Evan Thornley, parliamentary secretary to Victorian Premier John Brumby, led an Australian Israel Chamber of Commerce delegation to Israel in April-May. In these excerpts from his tour diary, he details a hectic week in the Holy Land which included helicopter rides, moving ceremonies and a first-hand look at Israeli innovation.
WE came to Israel to answer a seemingly simple question: How does Israel out perform Australia in innovation by such a dramatic margin? From a standing start 20 years ago, Israel has six times as many high-tech companies listed on the US NASDAQ exchange with one-third Australia’s population. The answers, of course, were more complex – and relied to a significant extent on a greater understanding of Israel itself, its turbulent history and present challenges, and its remarkably resilient spirit.
Our group of 45, which included vice-chancellors, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, captains of industry and this lone politician (although, in my case, perhaps more the ex-Silicon Valley entrepreneur) assembled, a little jetlagged, for a week of extraordinary insight.
Sunday, April 27
MY wife Tracey and I nearly fell at the first hurdle.
“What is the connection between you two?”
“We are married but travel under different surnames.”
“For how long have you been ...”
If the purpose of these “soft” security questions before boarding a plane to Israel is to find discrepancies in stories, we were off to a very bad start. “We’ve been together for 20 years and married for 15,” I venture, clarifying our divergent answers.
They let us on the plane.
Straight off the plane and into meetings, beginning with Professor Uzi Arad, former director of intelligence for the Mossad and adviser to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He didn’t mince words. But he also helped us understand the many meanings of “never again” and how security infuses every aspect of Israeli life and historical narrative. It was a confronting introduction; especially considering about half of the group had not been to Israel before.
In the afternoon we heard from Dr Orna Berry, former chief scientist, now successful venture capitalist, and visited Tel Aviv University. We later met with Deputy Minister of Defence Matan Vilna’i at the Kiriya. For the first of many times I was asked, “Do you have a weapon?” The look of stunned surprise on my face was probably all that was required to give comfort to the questioner. Vilna’i gave us a detailed and disturbing run-down of the challenges, particularly from Gaza.
Monday, April 28
ELISHA Yanay, CEO of Motorola Israel, woke us up first thing with the remarkable story of how Israel went from 1000 to more than 8000 computer science and engineering graduates in a decade. The remarkable part of the story for me was the close cooperation between leading companies, the government and universities– a unity of purpose with hard driving from business that you rarely see in key public policy issues in Australia.
Then to Rehovot and the famed Weizmann Institute. The lessons here were clear – principled, uncompromising leadership. They hire the best people regardless of which discipline. There are no subject area quotas, only an unrelenting commitment to the best. They reckon the best people will probably identify the most interesting and important problems to work on. They reckon that “money will always follow excellence”, whether it is donors, corporate or government. They reckon an inspiring physical environment is a priority as it adds to the creativity and inspiration of the people. They reckon they can separate commercial activity from research and make both effective. I reckon they were right on all counts. An inspiring, uncompromisingly brilliant place.
The unexpected surprise was the architectural one. The glorious “country home” – first built for the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, by Bauhaus architect Erich Mendelsohn – was an inspiration. To eat lunch on the balcony of this masterpiece – in the same place as the great founders of Israel had come often to chew over the mighty challenges in front of them – was a particularly memorable experience.
The Australian Light Horse regiment that won the decisive battle for Be’er Sheva in October 1917 had not been recognised as they should, and we had the privilege of being there when the new memorial, funded by the Pratt Foundation, was unveiled by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Major General Michael Jeffery, Australia’s governor-general. The speech from Peres was particularly moving – the soft voice of an old soldier spoke with compassion and gratitude and moved us all.
Tuesday, April 29
TUESDAY was a high-tech day. We met with two of Israel’s most successful tech entrepreneurs: Zohar Zisapel of the RAD Group and Dov Moran of msystems and now Modu.
Zisapel is the ultimate “serial entrepreneur”. His group has now created 23 companies– six are NASDAQ-listed – and the group’s combined sales have grown to US$820 million. Moran’s msystems invented the now ubiquitous USB flash drive and flash disk and was sold in 2006 to SanDisk for US$1.6 billion.
He now has a new mobile phone technology company called Modu, which has the world’s smallest and most multi-functional mobile phone. Moran’s tales of how he played off the industry’s gorillas against each other showed how a great entrepreneur plays a hand with small cards to great effect.
We also met with the CEO of Microsoft Israel, the president of the Technion University and Israel’s chief scientist, Eli Opper, where we further progressed the Victorian Government’s strategic VISTECH partnership. This is one of 20 such international cooperation agreements the Israeli Government has entered into over the past 20 years and is clearly a key part of its strategy and success.
