The persistence of vision

It’s refreshing for Israelis to be reminded that there are Jews who want to move to Israel.Israel is a miracle.

I’m not talking about the oranges and the silicon chips. Just the fact that this country exists at all, as a Jewish country, is a miracle.

What has happened in Israel is utterly unheard of. A people exiled from their land for 2,000 years coming home and reviving their dead language. And building a modern high tech country out of what was once a colonial backwater. Unique on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin.

What other nation has survived exile? The Tibetans are struggling with a similar problem – they are trying to figure out how they keep the unique culture of Tibetan Buddhism alive while living in exile from their home. Not surprisingly, the Dalai Lama has met with Jewish leaders to try and find out our secret. The Jews succeeded in keeping their culture and religion alive through 2,000 years of exile; how did we do it?

The answer is the persistence of vision.

The rabbis never gave up on the vision of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. They built reminder after reminder into our prayers, into our rituals, into our expressions. ‘L’shana habah b’yerushalayim’, (Next year in Jerusalem!) we cry out at the end of our seder meal every Passover.

When the Temple was destroyed 1,937 years ago the rabbis had to adapt. Interestingly, the early Christians also had to adapt – they were equally attached to the rituals of the Temple. At this crucial juncture, Judaism went one way and Christianity another. The Christians decided that the physical was not important – all that mattered was the spirit. The importance of the physical Jerusalem was, for Christians, replaced by the idea of the ‘spiritual Jerusalem’, a place of spiritual peace and harmony set free by belief in Jesus. Jews went the opposite direction.

The rabbis focused on ways to keep the memory of the physical Jerusalem, the memory of the specialness of being at home on our land, a part of our cultural memory and legacy.

For a long time though that vision remained latent. Jews were content to remember without being called to action. To remember and faithfully wait for God to say it was time to come home. That is until Theodore Herzl came along. Herzl gave the Jewish vision a nudge in a new direction. Instead of waiting for God to say it’s time, Herzl had the audacity to suggest we should make it happen. Enough of the waiting already!

At first Herzl’s vision and the vision of the rabbis did not seem to connect. Herzl was secular – his vision was not based on fulfilling 2,000 years of religious longing. His vision was that Jews should have a place to live free from anti-Semitism – and he believed that could only happen in a country of our own. At first the religious community rejected Herzl’s ideas – after all, to try and take matters into our own hands to create a state seems to be an action meaning we no longer have faith in God. We no longer believe God will bring us home when He is ready.

It didn’t take too long for the rabbis – or at least most of the rabbis – to come around. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel (at least in modern times) was the first real religious Zionist. Kook melded the dreams of the rabbis with the dream of Herzl. He married a mystical connection to the land to a practical desire to settle the land.

The fact that I am now living in Israel is in a way a response to Rabbi Kook’s vision.

Any Jew who makes aliyah from the United States is certainly not doing so because of anti-Semitism. We come to be connected to this land. We come to be connected to this enterprise of building a Jewish country. We come out of religious motivations and we come out of communal motivations.

Unlike Jews coming from places like the former Soviet Union, we don’t come because we are fleeing persecution, and we don’t come because the financial opportunities are so much better here. We come because it’s amazing to be here.

I was sitting in my living a few days ago reading the Torah portion for the week (parsha) – the story of Jacob’s ladder – and reading the commentary that the place where Jacob slept was the Temple Mount. And I was able to look out my window and see the Temple Mount. I still find that incredibly cool.

It’s sad how many Israelis themselves are losing sight of this incredible miracle. It makes me wonder about the continued staying power, the continued persistence, of the vision for a Jewish state.

I indulged myself a little today by buying a second hand mountain bike. What do I need a mountain bike for? Fifteen minutes away from my home in Jerusalem I can ride a mountain bike on dirt roads through forests planted with money donated by American Jews in their little blue JNF boxes. Beautiful forests in the hills of Judea. But the roads are pretty bumpy, and when you get to be my age you appreciate the comfort of a dual suspension bike.

But I digress. The point of the story is that I was chatting with the owner of the store while one of his workers was fixing up my bike. He spoke great English, having lived in America for a year. When I told him I made aliyah a few months ago, his reaction was one of surprise: “Oh, people are still doing that?”

