Can the Start-Up Nation save Israel from itself?

It’s in the tech space where we can find one possible solution to the disconnect between an Israel getting better and a Knesset pushing a political agenda designed to engender the opposite.

AN ARAB woman walks past a Jewish couple at the Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
AN ARAB woman walks past a Jewish couple at the Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
If I were making aliya today, I’m not sure I would go through with it. If a potential immigrant were to ask my advice about moving here, I’m not sure what I’d say anymore.
Those were my first reactions after the Knesset enacted a double whammy of legislation last month – the unnecessary Nation-State Law, which codifies language describing Israel as a Jewish state but has little practical effect other than making the 20% of Israelis who are not Jewish feel unwelcome, and changes to a law enabling state funding for surrogacy that leaves out single fathers and, by extension, men in same-sex relationships.
Those two laws were followed by the early-morning detention of a rabbi affiliated with the Conservative movement for the crime of conducting a marriage between two Jews whom the rabbinate claimed “are not eligible to be married.”
The attorney-general quickly stepped in on the latter, freeing Rabbi Dubi Hayun from additional questioning by police. But taken as a whole, these three actions lead me to wondering: What has happened to us? Where did the shining words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence – which promised to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” – go?
The problem, as so often happens, is inertia. None of the actions in the Knesset or at the Haifa police station, however upsetting, affect the majority of Israelis on a day-to-day basis. On the contrary, life in general just keeps getting better and easier. Sure, there is the constant threat of another war, but that hasn’t changed since the founding of the state. On the street, however, the differences between now and when I made aliya 24 years ago can sometimes seem miraculous.
Some of the improvements are the result of actual good governance. Smoking has been banned nearly everywhere; we’re nearing the last bank or insurance company that still requires sending forms in by fax; and if you're caught with pot (without a medical license), it's a fine not a felony.
Jews and Arabs are integrating more than ever before, as well. As Matti Friedman pointed out in a 2017 article, nearly half of the Arab workers in Jerusalem are now employed in Jewish areas, and the number is rising. So is the percentage of Arab students enrolled at Israeli universities. “Palestinians and Israelis might not like each other, but their fates are becoming more tightly entwined, and everyone has more to lose if things fall apart,” Friedman writes.
The cost of living in Israel remains high compared to other developed economies, but, writes David Rosenberg, “real wages have risen 12% in the last five years, unemployment is at record lows [and] inequality and poverty have been falling.”
Then, of course, there’s technology. Social media may have mangled what’s left of our already email-challenged attention spans, but there’s no arguing it’s made the world a smaller, more connected place. (I’m on the side that says that’s a good thing.)
And the tech business is booming – so much so that the Start-Up Nation is having trouble recruiting engineers locally. A program called BETA (“Be in Tel Aviv”) offers senior techies a $20,000 relocation bonus, a yearly round-trip flight home and a Hebrew tutor, among other perks.
It’s in the tech space where we can find one possible solution to the disconnect between an Israel getting better and a Knesset pushing a political agenda designed to engender the opposite.
We’ve seen it in action twice in recent weeks.
When ultra-Orthodox men refused to sit next to women on a recent El Al flight, Barak Eilam, the CEO of Ra’anana-based software giant NICE, declared that his firm would boycott El Al until the airline changed its policies.
“At NICE, we don’t do business with companies that discriminate against race, gender or religion,” Eliam wrote.  Within days, El Al CEO Gonen Usishkin announced that passengers not taking their assigned seats would be deplaned immediately.
When the Surrogacy Law was passed, it was tech firms again that took the lead. Scores of companies gave employees who wished to join the protests permission to take the day off with pay.
“We stand with all of our employees seeking equality under the law,” Apple said in a statement. “No one should be denied one of the most basic human rights... for being who they are” was how IBM’s statement read. CRM giant Salesforce said it “will support our employees who campaign for change to this law.”
Those same statements could have been made just as easily about the Nation-State Law.
In the summer of 2011, tens of thousands of Israelis pitched tents along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard to protest rising consumer costs. Some prices came down, but mostly life went back to the status quo.
When the Start-Up Nation gets involved, though, the possibility of real pain to the bottom line is greater, as El Al experienced. More of that could finally get the government spooked.
I’m not so starry-eyed as to believe an activist Start-Up Nation will turn the tide alone – change still runs through the Knesset – but it’s a new approach, and it takes courage for a sector that doesn’t usually get involved in politics.
In July, tech firms proved it’s possible. If the influence of tech was limited in the past to silicon and software, moving forward it may be able to move the needle on injustice and enmity.
What would I say to someone making aliya today? Come! Get involved. Protest. (And take the $20,000 relocation bonus.)
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.