Israel meets Palestine
It is commonly said that there are two sides to every story. One thing with life is that we sometimes seek to view life in terms of absolutes—right vs wrong, black vs white, good vs evil—but sometimes life isn’t something that can be linearly modelled as it covers more than fifty shades of grey. In this second part of the series, we relive a day spent partly in Israel and partly in land governed by the Palestinian Authority.
Before I begin, a shout out to my roommate, Lei, an MBA student at the Imperial College. As I sat to draft this article, he reminded me that unlike the previous article where he merely made a cameo at the end, I should make him a key part of this one. So, to grant Lei’s wish, let me publicly say he made me wake relatively late yesterday. I learned never to ask a Chinese person to wake me up as the Chinese “have a culture to let people sleep as much as possible”. Lei nicely felt I ought to have more sleep despite my contrary wishes. For that, he debuts as my nice villain of the year.
After breakfast today, we checked out of our hotel in Tel Aviv and proceeded to Nazareth to visit a Tahini factory. The Al-Arz Tahini business was formed in 1991 by an Arab Israeli, and at his death in 2003, his wife, Julia, took over running the business. Flanked by her MBA-wielding daughter, Lana, Julia took us through the challenges she faced as an Arab Israeli woman with a background in education, having to learn the business from scratch and convince suppliers, retailers, users, employees and banks that she was capable enough to be trusted to run the business her husband founded. Julia and Lana also highlighted the challenge of competing with lower priced competitors, while staying true to the traditional production line and maintaining the quality level created by their patriarch.
In a society where only about 28% of Arab Israeli women are employed, Julia tends to employ more women. For her, it’s about giving these women jobs to do so they could also contribute to their families. She said more women show up seeking jobs because they heard “a woman is in charge”, plus the company implements family-friendly practices to allow women juggle their work responsibilities with family duties. It was also interesting seeing the contrast between Julia with her intuitive business sense and the younger Lana with an MBA degree and a more formal business approach. Together, they have managed to grow their business from about 100 kilogrammes daily output to over 12 tonnes daily.
After listening to Julia and Lana’s amazing story and trying out some freshly ground tahini, it was time to listen to some resource persons from Jasmine, an NGO working to promote women-owned businesses in Israel. By bringing women from different backgrounds together, Jasmine helps nurture peace since the women may not like themselves, but see economic reasons to work together. We had another female entrepreneur talk about her business selling gift items for religious events and family celebrations. It was interesting to learn that families in this region would host big parties to mark a male child’s circumcision and so require branded gifts for guests. Salson further talked about how the internet has helped take her business beyond the confines of Nazareth, and opened up markets even outside Israel.
Our next stop was the office of NGT3—Next Generation Technology—a venture capital fund based in Nazareth. For informative purposes, Nazareth is Israel’s largest Arab city, historically Christian, but predominantly Muslim populated. NGT3 is an early-stage venture capital fund that seeks to create value for the society through investments in medical treatments and biotechnology devices, provide good return on investment, and also pursue a social agenda by way of creating opportunities for entrepreneurs, especially in the Arab community, to advance their ideas. Understanding the untapped potential in the Arab Israeli community, with this demography having about 20% of Israel’s population, yet contributing a mere 8% to the national GDP, the Israeli government provides 85% of the funds that NGT3 invests. We learned about five key areas where NGT3 aids start-ups incubation: team composition, regulation, intellectual property, research and development, and market assessment. Sadly, we also learned of a recent difficulty in finding Arab entrepreneurs despite the doors being opened to help this community work towards parity with their Jewish counterparts. To wrap things up, we had a presentation from the CEO of PlasFree, a start-up working on preventing excessive bleeding such as after childbirth.
By this time, the entire group was famished, so off we went in search of a befitting Israeli lunch. I cannot categorically say what we had for lunch, but I can say that it was a bit of so many things. Let me let a picture speak on behalf of Monsieur Lunch.
Lei’s quote: “If I eat well, the whole day is a good day; if not, it is a sad day”
After lunch, we headed in the direction of Jerusalem, arguably the most disputed piece of land (read: “hills”) in this galaxy. Intending to enter Bethlehem, we switched buses in Jerusalem to a bus that would have less hassle getting to our target. We also had to change our tour guide because for some reason, Israeli citizens have restrictions against entering areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Our tour guide into Bethlehem was Riman, one of the Palestinians in legal limbo. She neither has an Israeli nor a Palestinian passport; has a permanent residency document issued by Israel, and uses either an Israeli or Jordanian-issued travel document (not passport) depending on which country she wants to visit.
While we all had our passports ready, we were surprised to go through the security checkpoint without being stopped nor having our passports checked. Once in Bethlehem, we went to the Walled Off Hotel, a hotel facing the security wall (“separation wall” to Palestinians). The hotel houses a museum and a gallery that recounts the Israeli-Palestine conflict from the viewpoint of the Palestinians. It was quite interesting learning about the same issues from another perspective and interacting with some persons on the other side of the fence (literally!)
Moving on from the hotel, it was time for dinner, so off we went to a nice restaurant for another sumptuous meal. To provide some understanding of this kind of dental-nasal exercises branded as dinner, we spent almost two hours moving through three courses of Mediterranean fantasy. Dinner over, it was time to head to our hotel in Bethlehem.
About fifteen minutes after checking into the hotel, we were back downstairs for “processing”. Time check: 8:15pm local time. Tuesday’s processing session was more of a brief overview of the Israeli-Arab cum Israeli-Palestine conflict, this time, more from an Israeli perspective. When I say it was brief, I mean it lasted just over two hours, and ended when we began feeling like many inhabitants feel in Gaza—trapped. The look on every single face was priceless. After two hours, our tired minds could not understand the conflict as it defies any straight-cut colouration. As Sam the anchor said, “if you can understand the conflict and think of a workable solution, there’s a Nobel peace prize waiting for you”. For us, Alfred Nobel could keep his prize, at least for that night.
- I’ve got to mention that the night view of Bethlehem from my room’s balcony on the eleventh floor is simply amazing.