The Zionist Approach to Business
by Eli Morano
If you associate the involvement of Jewish business leaders from the Diaspora in Israel with planting groves and dedicating buildings in Israel, your worldview is not up to date. Jewish business people from across the world are helping to develop the connection between Jewish communities in the Diaspora and the new generation of visionary, creative Israeli entrepreneurs, and they are changing the social and economic face of Israel with assured strides, as well as the face of philanthropy from how it has been recognized until now.
If your image of Jewish philanthropists resembles that of popular philanthropic figures who give without business considerations, such as those depicted in the movie “Salah Shabati,” it is worth becoming updated. It could well be that the opportunity to develop your business can be found here: the Jewish Agency, via Partnership 2000, operates the Business to Business (B2B) project, now in its third year, and is responsible for developing business connections aimed at creating and promoting economic and social change in Israeli society and among Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
The Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000 program connects 550 Jewish communities across the world with 45 regions in Israel. Andrea Arbel, Director of the Partnerships Division at the Jewish Agency, says that the winning formula of Partnership 2000 in the eyes of business leaders with a Zionist vision across the world is their involvement with decision-making processes in Israeli society.
“For the first time,” she says, “they have the opportunity to share their extensive experience with key business figures in Israel, or with people who have the potential to become key figures. These business people, who all have a proven business record, can open every business door in the world. The program’s uniqueness is that it offers them a real opportunity to create social change and build a reciprocal business relationship for the benefit of the communities abroad and those in Israel. The aim of the project is to create meaningful connections between these key figures: from there it is a short road to business deals and identifying business potential.
A real change in outlook
Arbel notes that “the B2B project represents another channel for dialogue between Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora. Even though on the surface the raison d’etre of the project is economic, in reality, the dialogue between businessmen has created another facet of unity between the Jewish people. This is the essence of Partnership 2000 – the forging of connections between Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora, and the business terrain is a very interesting and effective terrain for this type of connection.”
According to Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, “the main challenges facing the Jewish Agency in the future will be to develop, build, and safeguard the relationship between Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora. This is one of the best ways to expose each side to the importance of the endeavors of the other side. Partnerships develop the ability on both sides to build together Jewish lives and the connection to the Jewish state. This can take many forms, one of which is the creation of business partnerships.”
Do you mean that the basis for mutual activity is business as well as involvement in business projects, such as the Israel Business Conference?
Sharansky: “I believe that what characterizes businessmen is that they share a common language as businessmen, just as Jews share a common language, and here they discover that these two languages become one. It is an interesting phenomenon and it is hard to say what contributes most to the project’s success. Is it the business potential which lies in investing in Israel? Or is it the feelings, dreams and hopes of these businessmen vis- -vis Israel? The fact is that the businessmen discover in themselves a strong social, Zionist side which they did not think existed. Whichever it is, Partnership 2000 and the B2B project appear to have a strong drawing power.”
The success of Partnership 2000 can also be attributed to a real change in the outlook of leading business figures in Israel who, in recent years, have sought to find a new way of contributing their talents and capital, such as helping to bring about social processes that effect real change in Israeli society. Assuming “social responsibility” is “the name of the game.” Partnership 2000 and now the Business-to-Business initiative provide a perfect platform for changing peoples’ lives in a significant way.
Zionism is not an ugly word
While, on the surface, the declared goal of B2B is to forge a connection between key Jewish business figures in Israel and around the world, the added value of these exchanges, in addition to the business connection, is the emotional connection between individuals who have a genuine desire to have an impact. The project’s goal is to assist businessmen in their first encounter, when social relations are formed and a joint declaration of intentions is presented. And do not be surprised, Zionism is not an ugly word. The declared desire of these business figures to use their power of influence in order to contribute to Israel is the underlying basis behind the collaboration of all those involved in the project.
The connection forged, through Partnership 2000, between a Jewish community in the Diaspora and a geographic region in Israel has the added value of developing a section of the country which has goals, difficulties and, at the same time, a unique business potential which it seeks to develop.
Important figures on the Israeli side who are involved in the Conference include Raya Strauss Ben-Dror, Co-Chair of the Partnerships Committee of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and a leading business figure, who has been highly successful in bringing about social change through the promotion of unconventional business initiatives; Sophie Blum, CEO of Proctor & Gamble Israel, B2B Co-Chair; and Stanley Gold, businessman and President of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, and B2B Co-Chair. These are just a few from the list of business leaders which any country would be happy to host and see involved in their country’s business life.
Business successes on the ground
Following the B2B conference last year and as a result of the partnership between the Montreal Jewish community and the Beersheba – Bnei Shimon region, business leaders of the Montreal community invested a million dollars in a business start-up based in Beer Sheva. An additional, similar investment is expected to be announced this year. Other impressive business successes have been registered as a direct outcome of the project.
Sophie Blum, Israeli Chairwoman of the B2B initiative, who also serves in a voluntary capacity as Chairwoman of TZEVA (Hebrew acronym for “Young People Building a Future”, defines how she perceives the added value of B2B: “We are very involved in this program because it offers an excellent platform for developing projects and partnership through a business foundation between Israel and the world. I see this as a wonderful opportunity which, in our case, connects people who have a common desire to promote innovation and entrepreneurship.
While, on the one hand, Proctor & Gamble World is a company whose pioneering innovation and creativity has brought it longstanding success around the world, the Israeli market has similar characteristics: Israel also has a record for excellence and pioneering innovation in areas such as medicine, computers, security, clean-tech and information technology, and it is renowned for its high level of personal entrepreneurship, all of which make Israel a world leader. At Proctor-Israel, I created the Israel House of Innovation, a body that connects Israeli innovation with world corporations. This is an example of the collaboration that can be established between Israeli companies and companies abroad.
