Israel@60 Mission: A day of contrasts

If they didn't run you ragged, it just wouldn't be a federation mission to Israel, now would it? Shabbat -- the day of rest -- was SO yesterday. Today, Sunday, May 4, the mission's Hi-Tech track went all over the map, literally, running from Jerusalem to Yavneh to Rehovot and Tel Aviv, meeting key exemplars of Israel's booming economy. We started off with a presentation from Zvi Eckstein, a high official at the Bank of Israel (equivalent to the U.S. Federal Reserve). He ran though a series of stats, charts, and graphs. The numbers don't lie. Israel has battled back from fiscal problems like inflation and high debt to permit this staid banker to predict vigorous growth for years to come. As if to prove his point, we then bussed to Yavneh -- in Israel's "Silicon Valley" -- to tour Ormat, a $300 million geothermal power plant company that builds all over the world. Not only do they design and constuct green energy plants harnessing superheated waters below the earth's surface, they also developed something called recovered energy generation (REG). Say there's a cement factory down the street creating excess "waste" heat from its manufacturing. Ormat goes in and "captures" that heat, using it to turn turbines that generate electicity. Today, Ormat owns over 400 megawatts of geothermal and REG around the world. That's a lotta juice! And a lot of green (both ecological and financial), and, according to our Bobby Lent, only the tip of the superheated iceberg. From there we had a short but sweet meet-and-greet at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, arguably Israel's leading center of brainpower in science and industry. I met Dr. Abraham Zangen, a brain researcher working on a new treatment for depression and alcohol. Well, it's not really new: it's a modeified brain stimulation process, i.e., electro-convulsive thearapy (shock treatment), but targeting only certain regions of the brain. It's worked on lab rats and people, though one wonders how one find depressed rats. After that we drove into Tel Aviv and the landmark Azrieli Center. In the offices of a premier law firm (and now joined by Mayor Newsom) we heard from a panel of top Israeli venture capitalists and lawyers. All felt Israel's business culture continues to evolve and mature, presenting excellent opportunities for foreign direct investment. With Israel behind only the U.S. in companues listed on NASDAQ, and being #1 in the world in life sciences patents, it's obvious this country has been flexing its business and intellectual property muscles for a while. "Our system of chaos is an asset," said venture capitalist Yahal Zilka. "Go to an Israeli kindergarten and you can see the chaos." It's an asset because Israelis aren't afriad of risk or failure. Just living there is a risk, so what could be so hard about doing a start-up? It's not perfect. Cultural differences can and do pose impediments, as entreprenuer Benny Schnaider pointed out. "We are more direct," he said, referring to the famous Israeli bluntness"and we have to be careful about things that have to be said." But panelist Ruti Alon, a bio-tech businesswoman still urged more foreign investment. "It's like a cookbook," she said. "There are so many options." Then it was off to Tel Aviv's famous seaside boardwalk for what might have been the most important gathering of the week for the business track: a cocktail party with real live Israeli entreprenurs, venture capital execs and other business leaders. It was like speed dating for investors. Mayor Newsom said he was as impressed with Tel Aviv as Jerusalem, describing Israel's largest city as similar to San Francisco, though no "fog, wind, skateboarders or panhadling." Also speaking, Israeli minister of welfare and social services Isaac Herzog, who addressed Israel's bigger problems with terrorism and its sponsors in Lebanon, Gaza, Iran and elsewhere. He even recounted how Israel had to directly rescue Herzog's Palestinian counterpart when Hamas took over Gaza. Then as the sun set into the Medeterranean, we boarded the bus once more for a wonderful dinner at the Jerusalem home of Marty and Shoshona Gerstel. It was a gorgeous Ottoman-era home with indoor arches, vaulted ceilings and Jerusalemite stone floors. This was a perfect capper for a busy day, especially the wine-tasting of several excellent Israeli vintages. Arguably, we get a jaundiced view coming to Israel on a mssion like this: wined and dined, chauffered about in plush air-conditioned busses, pampered in every way. But the truth is, we still see the real Israel. We still feel the energy and hope. We still experience the clash of old and new, religious and secular, wealthy and poor. And most importantly, we still walk in a Jewish nation, a country of our own, that fills each of us with inviolate pride. As Raffi Ahronson, a leading Tel Aviv real estate developer, told me tonight: to invest in Israeli real estate, you have to be a meshugganah Jew. He was joking, but I think only half so. It is that meshuggenah Jewish audicity that built this country and turned it into a New Jersey-sized miracle in only 60 years. Tomorrow we head north. Blog b'Omer (Dan Pine)

Categories: Israel


May 04, 2008


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