To be fair, a far more common response is ‘baruch haba’, welcome, ‘let me know what I can do to help.’ People seem genuinely glad to see Americans making aliyah. I think it’s because when an American makes aliyah it reinforces for them that there is something special about living here. So many Israelis seem to want to move to America, it’s refreshing for many of them to be reminded that there are Jews in America who want to move to Israel.

One of the reasons I’m here is because I believe that the modern state of Israel is the most important thing to happen to the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years. As Arnie Eisen, the chancellor of JTS said, “Israel is too important to sit by and let other people blow it.”

The philosopher Camus said the ultimate philosophical question is suicide. I would say that for the serious Jew, the ultimate philosophical question is aliyah. If you believe all the stuff you say in your prayers, why aren’t you here? :-)

(Originally appeared on

Smart investors follow Buffett into Israel

Offering investors global diversification and exposure to some hot parts of the world economy.At IsraelNewsletter, we focus on opportunities to find undiscovered Israeli companies. More than 120 Israeli companies trade on US exchanges and even more trade on global exchanges. Most of these companies are small and mid caps, while a few, like generic pharmaceutical giant, Teva Pharmaceutical (NASDAQ: TEVA) are large caps. This provides diligent investors with ample opportunities to make money.

Warren Buffett knows this, and that’s why he made his largest ever international investment by purchasing 80% of Israeli metalworks company, Iscar, for $4 billion last year. Buffett said, on his first visit to Israel, that “Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) and Israel will be here forever, as Israel and the US will be here forever.”

Likewise, The Donald (Trump) signed two huge realty deals in Israel last year: a partnership in purchasing a building in Ramat Gan for $44 million, and a contract to erect a luxury hotel bearing his name on a sea-side cliff in Netanya.

Israeli companies are hot and many of them are looking for growth internationally. Bloomberg reported last week about international expansion by a few of the leading Israeli conglomerates. The article describes plans by Israeli billionaire Nochi Danker and his firm, IDB, to partner with fellow Israeli investor, Yitzhak Tshuva to invest as much as $8 billion in constructing a Las Vegas casino.

With seven million inhabitants, growth prospects within Israel are interesting but certainly less interesting than investing abroad. Investors can look to Israeli firms like Elbit Medical Systems (NASDAQ: EMITF). My colleague, Aaron Katsman, explains that this company is essentially a holding company for real estate investments in booming India, Central and Eastern Europe and an incubator for two venture-stage biotech companies staged to go public. With over a $1 billion market cap, the sum-of-the-parts of this one may vastly exceed its current valuation.

Looking for Israeli companies investing abroad, small-cap food investors have been trying to size up Israeli food manufacturer and distributor, G. Willi-Food (Nasdaq:WILC). Investors are not alone in their interest in the company. The company announced last week that it had signed a binding letter of intent to form a new joint company with the owners of Shamir Salads, an Israeli manufacturer/distributor of prepackaged, chilled kosher Mediterranean dips and spreads in Israel and abroad. Such a spicy combination attracted the interest of Israeli billionaire Arkadi Gaydamak, who controls a huge egg business in Russia. He recently signed a deal with G. Willi to begin importing G. Willi’s high-end dairy product to the nouveau riche in Russia.

Other Israeli companies are looking for foreign investors. Comverse Technology (OTC: CMVT) has been a frequently-rumored buyout candidate by some of the largest global technology players, including Oracle Corporation (Nasdaq: ORCL). Comverse itself is somewhat of an investment fund. In addition to its core business of providing value-added voice mail service, software, and billing, Comverse owns large stakes in leading communications-interception firm Verint (OTC: VRNT) and telecommunications software company, Ulticom (OTC: ULCM).

Comverse is working diligently to regain its listing status on Nasdaq after needing to restate results after an options pricing scandal. Its founder and CEO, Kobi Alexander, now resides in Namibia, evading US calls for his extradition. Not without its fair share of controversy, Comverse may still be an interesting M&A target. With almost $2 billion in cash on the books and a new CEO, international investors see value in its holdings.

Elbit Medical, G. Willi-Food, and Comverse Technologies are all considered some of the best “Israeli Ingenuity” companies. These firms and others offer investors global diversification and exposure to some hot parts of the world economy.

Investors following on super-investor Warren Buffett’s coattails have almost always done well.

(Disclosure: Writer’s fund is long EMITF, WILC, and CMVT as of 11/7/07.)

Israel, world MVP

Proportionately, no other country can match Israel’s creativity and contributions to the world.As you read these words, I’m in Israel. My wife, sister, brother and his wife, two of our granddaughters, a host of friends and their friends – all 38 of us have literally walked into the pages of the Bible.

This is perhaps my 12th trip (I’ve lost count), but the impact, the emotional and spiritual shivers I always experience, have never lessened. It’s one thing to read the whole Bible cover to cover, as I do every year, but actually to walk around on the very sites of the events described so accurately in that book is truly soul shaking.

I’ve written here before about the innumerable contributions Israelis have made to the world, in virtually every category – literature, chemistry, medicine, physics, economics, every science and technology, Internet and communication, and efforts for world peace. The list of achievements and astounding contributions is endless.

Every day, virtually every person in the civilized world benefits from these contributions, in areas relating to food, medicine, overall health, knowledge, security, great literature (including of course the Bible) and music – almost everything that we think of as “quality of life.”

And the pace has greatly quickened in the last several decades. Consider: Israel is the 100th-smallest country, with less than 1/1000th of the world’s population – but its $100 billion economy is larger than all of its immediate neighbors combined. It also has the fourth-largest air force in the world (after the US, Russia and China), with over 250 F-16s and very powerful weapons – to defend itself against the announced and very serious threats of some of those same neighbors.

Out of its own necessity, but also to help all peaceful societies, Israel designed the airline industry’s most impenetrable flight security. US officials now look to Israel for advice and technology in handling airborne security threats. Fly anywhere safely lately? Thank Israel. (My family and I do that every day, sometimes every hour, here in Israel.)

Look further: Israel has the highest ratio of university degrees to its population in the world; she produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation by a large margin – 109 per 1,000 people – as well as one of the highest per capita rates of patents filed. With more than 3,000 high tech companies and startups, Israel has the highest concentration of high-tech companies in the world – apart from the Silicon Valley.

How does this matter to you and me, and every other citizen in the world of the 21st century? Most of Windows NT and XP operating systems were developed by Microsoft-Israel. The Pentium MMX chip technology was designed in Israel at Intel, and both the Pentium-4 microprocessor and the Centrino processor were entirely designed, developed, and produced in Israel. Voice-mail technology and AOL’s Instant Messenger were developed by young Israelis.

Medical technologies, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals and treatments that offer healing in almost every area of disease and disability are just too many to list here. But let’s note that when Stephen Hawking, generally considered to be the most brilliant thinker on the planet, visited Israel recently, he shared his deep musings with scientists, students and even the prime minister.

But the world’s most renowned victim of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, also learned something: Due to the Israeli ALS Association’s advanced work in both embryonic and adult stem cell research, as well as its proven track record with neuro-degenerative diseases, the Israeli research community is well on its way to finding a treatment for this fatal disease affecting 30,000 Americans and tens of thousands worldwide!

Israel’s Given-Imaging has developed the first ingestible video camera, so small it fits inside a pill; it’s used to view the small intestine from the inside, to detect cancer and digestive disorders. And other Israeli researchers have developed a new device that directly helps the heart pump blood – an innovation with the potential to save lives among those with heart failure. There’s also a revolutionary new acne treatment, the Clear Light device, that causes acne bacteria to self-destruct – without damaging surrounding skin or tissue.

An Israeli company was the first to develop and install a large-scale, fully functional solar electricity generating plant, in southern California’s Mojave Desert. What does that portend for an energy-guzzling, oil-stained world?

Truly, the accomplishments – too numerous and complex to list here – are staggering; I’ve only scratched the surface, and I’ve already noted the pace is accelerating exponentially. Israel is just getting started. Proportionately, no other country in the world can match her creativity and her massive contributions to the world’s standard of living – not even the United States.

