Pushing a vision of Israeli democracy

Davidi Gilo receiving an honorary doctorate at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem from President Menachem Magidor. If Davidi Gilo felt uncomfortable earlier this month when he received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he didn’t show it. The …

Davidi Gilo receiving an honorary doctorate at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem from President Menachem Magidor.

If Davidi Gilo felt uncomfortable earlier this month when he received an honorary doctorate from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he didn’t show it.

The ceremony was a new experience for Tel Aviv-born Gilo, one of Silicon Valley’s leading communications entrepreneurs and the founder, chairman and CEO of wireless giant Vyyo Inc, who never received an academic degree or even attended a university class. However, standing on the dais with luminaries like leading Israeli author Amos Oz, Governor of the Bank of Israel Stanley Fischer, interfaith advocate Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, and eminent French financier Baron Eric de Rothschild, Gilo had every reason to feel part of the academic world.

His name adorns the Hebrew University’s Gilo Center for Citizenship, Democracy and Civic Education, and his support of initiatives such as the Hand in Hand Center for Jewish-Arab Education schools, and the NGT technological incubator for Jewish and Arab entrepreneurs in Nazareth have done much to further the ideals of democracy, equality and peace in Israel.

“The reason I was willing to accept the concept of getting an honorary doctorate is because from my point of view, it’s really acknowledging recognition of the center, and of these other projects. I felt like I was more a representative of all this important work being done here,” Gilo told ISRAEL21c in the conference room of the Gilo Center at the university’s Mount Scopus campus.

Gilo’s high tech communications enterprises have made him a world leader in the field. His previous VC-backed ventures include wireless chipmakers DSP Group and DSP Communications, Inc., which was acquired by Intel Corp. for $1.7 billion in 1999; a developer of medical image technology, Stentor Inc., which was acquired by Philips Electronics NV for $280 million in 2005; and video chipmaker Nogatech Inc., which went public in 2000 and was acquired in the same year by Zoran Corp. for $158 million. His global business operations involve extensive Israeli inputs – both manufacturing and in research and development.

“I was not brought up with any entrepreneurial abilities, or in any business-related environment. My mother thinks I took after my grandfather who I never met – who died in the Holocaust – it may be genes more than anything else that has led me to the business world,” he said, adding, “Not only did I never study business, I never studied anything. I didn’t go to college.”

Following his completion of high school in Tel Aviv and his compulsory army service, Gilo’s post-army travels brought him to the US, where he began dabbling in business ventures. And he proved to be very good at it.

Despite his international business endeavors, the 49-year-old Gilo retains a passion for his native country, and has used his resources to develop programs like the five-year-old Gilo Center that deal with some of the critical issues facing Israeli society. When talking about the Center and his other endeavors, the affable Gilo sounds like he’s as proud of his accomplishments in the social sphere as he is of any of his multi-million dollar business achievements.

“Israel is a young democracy and a society that’s so complex, with so many different groups coming from different places. You have Jews, non-Jews, religious, non-religious – all the different aspects of Israeli society, and the whole issue of democracy and establishing a common language and understanding the subject is very critical,” said Gilo.

“While citizenship as a subject is only one unit of the matriculation exams for Israeli high schoolers, historically – students get the lowest grades in this subject. So the center took upon itself a set of different initiatives -among them to create an MA program directed at teachers of high school citizenship.”

“We also cooperate with different high schools throughout the country to teach citizenship, and to work together to develop more curriculum for teachers. Thirdly, we work directly with teens through summer programs at the university teaching democracy and leadership.”

Gilo expressed satisfaction at the results that the first five years of the Center has achieved, and uses his business acumen to gauge the results.

“We just had a dinner with the university leadership, and I told them that in philanthropy, when you give money to a building, it’s very easy – you see after a few years that the building is up. But when you launch a program, particularly in education, it’s much more difficult to measure results,” he said.

“When we established the center, we had very specific goals of increasing awareness of citizenship as a subject and making it essential in the core curriculum of the education system. Since then, the government and the Dovrat Commission on education reform have expressed commitment to citizenship as one of the core subjects that are required.”

