Tear Down This Wall

Palestinian and Israeli undergraduate students study together for a seven week session at Babson Collegea, and learn how to create value for their communities.

Tear down this wall (photo credit: Shlomo Maital)
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 market.
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.
For 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 Palestinians are.
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.
“I 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 businesses.
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 peddled, among other products, hand sanitizers, caffeinated gum, mesh laundry bags and mug warmers. One team operated a traveling miniature golf course. Teams meet weekly with Grossman and other mentors, who challenge the students’ decisions.
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 sponsors.
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.
For 63 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 beginning.
The writer is senior research fellow, S. Neaman Institute, Technion.