Lessons and Impressions from Israel

During the Israel-Gaza Conflict last summer, something interesting happened on my social media feeds. Certain friends began consistently sharing articles in support of Israel. Certain friends began consistently sharing articles criticizing the Israeli government. The only thing that my smart friends, who otherwise agree with each other on most issues, could agree on in this case? That the media was horribly biased against their position.

Floating in the dead sea, one of the tourist highlights of a week in Israel

Floating in the dead sea, one of the tourist highlights of a week in Israel

I stayed out of the fray last summer because I was — and still am —uneducated on the complex history surrounding the state of Israel. Plus, even if I knew more, I’m not sure I’d have anything new or useful or deep to add to the analysis. But, I’ve resolved in recent months to try to address my underlying ignorance. I read From Beirut to Jerusalem, which was a terrific introduction. I’m currently reading Righteous Victims. And most importantly, a couple weeks ago I traveled to Israel in person and spent a week in the country.

I’ve been interested in visiting Israel for some time. Jewish culture was all around me growing up in San Francisco. Although not Jewish myself, I had many Jewish friends, learned about Jewish culture, food, and song in school, and attended about a dozen Bar Mitzvah ceremonies in the seventh grade. But seeing a place in person elevates your appreciation of the culture. There’s nothing like being on the ground.

It was a highly structured, very busy week sponsored by the Schusterman Foundation. We were 50 entrepreneurs — all but one hailing from SF, NY, or LA — traveling around together meeting with various former government officials, tech entrepreneurs, and touring the sights, for 14 hours a day, seven straight days. The week we were there happened to be the beginning of the recent uptick of violence in Jerusalem.

Here are my lessons and impressions from the trip.

Continuous context for a week. For seven days, I was in the same place with the same people: continuous context. That’s rare, especially for those of us who lead portfolios of many activities. What’s more, the entire agenda was fixed by others, so I made no decisions about how to spend my time — all the way down to when the wake-up call was set for my hotel room. You end up with an opportunity to really engage and be present in the moment. It’s an all-too-rare experience that I wish I had more often. It’s what I love most about these sorts of leadership fellowship trips: it’s an opportunity to go deep, continuously, in the same place with the same people on the same topics.

Vulnerability in group settings. Throughout the week, we delegates spent time together in small groups to reflect on the trip and share stories from our lives. These small group discussions brought forth some of the most poignant moments of the entire experience. People shared deep, dark secrets, and everyone else respectfully listened and sympathized. As tears flowed and hugs were exchanged, I felt emotionally connected to certain people in a way that was surprising. I hardly knew these people — why did I feel, in one sense, so close? It’s what happens when you put the same people through an intense, foreign experience for at least 48 hours; when there’s structured time to open up and share; and when there’s a facilitator who can guide the protocols.

A land of contradictions. I had three competing impressions of Israel when I stepped back and reflected on where, physically, I was standing. First, for billions of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, the land of Israel contains some of their most sacred sights. People spend their life savings to travel to Israel and connect with a religious heritage that stretches back millennia. Israel is holy and old, I thought. Second, walking the modern streets and gorgeous beaches of Tel Aviv, you feel like you’re in a reasonably cosmopolitan, advanced society. Israel is secular and new, I thought. And the third feeling I had, when I realized I was just a couple hour drive from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, is that Israel is smack dab in the middle of the most volatile place in the world: Israel is so, so fragile.

The desert induces awe. I’ve written a lot about awe. I’m intrigued by the idea of making awe-inspiring experiences a focal point in planning a life. On one of our last nights in Israel, we drove out deep into a crater and walked on our own path away from everyone else. It was a perfectly still night, a bit warm (I was wearing a t-shirt), totally quiet, and sparkling clear sky dotted with thousands of stars. I wish I could have spent hours there, just staring up, and thinking. I separately felt goosebumps — one practical manifestation of awe — when we arrived in Jerusalem by bus. As we crossed the checkpoint and began driving into the holiest place on earth, our tour guide said, “Ladies and gentlemen, look out the window to your left. Welcome to Jerusalem.” Then he blasted this song on the bus speaker system. Drop the mic.

Is Israel like David or Goliath?  In one sense, Israel is a country surrounded by other countries that say they want to annihilate it. Anti-semitism continues to rumble around the world. Only 60 years ago, six million Jews were exterminated in the holocaust. The Zionist story was deeply improbable; despite its worthy success so far, it arguably still is improbable. Israel, then, is David. In a different sense, Israel is by far the most stable, most rich, and most militarily advanced country in the region. It maintains the military and economic backing of the global superpower in America. While Palestinians languish in poverty, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are positively first world economies. Israel, then, is Goliath. The metaphor you gravitate to reveals a set of bundled attitudes on Israel/Middle East politics in general.

Two state solution pessimism. A former spokesperson from the Israeli government spoke to us on our first day to offer assorted views on the current “situation” — the euphemism used to describe the current unnamed waves of violence. She sounded off on Israeli politics, the history of the middle east, the demographic situation, the various religious groups within Israel, and the U.S./Israel relationship. After an hour of remarks and Q&A, one idea was strikingly absent from the discussion: a state for Palestine, or the two-state solution in general. Not mentioned once. I found that incredibly revealing. There is not a lot of optimism among Israeli intellectuals that there’ll be a two state solution anytime soon.

“Dialogue with the other side.” A common refrain from enlightened observers and nearly all of the solution-oriented Israelis we met with: Peace in the region will only happen if the two sides, Israelis and Palestinians, engage in dialogue with each other in order to improve mutual understanding and remember the other side’s humanity. I wholeheartedly agree. As Peter Beinart recently pointed out, “Talking endlessly about a group of people without talking to them is a recipe for dehumanization.” But while dialogue and mutual understanding sounds good in theory, you don’t hear about it happening very much in practice. Take our trip as just one example: Over the course of seven 14 hour days in Israel, our group spent a total of 30 minutes hearing the remarks of one Palestinian teenage entrepreneur. The teen entrepreneur worked on a business idea with an Israeli as part of a non-profit bootcamp. He was the only Palestinian we heard from and we didn’t have the time or space to dig deeper into his perspective or the Palestinian perspective in general (which, as I understand it, begins at fundamental starting point that they are being occupied — a word that didn’t come up over the week). I’m curious how much philanthropy is devoted to the cause of connecting Israelis and Palestinians to engage in a real exchange of views…

Morality binds and blinds. At its worst, the political debates in the middle east seem to consist of two sides talking past each other, building up straw man arguments, finding confirmatory evidence to support their pre-existing views, and beating the other into intellectual submission. Why? Both sides, quite understandably, assign strong moral, religious valence to their views. And once morality enters the picture, forget trying to have a rational discussion. As Jon Haidt says, morality binds and blinds: “It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”

Complexity doesn’t mean moral equivalence. “You should leave in a week with more questions than answers,” our guides told us when we arrived in Israel. It’s certainly the case for me. Our main tour guide, the amazing Michael Bauer, did a great job describing the complexities, dueling viewpoints, and deep religious convictions behind many of the more extreme points of view in the region. Is there one single capital T truth about Israel, its people, its landmarks, its history? No. But that doesn’t mean we should throw our hands up and excuse ourselves from making any sort of judgment call. Surely at certain moments in history certain actors were more clearly in the right or in the wrong?

12105748_10153702463709108_6079581157327907623_nForget the past. “No one agrees about the past. Perhaps we can agree on the future,” one Israeli told us. Shimon Peres, a Thomas Jefferson like figure in Israel, told us the same: Don’t think about the past. Only try to invent a better future. Something about this sentiment struck me as very American.

The Israel tech scene. Eric Schmidt said recently: “Tel Aviv is a close second to Silicon Valley. Nowhere in the world is comparable, not even Boston and New York.” It’s a genuinely impressive entrepreneurship ecosystem, with sophisticated investors, serial entrepreneurs with big exits, and the support of a nation that embraces and indeed uses the phrase “startup nation” at every turn. Consumer internet and vitality-dependent products are less a force in Israel due to its size. Hard sciences and deep tech reign. We had a fun time hearing from Waze co-founder Uri Levine — he’s already started several more ventures since selling Waze to Google and is plowing some of his fortune back into the ecosystem by investing in scores of other entrepreneurs. Successful entrepreneurs backing the next generation is a classic sign of a healthy ecosystem. The only sad part about Israeli tech? That there seems to be so little interchange of ideas, capital, and talent between Israel and its Arab neighbors who are also experiencing a boom of entrepreneurship.

Department of Cultural Norms, an On-Going Series.  After a listening to very moving talk by a holocaust survivor, we took a picture with him at the museum. We assembled for our group photo shoot, surrounding the survivor. Then a museum rep said, “Okay guys, ‘Survive’ on 3! 1, 2, 3..Survive! It was super jarring. I think it was a classic lost-in-translation cultural moment in terms of how Americans understand the significance of the 1-2-3 routine when taking group shots. Culture can be so subtle sometimes.

Voice Projection. I’m beginning to think that your ability to project your voice is a top skill for life success. At countless times in the trip, I failed to hear someone — or the opposite, I did indeed hear very clearly a speaker — because of a person’s ability to project their voice that could be heard by 40 people around a big circle. In business, literally being heard in a large, crowded conference room is not actually something everyone can achieve.


Big thanks to the good folks at the Schusterman Foundation for sponsoring the trip, Erik Torenberg for the heads up on the trip and playing co-facilitator, and the various other participants and new friends for the insights and the laughs.

Other lessons and impressions: Indonesia | China | Greece | Argentina | Korea | Turkey

Balkans | Chile | Cyprus | Germany | UAE | Italy | Qatar

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