On a personal level, I believe that Israel possesses the best minds and talents. What is more natural for a CEO than to identify Israel’s best talents and harness them to the company that I represent? The wonderful human resource which Israel possesses is of great business value. Via a business connection such as ours, Israeli innovation, in every field, can reach out to many more people in the world. The whole project is based on a pure business approach which aims to impact on both sides, but there is also an extra factor over and above this.
We do not have enough awareness
What is this extra factor which you see in this project as a Jew?
“I believe that what I see most of all, above everything, is the challenge: how to propel forward the talents and abilities of Israelis, make them known, and make them successful so they will leave an imprint on the world. This is the most important contribution a business person can make to the community in which he or she lives and to the Jewish people.”
Another leading businesswoman who is playing an important part in the project is Raya Strauss Ben-Dror, President and co-owner of the Strauss Company, and former co-owner of the Strauss-Elite group, the international food corporation. Strauss Ben-Dror’s involvement in Partnership 2000 began more than five years ago when she served as Co-Chair of Partnership 2000 in Nahariya, where she lives. Nahariya is the twin region of the Jewish community of Northern New Jersey in the Partnership 2000 program of the Jewish Agency. Two years ago, Strauss Ben-Dror increased her involvement when she agreed to serve as the international Co-Chair of all 45 Partnerships 2000.
Strauss Ben-Dror acknowledges that her love affair with Partnership 2000 did not begin easily. The first time she was asked to host businessmen in Nahariya, it was almost unwillingly that she agreed to the request to take part in the project.
Nonetheless, what made you take part in the project?
Strauss: “At first, nothing really drew me. As a secular person who traveled extensively around the world, it did not interest me. I had never made a special point of visiting Jewish communities or synagogues abroad. But things changed. At a certain point, my heart got bigger. I began to understand that these are our people and without them we would not have been able to do this. It is important to remember that many things were built in Israel thanks to the funds and contributions of Jews around the world. We, in Israel, do not have enough awareness of this.”
“We left as Israelis and returned as Jews”
Strauss: “My heart opened with a great love for them and I understood the great power we can have when we are united. Today, the gap between Israelis and the young generation of Jews abroad is getting greater. 70% of the young generation of Jews abroad does not care about Israel and the phenomenon of assimilation is immense. The Israeli expatriate community abroad also has little connection with Jewish communities. I understood that I was losing my people. And it is because of this that I woke up.” Strengthening the connection of Jewish communities in the Diaspora and expatriate Israelis with Israel holds an important place in Strauss Ben-Dror’s involvement in the program.
Strauss recounts: “To see what happens in secular high schools when youth delegations travel abroad is very moving. The travelers benefit. ‘We left as Israelis, we returned as Jews’. They suddenly realize that they are part of the Jewish people. ‘We returned also as Zionists’, they tell me. They understand that this is special and it is not for nothing that we have our own state. They are happy to come back and serve in the army. Through Partnership 2000, we can also help Israel.”
Identifying business opportunities
In what way is the B2B project attractive to foreign investors?
Strauss Ben-Dror understands what is attractive for Jewish businessmen abroad: “Even those who, in the past, did not take an interest in philanthropic investments in Israel can identify business opportunities. There are people who take no interest in anything. But they are business people. There is a very interesting, relative advantage for the Israeli side of the relationship, if I give them something that interests them. Partnerships offer a win-win situation to both sides. The business people may not be interested in Israel or Judaism, but they are very interested in expanding their business potential.
“We tell them, ‘come, perhaps you will establish a connection with people whom we believe are special people, and this way we will generate other business contacts for you’. We are able to attract people who, till now, were not necessarily interested in philanthropy. If through the Jewish connection a business opportunity arises, the businessman will come because he may be able to promote his business.”
In the view of Strauss Ben-Dror, this is a legitimate beginning for a relationship which will connect these people in the future, in addition to the business aspect, to the State as well, and that will strengthen their sense of belonging to it.
Business Zionism – is there such a thing?
“No,” answers Strauss to the question as to whether there is such a thing as business Zionism. “We are number two in the world of high-tech. If businessmen from abroad find a business opportunity here, I do not need to call it Zionism. I call it Business-to-Business. I have been involved in this for five years. One should understand that people today are focused on themselves: patriotism and Zionism come later. First of all, businessmen cater to their personal interests. We want to create the first contact.”
Strauss Ben-Dror compliments the business community in Israel and the many leading figures in Israel who are contributing to the project, each in his own field under the leadership of Partnership 2000 : Yossi Ackerman, Shelly Gutman, Dan Harkabi, and many other excellent people. “These people are the “salt of the earth”, they care and are passionate about the Jewish connection.”
The extra factor which Strauss Ben-Dror talked about involves ameliorating the status of Jewish communities abroad, also with regard to their local populations. The Northern New Jersey community, she notes, has improved its standing, including within the country, as a result of the courageous contact forged between hospitals in the area of Northern New Jersey and hospitals in Nahariya. “We send the best things from our country, not just to Jews. We help to improve the status of a Jewish community, and we help to change the image of Israel in the world media, particularly at such a difficult time in terms of public relations.”
What is the winning formula of the partnerships, what is enticing more and more people to want to participate in these projects?
“The big advantage of the partnerships is the inter-personal connection and the Jewish connection. You see people face to face,” says Strauss decisively.
This article was originally published [in Hebrew] in the Globes Israel Business conference special issue Magazine, December 2009.