“Another goal that was realized was that we wouldn’t only be an ivory tower institution – there would be outreach and cooperation with schools and students. We also talked about from day one about having programs with Israeli Arabs, Orthodox Israelis, Russian immigrants, so that when you deal with the issue of citizenship, you need to understand that it means different things to different groups in Israeli society. And I think that has been accomplished.”

One area that Gilo says provided a real-time lesson in the limits of Israel’s young democratic values was last years disengagement from Gaza, and the likelihood of future population evacuations under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s realignment plan.

“I think the issues of democracy in particular, and citizenship are tested a lot more in the context of Israeli society than maybe in other places. For example, look at disengagement – it definitely tested those issues in terms of the democratic process and what the boundaries are of what the state can do and the peoples’ legitimate resistance. Here it’s not just a theoretical debate.”

“The future plans – to disentangle from the West Bank will I’m sure test the same issues, and focusing one them, bringing them into students’ awareness and teaching them is essential. And I think that situation today at the schools is that the teachers are reluctant to bring up those issues that are of a political nature, because I don’t think they have the tools to deal with them in a classroom.”

“So basically – we can say that Israel is very political – everyone has a strong opinion, and most people are very emotional about their opinions. But many times they lack the contextual framework and the facts about the issues they’re debating, and they can’t talk in a detached manner. There’s great difficulty in seeing the potential that there is another point of view. One of our primary objectives at the Center is to give the teachers tools to confront those issues and work with the kids to teach them that there may be another point of view – acknowledging that there might be multiple points of view for the same issue.”

Another critical issue facing Israeli society that is tackled by the Center is equal rights for minorities, an area in which Gilo is especially passionate.

“On paper Israeli Arabs have equal rights, but in reality they don’t. They may have the right to vote, but they don’t have equal education, they don’t have equal opportunity in the financial sector – they can’t borrow money in the same way. Look at the number of Israeli Arabs in high tech. It’s dismal,” he said.

So, instead of complaining, Gilo decided to do something about it, by initiating a program that combines his high tech prowess and his philanthropic nature – the NGT (New Generation Technologies) technological incubator for Jewish and Arab entrepreneurs.

“There are many Israeli initiatives that open factories and do different things with Arabs – but basically the Jews are the employers and the Arabs the employees.”

“NGT is the only project in Israel that is a pure true partnership between Jewish and Arab businessmen in Israel. We’re all board members, and we’ve all invested the same amount of money.”

Located in Nazareth, NGT is the first incubator in the National Incubator Program that aims to encourage entrepreneurs from both the Jewish and Arab sectors of the Israeli population. Among the nine companies that are being nurtured are D-Herb, a new herbal approach to diabetes, and Nutrinia, which supplements infant formulas with bioactive proteins currently present only in natural mother’s milk

“The incubator is doing very well, and is progressing. But my biggest disappointment with NGT is that I couldn’t convince any of my high tech Israeli colleagues to invest. There are plenty of American Jews who think that it’s important to partner Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. But even today, five years later, we don’t have any additional Israeli partners,” said Gilo.

Despite the obstacles and frustrations, Gilo remains optimistic that projects like NGT and the Gilo Center are making a difference. And despite his focus on correcting what he sees as the deficiencies in Israeli society, he ultimately serves the role of a cheerleader for the accomplishments the country has achieved – especially in the area close to his heart, high tech. For that reason, no matter which American company he’s been involved in, there’s always been a strong Israeli connections close by. But, he says, it’s not because he wants to do the country any favors, it’s because the country has earned it.

“If you confuse patriotism and business, you may be a good patriot but you’re a bad businessman. Collaboration with Israel only works because Israel is truly a place for tech developments – I don’t think that anybody is doing a favor for Israel when we come to do business here,” he said.

“I just saw some very interesting technology a month or so ago in Israel related to compression and the ability to transmit very high quality images over a cell phone – thus enabling real time movies and video transmission. So I think that the technology is progressing. Israel’s always been at the fore front of this field – and there is no reason why it should not continue.”

“The world is always amazed at Israel’s ingenuity in engineering and science, and I don’t see it diminishing – the opposite is true, it’s flourishing.”