Closing Another Gap

While the world focuses its attention on peace negotiations and truce deals between Israel and its Arab neighbors - Hamas, Syria and the Palestinian Authority - I lose sleep over the rising animosity between Jew and Arab within Israel. What can be done to bridge this potentially explosive situation, which derives, at least in part, from the economic inequality between the two communities? Prof. Seev Hirsch is one person who has tried. In 2000, Hirsch, former dean of the Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business at Tel Aviv University, met with Israel's top industrialist, Stef Wertheimer, founder of Iscar Ltd., the producer of high-tech cutting tools for export, which was was acquired by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway in 2006 for $4 billion. "We have a serious gap in income and employment opportunities between Israeli Jews and Arabs," Stef told Hirsch, and together, they launched a course, Industrial Entrepreneurship and Management for Israeli Arabs and Jews, with the aim of reducing that gap. To gain admission, each applicant submitted an idea for a business. Wertheimer himself helped choose the participants, half Arab and half Jewish. The first of eight cycles began in 2001, placing Israeli Jews and Arabs in classrooms and, under Hirsch's direction, teaching them the basics of how to start and grow businesses. Mixed teams of 5-6 participants engaged in action learning, applying business concepts to their entrepreneurial dreams, during three weekly sessions held at Zur Lavon (Wertheimer's industrial park in Tefen, in the Galilee) and at Kibbutz Tuval. I taught innovation management to four of these cycles. The students were lively and creative and, to my delight, Jew-Arab differences vanished. In the classroom, every participant was simply a budding entrepreneur. Some 230 participants in all completed the program, until it was temporarily halted last year. Wertheimer, a "show-me-results" visionary, apparently felt that not enough new industry emerged from it and suspended funding. "Stef is an industrialist," commented Hirsch, who wants to see the program continue. "He sees industry as the major tool of progress in Israel. This is implied in the name of the course. He hoped to see industries and tangible products emerging from our course. There were a couple. But the biggest success stories are actually in services." For instance, Mas Watad, a program graduate, created a mini-social revolution among Israeli Arab women. Watad has a Master's degree in home economics from the Hebrew University. She brought the idea of healthful nutrition and weight control to Arab women in 15-16 villages in the Arab Triangle in Wadi Ara. Today she has 1,500 clients. Another graduate, Amjad Abu Raya, started a call center in the Galilee that now employs 30 people. There should be huge demand among educated Israeli Arabs to launch knowledge-based businesses. One in eight Arab college graduates is unemployed, compared with one in 30 among Jews. If someone else's business won't employ you, well, start your own, right? Jews did this throughout the ages in the Diaspora. But this hasn't been the case. Many educated Israeli Arabs prefer to seek employment, despite the difficulties, rather than launch risky new businesses. And the Jewish start-up "virus" does not seem to have spread to our Arab compatriots, while joint Arab-Jewish ventures are still rare. Israeli-style knowledge-based entrepreneurship, based on patents, is lacking in Arab society, although Arab culture is entrepreneurial and individuals who start and build businesses enjoy high social status. According to AME Info, a Mideast information website, in the last two decades of the 20th century, only 370 patents were registered in the nine largest Arab countries - amounting to a mere two patents a year per country. In contrast, according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2007, Israeli residents were granted 3,254 patents abroad in 2004 (latest data available). Business Data Israel reports that on a per capita basis, Israel was fourth in the world in patents registered in the U.S. in 2006, and second in Europe. Hirsch, today an emeritus professor, admits that it was difficult to recruit Arab participants in the program he wants to relaunch. I hope he succeeds. People working to shrink the growing Great Divide within Israel between Jew and Arab deserve help and support. • The writer is academic director of TIM-Tel Aviv.