Looking through my notes from dozens of interviews and from several conferences I attended in Israel last month, I came across a quote from Jerusalem-based venture capitalist Erel Margalit that seemed to jump out at me, crystallizing my findings.
“There’s a synergy when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he told me. “But we have the opposite in Israel. We have amazing people doing amazing things, but leadership here — the ability to give it all meaning — is lacking.”
That’s putting it mildly. Over the last few weeks I met innovative and inspiring leaders in a variety of fields — including business, education, social service, politics and the rabbinate — and all of them expressed deep frustration at being stymied
in their work by the powers that be.
The problem is not just the current, dysfunctional government, led by a prime minister besieged by scandals. It’s the system itself — an outdated bureaucracy and mindset ill equipped to keep pace with the requirements of modern life. And the results could be disastrous for a tiny country that needs to stay ahead of the curve, dependent on its brainpower more than on any natural resources.
Margalit, founder and managing partner of JVP (Jerusalem Venture Partners), specializing in media technologies, is a case in point. At his state-of-the-art new offices near Jerusalem’s old train station, he has brought together nine of his companies, including the country’s first fully equipped feature animation studio, which hired some top Hollywood talent to produce a multimillion-dollar film about talking flowers, tentatively called “The Wild Bunch” and due out next year.
Part of Margalit’s goal is to retain talented young professionals in Jerusalem, which has become increasingly haredi Orthodox. He hopes to help revive the center of town and make it an attractive environment for creative types in careers like medicine, media, arts and technology so that they will want to live in the city.
But that requires a “proactive effort” on the part of the municipality to help make the capital more affordable, he said, and it is not happening. (As real estate prices skyrocket, more and more American and French Jews are buying luxury homes and apartments in the city, but only visiting for the Jewish holidays or summer months. They’re referred to as “the ghosts” by unhappy residents.)
Another highly successful venture capitalist in his 40s seeking to revitalize Jerusalem is Nir Barkat, who has taken the political path in seeking change. He left business and came within about 10,000 votes in his run for mayor in 2003. Now a city councilman, he plans to try again in November. But Uri Lupolianski, the city’s first haredi mayor, has a distinct advantage because the large haredi population tends to vote as a bloc.
More than 100 young people turned up at a recent reception sponsored by StartUp Jerusalem, a nonprofit group Barkat created to help bring jobs to the city, and they were enthusiastic to his call for modernization. But they face an uphill battle.
Meanwhile, bureaucracy is a problem that goes far beyond Jerusalem. Gidi Grinstein, 38, founder and president of the Re’ut Institute in Tel Aviv, a privately funded think-tank that advises various ministries of the government, asserts that Israel’s biggest economic problem is “the quality of the government.” In any area of business that requires dealing with the government, there is “stagnation,” he says, and he worries that if dramatic measures are not taken to address the situation, many of Israel’s best and brightest young people will leave.
Re’ut is focusing on an effort to have Israel “leapfrog” to become one of the top 15 countries in the world in terms of quality of life over the next 15 years. At an all-day conference sponsored by the group in Tel Aviv last month, hundreds of people from all sectors of Israeli life, including Arabs and haredim, came to share their ideas about how to make this happen.
Overall, the conference had an air of optimism and excitement, but Grinstein and other experts offered graphs, statistics and other data to indicate the gap between an enterprising and aggressive private sector and a sluggish public sector that makes it difficult to start a new business or be responsive in other ways. Israelis pride themselves on handling emergencies well, it was noted, but much-needed long-term planning seems to be an alien concept.
A glaring example of such shortsightedness is Israel’s failure to resolve its education crisis.
The country could be facing an even more devastating strike at the universities this fall than the one this past year that closed the schools for three months.
The government has cut university funding by 25 percent over the last seven years, and the schools are losing faculty to the U.S. at an alarming rate. A blue-ribbon commission has called for restoring the funding cuts, increasing salaries for professors and doubling the modest university tuitions to about $3,600. Prime Minister Olmert pledged to support the proposal months ago but no action has been taken. In part that’s because increasing tuitions is an unpopular political move. But Moshe Kaveh, the president of Bar-Ilan University and a key figure in the negotiations between the universities and the government, says that failure to approve the proposal will jeopardize Israel’s future.
He also says better planning for the future is desperately needed in a country that has one of the lowest ratios of government spending on higher education and where only one-third of youth pursue a university degree.
Then there is the role of religion in Israeli society, another point of deep crisis. Resentment against the haredi-dominated Chief Rabbinate has long been prevalent. What has changed of late is that these feelings of frustration and anger are now more common in the Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox segments of society as well, precipitated by the rabbinate’s decision to undo 15 years’ worth of conversions — Orthodox conversions — a blatant case of placing protection of Jewish purity over sensitivity, tolerance and inclusion.
Several prominent Orthodox rabbis have decried the haredi rabbinic court’s decision and the dismissal of Rabbi Chaim Druckman as head of the government’s special conversion administration. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, wrote a column in The Jerusalem Post called “My Torah Is Crying,” asserting that the Torah “of peace and compassion has been perverted and hijacked” by religious judges who “fail to internalize” the Torah’s message.
Rabbi Benjamin Lau, nephew of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, is prepared to take on the haredi establishment. At 47, the charismatic and popular pulpit rabbi in Jerusalem also heads the beit midrash program of Beit Morasha, a communal and educational leadership institute in Jerusalem for observant men and women.
“We can’t accept this,” he told me of the conversion decision. “We should be the power,” he said of rabbis like himself who, in his words, “care about the needs of all Jews in Israel.”
He said he is prepared to help lead an effort for like-minded rabbis to wrest political control of the chief rabbinate from the haredim, and if that fails, to create their own religious courts to deal more sympathetically with issues like marriage, conversion and divorce in Israel.
I wish him and his colleagues success in restoring a climate of inclusion in religious affairs, for the good of the state and the Jewish People — just as I hope the other innovators mentioned here manage to overcome the obstacles of “the system” they face. Their efforts, and those of others like them, could help transform Israeli society into the “light unto the nations” we all yearn and pray for.