the minds of many others, he said.

Getting Israel to turn up on their radar screen, he said, is a “real challenge.”

Weinberg and Israel21c consultant Pearl Lerner Kane, who also spoke to the group, acknowledge that news about Israeli medical discoveries or the hip-hop scene in the Jewish state are never going to overtake news about the conflict, and they emphasize that they are not advising anyone to ignore that aspect of Israel.

Their effort also does not replace the continued need for political advocacy, they said. But over the long term, they envision that news reporting about Israel could go from the current 98 percent about the conflict to perhaps 70 percent, with the remaining 30 percent beyond the conflict.

Kane said the best way to get that message out is through “word of mouth,” whether by talking about the topic in one’s social networks or alerting media contacts about stories that they might find interesting.

For instance, Weinberg recalled to the gathering a recent dinner he and his wife had with a couple he was meeting for the first time. Aware that the husband was an endocrinologist, he spent a half-hour earlier that day researching information about Israel in which the doctor might be interested.

The Israel21c effort comes as recent polls show American support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians is as strong as ever. Weinberg said after the summit that such support is important, but is “all based on Israel’s geopolitical utility to the United States,” and that Americans need to be given additional reasons why they should identify with the Jewish state.

Reaction from those in attendance last week was enthusiastic.

Miriam Zaghi, who teaches about modern-day Israel at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, said she thought the idea was great.

“It’s a nice shift,” said Zaghi, 30. “People need a positive vision.”

She added that “word of mouth works,” noting that she’s seen it work when she’s “gone out and spoken to people.”

“Word of mouth is more than one to one,” said Leonard Bebchick, an American Jewish Committee Washington-area vice president. He noted that having other Jewish organizations link to Israel21c’s Web site, for instance, will help get the message out. (The organization also sends out a weekly e-newsletter with links to the new stories that have been posted to its Web site, and Weinberg said the group has already placed 5,000 stories in American media during the past few years.)

Eric Rozenman, Washington director of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), also thought Israel21c’s ideas are important, noting that when he meets with media members, he will suggest that reporters write about other aspects of the Jewish state besides the conflict.

While emphasizing the continued need for media watchdog groups like his, he said grassroots efforts like Israel21c’s could be effective in the long term. As an example, he pointed to the success of Arab propaganda efforts since the Six Day War, which he said helped turn once positive media chronicling of the Jewish state into much more critical coverage in recent years.

Israel’s fundamental value of medicine

No questions are asked that are not pertinent to the patient’s immediate stabilization.
Outside the trauma room at Beilinson Medical Center in Petah Tikva, health-care professionals mill about, joking with one another, discussing banal topics, or scrutinizing the plots and relationships on some television show.

Nothing foreshadows the gravely serious scene about to unfold. As the doors to the emergency room part and gurneys are wheeled in, the shift in demeanor is striking. Expressions become serious; motions, deliberate; and all verbal communication, professional. In a cloud of frenzied action lasting no more than a few minutes, the trauma room is transformed from coldly sterile and silent into chaotic and often bloody disarray. Every person in the room recognizes the importance of time, of distinguishing immediate danger to the patient vs. a non-critical injury.

No questions are asked that are not pertinent to the patient’s immediate stabilization. On the precipice of a potential fatality, a person’s curriculum vitae – number of children, occupation, religion – simply does not matter and might even become a distraction. The profession requires that no normative evaluation be made of a life in danger. And, while this fundamental value of medicine, this unwavering law of impartiality, might seem noble and lofty in theory, abiding by it can sometimes harshly test one’s mettle. It certainly tested mine.

As a product of Cleveland’s Jewish day schools, I have long been educated about Jewish laws and values and the importance of the state of Israel. While my level of religious observance has vacillated and my perception of our Jewish state has become increasingly confounded, I remain staunchly proud of my heritage and the small stake Israel’s Jews have claimed amid a sea of less-than-friendly neighbors.

Certainly, a trip to the cash register at Supersol (Israeli supermarket), not to mention the somewhat disconcerting recent activities of Israel’s leaders, would remind even the most idealistic of Zionists that our Jewish homeland could use some tinkering. Nevertheless, there is so much of which to be proud, and, in some respects, the unmasking of flaws has authenticated rather than tarnished the unrealistically pristine picture sometimes presented in school.

Like all members in the health-care field, I bring personal values and convictions to the workplace, quelling them when necessary in favor of a sworn professional obligation. In just my second experience as a member of a trauma team, I was assigned the task of mechanically ventilating one of two incoming patients known to be Palestinian terrorists. They were shot while being apprehended in an attempt to infiltrate Israel’s borders.

I stood there, breathing oxygen into a man willing, quite literally, to sacrifice his life for the annihilation of the Jewish state and its people; I was participating in saving the life of a man who, in reversed circumstances would not only not save me, but would almost certainly end my life. While I did not falter over the course of treatment, I felt more than a little conflicted throughout. And the conflict was one that ran right to my very core.

When the dust had settled and both lives had been saved, I left the trauma room, sat down, and reflected for a moment. If this experience had been so difficult for me, an American Jew born and raised far from the Israel-Palestinian struggle, it must have been considerably more so for the other members of my team. These are Israelis who have witnessed Palestinian violence against their people and perhaps experienced firsthand the loss of loved ones. Yet, in the trauma room, they acted professionally and impartially according to their professional code.

Over this past year, I have rotated through five hospitals in the Tel Aviv area and participated in treating many Palestinians seeking medical attention within Israeli institutions. They are treated equally and compassionately, with access to the same resources and technology afforded to Israeli citizens.