In this game we play on earth, called life, though many players have contributed great things, the MVP – the Most Valuable Player – has been clearly revealed.

It is Israel.

(Originally appeared on

Looking for Israel’s 60th birthday cake… in Asia

Next year will provide a superb opportunity to present all of Israel’s best to an uninformed world. Knesset member Ruhama Avraham is a close confidant of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Some months ago, she was appointed to lead a cross-panel of citizens, whose remit is to create a program of festivities, promoting Israel’s 60th birthday party on May 8th, 2008.

And there is much to cheer about. Despite the continuous internal and external military threats, Israel is no longer considered as the emerging desert nation of 1948. The population has grown from 800,000 to over seven million. The Knesset is elected by proportional representation, with over 10% of its members coming from minority segments of the country. Technology from Israel’s high tech companies and labs are to be found in almost every modern tool and facility – from mobile phones to hospitals – all over the world.

Partying there will be; Ms Avraham has indicated that the whole country will be involved over the spring and summer; fireworks, local picnics, parades, special educational kits for schools, and more. And as on Independence Days in the past, the 2008 celebrations will see President Shimon Peres inviting the leaders of all of Israel’s main religions to his residence. Those attending will include Armenians from the Old City of Jerusalem, Druze from the north, and Bedouin of the Negev sands.

Some have cynically added that it all adds up to lots of opportunities for politicians to speak and be photographed. In truth, it is far more.

Israelis deserve this self-awarded festive slap on the back. Last year, Hizbullah in Lebanon forced a hideous war on us, as rockets landed indiscriminately in northern Israel. Since the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip in the middle of June 2007, an average of 15 rockets have fallen in Israeli territory every week. And still the democracy of Jerusalem is pluralistic and intact.

What appears to be missing from the arrangements is the international element. The birthday festivities represent a truly auspicious occasion to channel the eyes of the world on all that is great about Israel – a thriving democracy, eight Nobel laureates, successful aid programs for tsunami victims, some of the best high tech in the world, and all in a land of which over 50% is covered in sand. Yet, approaches to the major international media outlets appear limited at this stage.

Professional activities have brought me into contact with representatives of a major American multinational. It is itching to cover the 2008 events in depth, a project requiring resources and planning. The first tentative approaches to several public offices have often (but not always) received dull responses; “We are waiting for confirmation of our budgets. Come back in early 2008.”

Unfortunately, that is just too late. By then, the programming schedules for May 2008 will have already been inked in. Explaining this to the officials, the representatives were met with that well-versed Israeli muscle-toning exercise, the up-down shake of the shoulders. To translate: it is not that people do not want to help, but the internal planning mechanism and snail-like budgetary process renders them near-helpless. Israel may simply forgo this golden opportunity.

What a sad contrast to the approach and capability of other countries.

This past August I had the good fortune to be vacationing in Cyprus. For 10 hot days, the only TV available to me was CNN and the BBC. Both stations ran month-long features on the nations of India and Pakistan and their progress since receiving independence from England. For 10 days, all the satellite system in my rented apartment could pick up was a constant stream of positive images oozing out of Asia?s emerging economies.

My family could not help but soak up the messages. Similarly, it does not take much to imagine the impact on business people and journalists flicking news stations in their hotel rooms, being continuously directed to the same theme. In the space of a few weeks, the two countries had been positively branded on an impressive scale.

For Israel, sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. A different 60th anniversary is coming up in November this year, the UN vote accepting Israel’s right to become a state. Programming details already reveal that some leading media outlets will be presenting some less-than-welcoming retrospectives to commemorate that event.

The Holy Land thrives on and needs positive media images. The Israeli government [with ISRAEL21c's help] recently enjoyed a coup, putting splendidly athletic local females in the pages of an international publication. While some understandably saw this as somewhat lowering the country’s image, the investment definitely generated a lot of new and positive response. Even Sky News took up the story.

May, 2008 offers the Olmert government a perfect opportunity to take the example of other countries and present the wonderful achievements of Israeli society to a global audience. Ms Avraham’s brief can be secured with dramatic success; but that demands both a local as well as an international agenda.