We finished with a state dinner at the residence of President Peres. It was with great pride that as we drove up the hill into Jerusalem, we saw the Australian and Israeli flags jointly decorating the road in celebration of the first visit by an Australian head of state – Governor-General Jeffery – to Israel.
Wednesday, April 30
WE were privileged to meet with Minister Isaac Herzog, son of former president Chaim Herzog, and clearly the rising star of the Israeli Labour Party; Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, head of the prime minister’s National Economics Council; and Internal Security Minister Avi Dicter. We were also generously hosted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and oversaw their research and commercialisation achievements.
Dicter achieved the “line of the week” with his recollections from his days with the Mossad. After the Oslo Accords in 1994, the Mossad was ordered to contact its opposite numbers in the Palestinian Authority to arrange details of security handovers. “We had to call our enemies to arrange details ... we had their numbers of course!” said Dichter, erasing any doubts about the effectiveness of surveillance operations.
The evening of April 30 also marked the official state ceremony for Yom Hashoah at Yad Vashem. The solemn but beautiful ceremony was marked by the extraordinary testimony of six child survivors of the Holocaust. Their stories of horror were also marked with hope, as we then heard of the great achievements and contributions each had subsequently made to their new homeland.
Thursday, May 1 (Yom Hashoah)
FOLLOWING a debriefing meeting to discuss what we’d learned as a group, we set out to downtown Ben Yehuda Street to observe and participate in the two-minute silence for Yom Hashoah that is marked by a countrywide siren at 10am. The busy street fell silent and still, but the moving tribute was disrupted by an ultra-Orthodox young mother pushing a pram and a couple of young Arab lads clearly keen to disrespect it. A plural, democratic society can tolerate such dissident behaviours – a luxury not offered by Israel’s opponents – but perhaps that irony was lost on the offending individuals.
Our group then made a return visit to Yad Vashem to walk the full museum and attempt to comprehend the horror chronicled within. This was perhaps the seminal experience of the trip, particularly for those who were in Israel for the first time. A close friend who had sometimes questioned my passionate support of Israel emerged and simply said, “Now I understand.”
And for the non-Jews among us, the haunting question remained: “If I had been there, would I have been among the Righteous Among the Nations?” It’s a question we cannot answer, but in asking it, we probe the very nature of our humanity and the meaning of morality and courage.
The juxtaposition of history with contemporary Israel also filled us with hope. We met Professor Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel and globally eminent economist, and had a detailed discussion of the progress and prospects for the Israeli economy. The generally bright story was also tinged with challenges, particularly around the widening economic disparities between mainstream Israel and the ultra- Orthodox and Arab minorities.
Late evening we returned to history, right back to the Second Temple and the Western Wall. There’s a Time Lord quality to visiting Israel; an ability to seemingly move between centuries by rounding a corner. Our bus – the tardis – took us from one century to the next in a matter of minutes.
Friday, May 2
WHAT an extraordinary spectacle the Old City is on a busy Friday. Japanese-Christian pilgrims doing “Stations of the Cross”, mixing – sometimes heatedly – with a group of Benedictine monks with megaphones trying to do the same. Sometimes it seems that a temporary lapse of the Christian spirit might see the groups break into a bit of old-fashioned biffo.
The street vendors, who quite shamelessly ply their trade with menorahs next to crucifixes under the shadow of kaffirs, seemed to proclaim the mercantile traditions with effortless ease – working all sides of the street, as we in politics might say.
Saturday, May 3
IT sounds like the beginning of a joke: “Two vice-chancellors, a politician and an ethics specialist get into a helicopter ... ” What was less of a joke was the explanation by our 30-year combat veteran pilot of the necessity for the security fence on certain parts of the border with the West Bank, which we flew along.
“Where the communities are very close, we use the wall to prevent sniper fire,” he said, quite reasonably.
“Um, so what’s to stop sniper fire at unfriendly helicopters?” we asked. The silent reply didn’t comfort us.
We headed north along the border and through the Galilee to touch down in the Golan Heights. One kilometre from the Syrian border and with commanding views across into Lebanon, we stopped and drank coffee with Drol, our kibbutznik guide.
From there we straight-lined it down the Jordan Valley all the way to the Dead Sea and Masada. Along the way, the most extraordinary examples of the desert blooming and the Israeli mastery of desert agriculture were displayed before us. Palm plantations, pivot-irrigated crops, orchards, greenhouses and a crocodile farm (my favourite), all sprang from the otherwise desolate and barren desert soil.
It was a fitting end to a frantic week. Technology, resilience, ingenuity and a surrounding environment of insecurity and latent hostility. That’s Israel – even for an occasional visitor like myself, the most compelling experience you can wrap into one week.
Tracey and I can’t wait to return – next time with our kids.