Marketplace: Jewish Networks

The Jewish people itself can perhaps be seen as one of the world’s first social networks, struggling to maintain contacts despite being widely dispersed from its homeland.

silvan market (photo credit: Benjamin Spier)
silvan market
(photo credit: Benjamin Spier)
HEBREW IS A VIBRANT, DYNAMIC language, constantly renewing itself with new words. For example, the word kombina – a word imported from Russian and Bulgarian, meaning a quick, unreliable and often corrupt solution to a problem by using influential connections. Kombina is the stepchild of another Russian word, long used in Hebrew, protekzia, or Vitamin P, meaning to bypass regulations by knowing someone with influence and power. Kombina is heard everywhere these days, nearly always in a derogatory sense involving scandals.
Kombina is simply misused, or even illegal, networking. Like every human invention, networking can be a force for either good or evil. Facebook, the rapidly growing social network, already has 500 million members and does good by bringing distant people together. The inventor of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, is Jewish. I think this is no accident. The Jewish people have been building social networks for centuries and have used them to prosper.
My wife and I visited the newly refurbished Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam during the Sukkot holiday. The museum is sited in one structure, in what were originally four Ashkenazi synagogues, adjacent to the famed Sephardi Portuguese Synagogue inaugurated in 1675 and still actively used.
There, we learned how Jews fled from Spain and Portugal after the Inquisition began in 1492 in Spain, and in 1536 in Portugal. They found religious freedom in the newly independent Dutch provinces that had freed themselves from Spain. Amsterdam was their favorite destination because it was relatively liberal toward the Jewish religion.
Many of the refugees were traders. Ironically, because Jews were persecuted and scattered, they were ideally positioned to set up trading networks linking Europe, the Levant and North Africa with reliable personal connections among their relatives.
These Jewish networks created enormous wealth. As the Jews of Amsterdam became prosperous merchants and bankers, they also became great scholars (Spinoza) and physicians (Samuel Abravanel).
In today’s high-tech world, networks are vital.
Strategy guru Gary Hamel, named by the Wall Street Journal as the world’s most influential business thinker, speaks often about value networks – beautifully coordinated collaborations among suppliers, investors, partners, employees and even competitors.
Veteran high-tech manager and venture capitalist Ed Mlavski (see The Report, August 31, 2009) spent years telling high-tech start-ups that they all need strategic partners – and created them as head of the US-Israel Binational R&D Foundation. My second to last column was about a great strategic partnership between two neighboring kibbutzim, which combined fire suppression and ballistic armor to become world leaders in protecting military vehicles.
When I teach managers, I often use the book “The Starfish and the Spider,” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Cut off a spider’s head, they note, and it dies. Cut off a starfish’s leg and it becomes a whole new starfish. Why? Every major starfish organ is replicated in each arm. Starfish “network” organizations built on simple common values and on peer relationships are durable and resilient. After 9/11 Brafman and Beckstrom set up Global Peace Networks, comprising informal links among CEOs worldwide to tackle conflict resolution and promote economic development.
In November, North America’s Jewish Federations will gather in general assembly in New Orleans. They will hear a talk by Danielle Brigida, a digital marketing expert at the National Wildlife Federation, about whether social networking helps or hurts social causes. Her conclusion: They help.
Successful fundraising for Haiti disaster relief through social networks and Twitter is her Exhibit A.
In his popular Friday afternoon radio program, entertainer Yehoram Gaon recently told the ultimate kombina joke. A father tells his son, “You will marry Bill Gates’s daughter, Jennifer Katharine.
“Not a chance!” the son says. The father calls Bill and asks, “If my son becomes VP of the World Bank, can he marry your daughter?” Bill says, “Sure.” The father calls World Bank Chief Robert Zoellick and says, “My son is marrying Jennifer Gates, can he become VP of your bank?” Zoellick says, “Sure.” The father calls his son back and says, “Son, buy a tux and a ring.”
The Jewish people itself can perhaps be seen as one of the world’s first social networks, struggling to maintain contacts despite being widely dispersed from its homeland. This network is a strategic asset, which merits daily investment of effort and resources, one that must be cherished, strengthened and held in esteem above almost all else. It is this network that will enable us to endure and prevail against the many who wish us ill.
Shlomo Maital is Senior Research Fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion.