Israel and Palestine: Where everyone eats hummus

There’s a red stone building in front of five lemony huts on the edge of the dramatically beautiful and barren wadi (riverbed). Deep in the Negev, a mile from the Jordanian border, I am learning about conflict between two neighbors—not the Palestinians and Israelis (that comes later). Here in the desert, two of the 70 families settling in Tzukin are arguing over the position of their guest houses; nestled in nature, they are exposing just how “natural” tension can be. Otherness is easy to find in Israel where there are religious and secular Jews, right wingers and left leaners, Ashkenazi and Sephardic sects, Jewish Israelis and Arab Israelis (Palestinian citizens of Israel). There are Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Bedouins that have been “settled” in the southern region. There are third generation refugees refusing to accept Palestinian citizenship and hoping to return to Jerusalem. There are Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Palestinians in Gaza are governed by Hamas while others in the West Bank are under the Palestinian Authority. Although everyone eats hummus, issues of identity are rampant and narratives are calcified. Emotions run deep. It’s tribal. The conflict shapes everyone’s existence and yet often the challenges fade from everyday life. The crisis in the Middle East is intractable, regional, deeply personal and totally familiar. Holding two truths is near impossible. Fear is the default and building a wall at one point actually seemed like a good idea.

I’m spending the week with a diverse group studying leadership, interconnected communities and our shared responsibility for ethical decision-making. We are looking out the window but finding a mirror instead. It’s the world in a bus and includes among others the British city manager of Bradford, a councilman from Charlotte, North Carolina, the vice president of The Nature Conservancy, a French entrepreneur, a New York City Ballet principle dancer, a Chinese lawyer, a consultant from Nairobi, a serial tech CEO, a Scottish CFO, a former general from the U.S. Army and the dean of Brazil’s largest business school.

Traveling through Israel and Palestine as foreigners, we zip through check points into the West Bank. We don’t even have to use the app that reports the waiting time at security. Signs at the border warn Israelis that crossing is at their own risk and most choose not to enter. The Israeli Army asks its citizens in the occupied territory to sign a waiver indicating that they expect no military protection. The West Bank is divided into Area A (under the Palestinian Authority), Area B (Israel polices while the P.A. manages civil society) and Area C (run by Israelis and dotted with settlers). There may be an alphabetical order to A, B and C but in the West Bank, A merges with B and then slips into A, curving into C and then back to B. Maps can’t make sense of the region. Even Google is stumped. People and places literally don’t exist. The route I am on in the West Bank has not been indexed by Google, neither have the services in East Jerusalem where we are staying (private industry interference alert!). Tech firms in Tel Aviv have refined facial recognition but most Israelis have not looked a Palestinian in the eye. The majority of Palestinians I met have only interacted with Israeli settlers and soldiers, but they have never seen, let alone had a conversation with, a Jewish civilian. In both the West Bank and Israel, Jews and Arabs attend different schools and shop at separate establishments. A dinner party we hosted in Tel Aviv provided a neutral terrain for Arabs and Jews to gather. Proud pictures were exchanged. The mood was playful. It seemed so simple to just bring people together. But we know it’s not.

Professor Khalil Shikaki has pioneered independent data collection assessing public opinion. Turns out Israeli and Arab assumptions about what the other believes are…wrong! What would you expect when there isn’t dialogue? We met many social sector activists trying to bridge that divide. Sami from Holy Land Trust even managed to get Kahane’s son and a Hamas leader to meet. It took time, but eventually they compared beards and debated who had the pushiest mom. In pursuit of peace, why not bond over mothers? If only that were enough. The community workers were hard-working, exhausted, joyfully “counter cultural” but they wondered whether their efforts were making a difference.

Opting instead to pull the commercial levers of change, Bashar Masri has built the first planned Palestinian city called Rawabi. He raised millions from Qatar and the town, which looks like Dubai meets Disney, is shaped in a Q! There is an outdoor coliseum for concerts, a zip line, pictures of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe over the movie theater and several international chain stores flanked by coffee shops. The apartments can house 40,000 people. Masri’s vision? To create a “wow” in the desert, to show what can be done now, without aid, to create 10,000 jobs over five years…and to be sure that the Jewish settlers across the (nonexistent) road wake up every morning to the Palestinian flag. Masri is eager for Israeli companies to tap Palestinian talent. 75% of the population is under 30 years old. Yes, they need rights. They also need work. A number of the tech enterprises in Tel Aviv are supplying jobs to citizens of Ramallah but they don’t make it public. A leading scientist at Tel Aviv University confirms that she has a spirited collaboration with a Palestinian lab and even pays for a private taxi to transport an Arab research fellow across borders each week, but they can’t be too overt about this association.

