Commentary Magazine


Backward and Forward in Israel

Two recent stories show how to go backward and how to go forward in Israel. The first is a comic gem out of the boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) movement, which has declared a major “Victory!” in its long campaign against SodaStream. BDS is bent on punishing SodaStream for locating production facilities in the West Bank. Their “victory” comes courtesy of TIAA-CREF, a financial services company best known for managing college and university retirement funds. BDS reports that the company has dropped SodaStream from its portfolio.

But wait: Nobody knows why TIAA-CREF dropped SodaStream. Some investors have not been high on the stock of late, so perhaps it was dropped because now seemed a good time to sell. Or perhaps TIAA-CREF will reveal that they divested from SodaStream out of concern for its operations in the West Bank, but BDS isn’t waiting around for announcements or actual reporting. Sydney Levy of WeDivest says that “no matter the reason TIAA-CREF dropped SodaStream, we view this as a conscientious decision.” Anna Balzer of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, agrees that it doesn’t matter why TIAA-CREF sold its shares of SodaStream: “regardless of TIAA-CREF’s reasons, I think what we’re seeing is that it is increasingly unacceptable to associate in any way, to invest in, to sell products that are produced in illegal Israeli settlements.” I guess that means that if I stop eating Sabra hummus because it goes straight to my thighs, I am a participant in the BDS movement.

BDS needs to declare any victory it can because it is founded on the fantasy that Israel will one day admit that it does not deserve to exist and give up the Jewish state. What BDS wants, in other words, is to turn back the clock to before 1948, when Israel was established.

The second story, by Tablet contributor Yoav Fromer, in contrast, looks cautiously forward. Stef Wertheimer, an Israeli businessman, former Knesset member, and billionaire, recently built an industrial park in Nazareth, a city populated mainly by Israeli Arabs. The industrial park was built to “promote Arab-Jewish economic cooperation and coexistence by providing ‘quality employment’ in export-oriented industries.” Amdocs, an Israeli software and telecommunications company, is the first major outfit operating in the park. It has also been, predictably, a target of the BDS movement. The Nazareth Industrial Park is “the next great hope for social activists and business entrepreneurs who have labored to integrate Arabs into Israel’s ever-expanding high-tech sector.”

Among those social activists and business entrepreneurs are Smadar Nehab and Yossi Coten, two “former high-tech executives” who, with Sami Saadi, “a veteran CPA and social activist from the Arab town of Arraba,” founded Tsofen, “an Arab-Jewish organization promoting the integration of Israel’s Arab Citizens into its hi-tech industry, through employment and the creation of hi-tech centers.” Tsofen trains “talented Arab students to write code” and helps them find jobs at companies like Galil Software, a company based in Nazareth, “founded by predominantly Jewish investors,” that has “Arab and Druze personnel filling a range of positions from software engineers all the way up to the executive boardroom.” The vast majority of Galil’s workforce consists of non-Jews.

Tsofen’s mission is not merely to provide Israeli Arabs with high-tech jobs, however. Sami Saadi believes that giving “Jewish and Arab youths the opportunity to work together, on par,” and fostering economic cooperation, can transform Arab-Jewish relations in Israel: “How do people bring about real change? When you empower them and when you give them an outlook for the future.”

There are many contrasts between Tsofen and BDS. One seeks to create jobs, the other seeks to destroy Israel’s economy. One looks to a high-tech future in which Arabs and Jews both prosper, while the other looks to the pre-1948 past. One engages primarily in constructive activity, while the other engages primarily in propagandizing. But perhaps the most striking difference concerns their disposition toward the truth. Tsofen and those caught up in its mission concede the many obstacles to its success. They admit that they are underfunded, that the Israeli high-tech sector is not fully with them yet, that it is difficult for qualified Israeli Arabs to find work in that sector, that Arabs are skeptical of the whole enterprise. Saadi says that “Arab society is full of disappointment, and people are skeptical.” But, he adds, “they don’t really have anything to lose.” This tone of cautious hope could hardly be more different from the fantasy declarations of victory that emerge from BDS each week. On such cautious hope, it is possible to imagine building a future.

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