Israel doesn’t have the backdrop of an obvious success story.
Iran’s supreme leader tweets that Israel should be “uprooted and destroyed,” all the while accelerating the country’s nuclear enrichment program. Attacks from Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad persist. The Palestinian conflict is intransigent. Israel has been the target of coordinated invasions from larger countries – multiple times. There is a movement devoted to boycotting, divesting and sanctioning Israel. During most of its history, it lacked water and energy security, had a relatively small population and limited landmass.
Yet in the face of these challenges and geographic realities, Israel has neither fallen nor stagnated. Rather, it has experienced robust economic and geopolitical success.
What is the secret for this unlikely success?
In my experience from running a global equity investment portfolio, as a CEO and serving as a public company board member, there are many factors to long-term corporate success. There is vision, competitive positioning, attractive returns on capital, a reasonable regulatory, macroeconomic and political environment, as well as leadership skills and alignment. While not the only condition, “a good culture” is broadly recognized as a critical foundation for long term organizational success. Many companies underperform because of their cultures, sometimes due to the trickle-down effect from preservationist executive managements and sleepy boardrooms. They lose market share, lacking the culture to adjust to an ever-evolving marketplace. A strong culture has many benefits including efficient problem-solving, smart innovation and adaptation. Successful corporate cultures share many characteristics with Israeli culture, such as resilience, creativity, pragmatism, transparency, individualism, cooperation and alignment.
Israel’s secret to success is the culture of Zionism. Zionism has attracted Jews globally because it fulfills an innate drive for belonging and evolving. Empirical research from social psychologists, social ecologists and biologists continues to find evidence supportive of the importance of belonging as a need ingrained in our species. It has also have found that culture is an underappreciated factor in human evolution. With a repeated history of expulsion despite societal contributions, Jews have a collective memory of evolving but not belonging.
Zionist culture benefits from strong alignment. The big-picture strategy – homeland security and development – are shared. Alignment is also critical in long-term organizational success. Corporations with misaligned divisions tend to work far harder to reach goals (if they can agree on the objective in the first place). Zionism indeed serves as the ideological bedrock of Israel. According to Gol Kalev's book, Judaism 3.0 - Judaism's Tranformation to Zionism, some 99% of Israeli Jews vote for Zionist parties, and it has broad buy-in.
In Israel, teamwork, blunt honesty, adaptation and problem-solving are possible despite strong disagreements, passionate arguments and competing agendas. With strong alignment, diverse perspectives improve outcomes. Why? It expands human capital and reduces risk. It isn’t surprising Israel is succeeding.
‘If you will it, it is no dream’ – Theodor Herzl
Israel, by most metrics, has outperformed. Israel has acquired material hard and soft power. It was not endowed with rich natural resources, a sizable or protective landmass or a large population. Yet GDP per capita has risen to the top 20 list. The economy has low relative volatility (GDP outperformed many more mature countries during the global financial crisis in 2008 and COVID in 2020). The country has prudent debt levels. It has experienced attractive relative population growth. Natural resources are no longer a point of weakness. With a history of water scarcity, Israel now produces more fresh water than it consumes. Similarly in energy, Israel was almost fully dependent on imports and now is self-sufficient in natural gas and has a growing renewables industry. Its military and intelligence services have thwarted multiple better-resourced invasions. Israel’s regional geopolitical position has also materially improved thanks to its pragmatic approach to negotiations with the Arab world from the Camp David Accords in 1978, the Wadi Araba Treaty with Jordan in 1994 to more recently the 2020 Abraham Accords and normalization agreements with UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.
Is Zionism a ‘Light unto the Nations’?
The Book of Isaiah reads, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant… I shall submit you as a light unto the nations.” Theodor Herzl predicted the Jewish state would exist because it would be a “necessity to the world.” In Gol Kalev’s book Judaism 3.0, he explains that Israel is becoming that necessity which is a logical extension from the biblical scripture. He concludes “Israel’s success has turned Zionism to be a light to the nations.” Zionism’s culture of problem-solving, achievements and learnings are and should continue to be leveraged to solve complex global challenges. This is because people, companies and countries are attracted to useful successful stories and seek to learn from them.
A model for democratic sovereignty against a larger aggressor. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for Ukraine to be a “big Israel with its own face” as Russia invaded Ukraine. Israel’s ability to militarily compete and win wars against more populous, wealthier and notionally better-armed neighbors in 1948, 1967 and 1973 continues to motivate and inspire confidence for countries whose sovereignty and democratic ideology are challenged.
A counterterrorism and cyber expert as a partner in global security. Israeli military, intelligence capabilities and technology lead in cyber and counterterrorism expertise helping nations and individuals globally. For example, the Mossad reported it prevented at least 50 terror attacks in 20 countries planned by Islamic terror groups and Iran. Israeli university researchers announced a material finding that has helped prevent cyberattacks on critical infrastructure impacting millions of people. Google, Oracle, Microsoft and others successfully updated their software after reviewing these findings.
A leader to countering growing global water insecurity. According to UNICEF, there are four billion people who experience water insecurity at least one month per year. This figure is expected to increase, according to climate experts. Though water has been scarce in Israel since biblical times, successful technologies such as drip irrigation, wastewater recycling, and reverse osmosis desalination, as well as effective strategic planning and strong execution, have dramatically shifted Israel’s water insecurity. Israel, now an exporter of water, is also educating global partners to help improve this critical global resource constraint.Zionism, which addresses the innate drive for belonging and evolving, has created a culture of success in Israel. This success has not just benefited Jewish people and Israeli citizens but has also helped solve problems for people around the world. It’s time for the voices against Zionism to realize that fighting a successful value-added culture is a bad return on their investment.
The writer has about 20 years’ experience in investment, leadership and governance positions in global energy, transport and infrastructure. She’s served as a managing director and portfolio manager for a global asset management firm, as well as CEO and board member of private and public companies in the US.