You can see Tel Aviv from Rawabi. You can almost smell the spices in Jerusalem but the randomly positioned wall divides you. It’s long, ugly and in Bethlehem covered with slogans. The main street was severed by concrete, families were separated, and retail was essentially killed. There’s a touch of occupational tourism, e.g., graffiti artist Banksy has opened a hotel where guests sip coffee, rent spray paint cans and turn their political views into decorations.

The Bedouin effort at engagement was more my speed. Muhammad-al-Nabari, the mayor of Huri, grew up in a tent, trained as a chemist at Hebrew University and now sells hope. The Bedouins’ average age is 14 years and most don’t believe they have a chance to change their position in society. The mayor began by insisting his constituents pay taxes to establish trust. He created visionary projects to integrate Bedouin traditional skills with high tech solutions. We visited Wadi Attir, run by a 29-year-old female CEO and is literally an oasis sprouting from the sand, sporting sophisticated milking facilities and organic farming. Ten Bedouin tribes work together and the showcase is visited by Israeli and Arab students. 30% of the Negev is populated by Bedouins and there are 400 mosques. As the Jewish CEO of Desert Stars (a youth training program) tells us, selfishly he wants the Bedouins to have a better life— “The majority of car accidents are Bedouin, they hurt themselves and they hurt me. If they don’t stop stealing I can’t survive.” Selfless change makers and selfish visionaries. Israel has no shortage of contradictions. And a surfeit of walls, walls, walls. Can I speak again about the separation barrier in Israel? It runs for 771 km. The wall is following me, running alongside the road. Knowing that America is building physical barriers, my heart hurts each time I am confronted with the dismal consequences of such a tangible divide. And my head aches as I recognize the correlation between the wall and the reduction of terrorist bombings on buses and in markets in Israel.

Tel Aviv has an iron dome—you can’t see it, but it stops rockets. Protection comes in many forms. So does the positive impact of a country continually fighting for survival. Spending time with venture capitalists and high-tech startups, it becomes clear that mandatory military service and a geo-political situation that demands focus and innovation is at the heart of Israeli success. The IDF (Israeli Defense Force, the army) provides standardized assessment and training for the entire nation. It teaches leadership, technical skills and humility (unless you are a pilot, but that’s a whole other story). I’m told that cyber security, sensors and big data contribute to an “unfair Israeli competitive advantage.” Each of the super successful tech entrepreneurs I met had their start as an Israeli intelligence officer. Upon leaving the military, members of the IDF’s elite 8200 Unit have investors waiting to back them. The CEO of a company that has developed an app that anticipates when parking spaces will become available explains that in the military he tracked human behavior for abnormalities, now he searches for commonalities and predictability. The data is all collected off your “digital extension,” i.e., your smart phone. Similarly, the CEO of Nexar, Inc. started his career in the Missile Defense Unit of the Army and has now built a company that can predict car crashes. Nexar also functions as the traffic controller for cars in New York. Yes! Manhattan has made a deal to use Israeli sensors. Wait. What’s happening? Sure, foreign investors are buying up our urban bricks and mortar but what about the property (and privacy rights) we cannot see? I learned in Israel that China is leading in AI invention and its drones have permission to scan New York’s sky. Operating in near space, the Chinese high-altitude drones avoid radar detection and collect valuable intelligence. When American officials want domestic data, they can ask their counterparts in the Far East.

At 26, Yonatan Adiri was Israel’s Chief Tech officer (under Shimon Perez). He spoke to us about the gap between the government’s grasp of technology and the capabilities being developed by private companies. He also explained the weaponization of the internet. For example, in Hong Kong people who toss chewed gum in the streets may find their saliva analyzed and correlated with their face through a massive database, which is then posted publicly to name and shame their behavior. What’s more, he warned us that fake news is nothing compared with what’s coming. With Snapchat’s capability to make masks, we are seeing the “democratization” of fake faces. This technology, combined with the ability to artificially produce voices means that pseudo videos in your likeness can be circulated. What do you mean you didn’t say that? I have a recording!

The tech earthquake has happened, a tech tsunami is on its way and, as Yonatan observed, we need to heed the signs. Israel is building Noah’s ark in anticipation of a permanent revolution.

Working in China the week before last, the increased surveillance I felt since my previous visit left me spooked. In Israel, by contrast, the same monitoring initially made me feel safe—another example of the weeks’ paradoxes. Even safety becomes an ever-morphing, and deeply individual experience.

My Brazilian colleague was taken aback to find out that personal security in Israel was quite high. Despite her home country’s crime rate, upon arriving my pal was afraid to walk alone on the Mid East streets. Fortunately, she was a quick study and at 1 AM on our last night, we went out for a snack. There’s a Brazilian expression that “everything ends in pizza.” Our week was no different. And, this being Israel, when you purchase pizza they cut the slice to the size you request, weigh it, and charge you for your unique piece—even ‘za asserts its individual identity.