Tear down this wall.
(photo credit: Shlomo Maital)
“TEAR DOWN THIS
WALL!” Some 24 years ago, US president Ronald Reagan spoke those four
powerful words at the Brandenburg Gate opposite the infamous Berlin
Wall. Two years later, on November 9, 1989, the wall fell, the two
halves of Germany were reunited and Europe quickly built its single
I recalled Reagan’s words as I stood at Babson College, a
small private college in suburban Boston, looking at the bright young
faces of 20 Palestinian undergraduate students and 24 Israeli
undergraduate students (17 are Jewish, seven are Arab) from the Herzliya
Interdisciplinary Center and the Technion (the Israel Institute of
Technology) in Haifa. About a third of the group are women. The Israeli
Arab students are funded by Cisco (Israel).
It was a class
session, part of a unique program called “Bridging the Cultural Gap
through Entrepreneurship.” The core idea is to bring Israelis and
Palestinians together at Babson for seven weeks to study how to become
entrepreneurs, then send them home to launch businesses together, with
the help of mentors. All the Palestinians are from East Jerusalem and
have Israeli identity cards.
Politics builds walls. Business tears down walls. This is our program’s credo.
me, it was a deeply moving four days, teaching our students how to
create value for their communities. I have lived in Israel for 44 years
but this is the first meaningful interaction I have had with
Palestinians. A cultural anthropologist named Clyde Kluckhohn once said
that each person is like all other people, some other people, and no
other person. I’ve discovered how much alike we Israelis and
The driving force behind this program is my
friend, Babson College Professor Ted Grossman, who made five separate
trips to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), overcame huge
bureaucratic obstacles, raised funds, gave some of his own, and invested
endless hours to make this idea a reality. Efforts to include West Bank
Palestinians foundered, because students from the PA could not host
Israeli counterparts or travel freely in Israel to run joint businesses.
know it’s foolish to believe we can bring peace to this amazing part of
the world with just 44 students,” Grossman says, “but hey, you have to
start somewhere. The Arab Spring has taught us that it starts with a few
and builds from there. The politicians have tried for decades and look
where we are.” Grossman is known worldwide for his first year
undergraduate course, known as FME (Foundations of Management and
Entrepreneurship), which he invented in 1993. In most undergraduate
business programs, marketing, finance, operations, and human resource
management are studied separately. But entrepreneurship encompasses them
all. So Babson College, inspired by Grossman, introduces its entire
freshman class to the subject of business by having students start real
This year, some 500 Babson freshmen created 18
companies. Teams of about 30 students each met and chose a chief
executive officer, chief financial officer, VP marketing, etc. Students
make their cases for financing before a faculty board, which can award
up to $3,000 per team. Students are expected to pay back the loan out of
sales. In spring, they sell their product or service. Most teams target
consumers – the on-campus market is
popular – but a few pursue corporate customers. Last year, students
among other products, hand sanitizers, caffeinated gum, mesh laundry
mug warmers. One team operated a traveling miniature golf course. Teams
weekly with Grossman and other mentors, who challenge the students’
Grossman himself is a successful
entrepreneur. A software engineer, he started a company nearly 30 years
ago that invented software and hardware to enable people to pay for gasoline at
gas stations with credit cards. His background as a successful start-up veteran
gives his teaching extra credibility.
Grossman was troubled by the fact
that most Palestinians perceive Israelis through the main or sole contact they
have – confronting soldiers at checkpoints. He decided to change that
perception, by creating an FME for Israelis and Palestinians, to “push the
thought of peace and understanding through entrepreneurship.” I am privileged to
be Grossman’s Israeli partner.
The 44 students will learn the fundamental
concepts of entrepreneurship at Babson, studying hard on weekdays and doing
field trips on weekends. They are split into two teams of 22 students each,
balanced between Palestinians and Israeli Jews and Arabs. On August 12, they
will return home and start the businesses that they planned at Babson. They will
run them for 16 weeks, using seed capital provided by the program
Just like student businesses at Babson, they will give back
their profits to the community, by picking a humanitarian service organization
that will receive the profits those businesses generate. At the end, the student
teams will report to the community. Their parents, educators, politicians,
diplomats, entrepreneurs, and capital providers will be in the audience.
Grossman and I will bring them together often for reunions and field trips – for
instance, to Imad Telhami’s Babcom company in Tefen, Galilee (see The Report,
December 21, 2010.) Our hope is that these 44 students will become mentors for
the next batch of Israelis and Palestinians, and they, in turn, will become
mentors, thus paying the vision forward.
The Palestinian group is led by
senior lecturer Ziyad, an accounting instructor. (This is a pseudonym, to
protect him; there is a declared PA boycott of any cooperation with Israel on
the part of Palestinians.) Ziyad and I have become close friends. Ziyad does not
believe in creating walls with borders. Like me, he thinks lines on the map are
irrelevant in an age when the Internet leaps borders with ease. The well-being
of the Palestinian people will depend on integrating their economy, through
win-win trade and business deals, with Israel’s, just as France and Germany did
after World War II. While politicians on both sides are busy erecting walls,
academics and entrepreneurs seek to tear them down.
“Borders are not the
issue,” Ziyad says. “We need to lower the borders, not raise
them. We need to change mindsets on both sides. We need to invest
in the young people, because older people have set ideas. We need to maximize
shared hopes, and to minimize conflicts and risks.” He told me that every summer
he leads a group of Jerusalem Palestinians on a tour of Israeli beauty spots, to
lower barriers to mutual understanding.
In my one-week course, I
challenged students to develop innovative business ideas. Each student
came up with one. Many of the Palestinian students’ ideas focused on meeting the
needs of their communities and neighborhoods – a fitness center, schools, and a
horseback riding club for both therapy and recreation. In mixed teams, I
asked my students to find practical ways to provide a laptop computer or tablet
for every Israeli and Palestinian child. Their ideas were so clever, we have
decided to attempt to implement them, under Grossman’s direction.
years, a wall of war, hatred, mistrust and vengeance has divided Israelis and
Palestinians. Let people of good will on both sides work to tear down this wall.
There is no better way for Israelis and Palestinians to reach mutual
understanding than by growing prosperous by doing business together. These 44
creative young people are, as Churchill once said, at least the beginning of the
The writer is senior research fellow, S. Neaman Institute, Technion.