While I have opinions regarding the international community’s persistent condemnation of Israel’s supposed humanitarian infractions against Palestinians, I will abstain from expressing them here. I will say only that the Israeli health-care system is more than non-discriminatory in the treatment of its charges. Rather, it goes out of its way to care for Palestinian patients despite what I can only imagine to be deep frustration and dismay over the unrelenting feud which has brought with it so much suffering and bloodshed.

I am then led to wonder whether the academic community of Great Britain has taken the behavior of Israel’s health-care community into consideration as it threatens to boycott the exchange of information and ideas between the two countries. But then, considering the world?s untiring capacity for turning a blind eye to violence against Israeli citizens, all the while reprimanding Israel for its alleged lack of restraint, I wonder if this display of humanitarian behavior would even make a difference.

(Originally appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News)

Israel moviemakers get personal to win awards, fame, investment

A scene from ‘Sweet Mud’, one of the Israeli films which has broken out over the last year.By Gwen Ackerman

It is a story of disaster that works out in the end: An Egyptian brass band on a concert trip to Israel accidentally finds itself stuck in a small desert town and touches the lives of the people who live there.

The plot of “The Band’s Visit” parallels the making of the movie, which ran out of money before the final edit, was saved by foreign investment and won awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and the Munich Filmfest.

Israel’s film industry is attracting finance from home and abroad, playing in cinemas around the world and scooping prizes. Its scripts have moved beyond politics to tell personal stories about ordinary people. Lacking even one studio, it doesn’t seek to emulate Hollywood or Bollywood and prefers to compare itself with rivals in Europe.

“We have a talented group of writers and directors and skillful producers who can produce within budget and deliver the film on time,” said Katriel Schory, executive director of the Israel Film Fund, a non-governmental agency that hands out funding for movies. “This has created a certain confidence worldwide that the people here are worth the risk.”

Michel Zana of France’s Sophie Dulac Productions said he put money into “The Band’s Visit” because it was “political without being political, an encounter of two peoples, a story about love and music.” Distributed by Sony Corp., it will be shown in 35 U.S. cities starting in January 2008.

Individual Tales
Eran Kolirin, the picture’s screenwriter and director, insisted that the script, his first feature-length release, stay personal, even as potential investors pressured him to make it more political, said producer Eilon Ratzkovsky.

Another personal story, this time about gay love, is told in “The Bubble.” The picture will be released in France this month and in major U.S. cities in September after winning audience awards at festivals in Berlin, Toronto and Miami.

“Beaufort,” which explores the moral dilemmas of soldiers manning an Israeli stronghold in south Lebanon, got a Silver Bear for best director at the Berlin International Film Festival. It will be released this year in at least seven countries, including Japan, Germany, France and the U.K.

“Sweet Mud,” the story of a boy dealing with an unstable mother in their communal kibbutz community, won a Crystal Bear in Berlin in the youth-film category and received the Grand Jury Award for world cinema at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Agreements have been signed to show the film in Brazil, Italy, Mexico and Canada this year.

From the Heart
Rare now are scripts with the underlying ideology or political message of past films, such as “Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt,” released in 1977, a year after the military rescue of passengers on an Air France Flight hijacked by the militant Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

“Filmmakers stopped telling national stories relating directly to historical or political issues and started telling stories more close to their hearts,” said Dror Shaul, who directed “Sweet Mud.” “Those are always the best stories.”

New filmmakers, many without formal training, started work in Israel with the passing of a Cinema Law in 2001 that boosted government spending on films seven-fold. Without private-equity interest in films, the legislation was considered a crossroads.

Etgar Keret, whose film “Jellyfish” received the Cannes Camera d’Or award for best feature, said the additional cash opened the business to newcomers. “Filmmaking in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s was almost like a closed club,” he said. “Today there is more pluralism, innovation and adventure in the investment and it pays off.”

Overseas Cash
Foreign broadcasters, producers and investors have noticed the change. Last year, $7.2 million, or 44 percent of all the money invested in Israeli feature films in the form of co- productions or joint ventures, came from overseas, said Schory.

“These are countries our size which invest a lot of money in filmmaking, by far more than Israel, but they don’t have the same cinema industry because their stories are weak,” said Schory. “Our strength is in the power of the stories that come out of the turbulent society we live in.”

Ratzkovsky said European investors, especially from France and Germany, are also the most willing to fund Israeli films, and local producers are beginning to take those audiences into account when they take on projects.

The acclaim for Israeli movies this year helps raise awareness among international agents willing to release the films abroad, Schory said in a phone interview. In terms of funding “we are definitely feeling it,” said Ratzkovsky.

The entrance of commercial and cable television in the 1990s also gave the industry a boost, both in the royalties collected by the government then put back into the industry by the Cinema Law, and by creating a training ground for producers, directors, cinematographers and scriptwriters.

Today government funding for local films is $13.6 million, up from $2.5 million in years prior to the legislation. Most films are made on tight budgets of about $1.5 million, a fraction of the amount spent on blockbusters such as Sony Corp.’s “Spider-Man 3,” which cost an estimated $258 million to make, said Brandon Gray, president of Box Office Mojo LLC, which follows film costs. (Sony Pictures had declined to say how much it cost to make and market.) The budget for “The Band’s Visit” was $750,000.

“We can’t compare with big budgets,” said Schory. “We don’t have money to make car chases. We cannot pay for huge scenes with hundreds of people running in the background. But we aren’t looking to play on those grounds.”

Still, filmmakers said the next “Lost in Translation,” an independent U.S. film by Sofia Coppola that became a blockbuster, may actually need to be translated. From Hebrew.