Forrest Gump and the Kibbutz

In Jewish communities around the world, resentment is often expressed against the global media, accused of a systematic bias against the state of Israel. Today, I want to talk about a story that puts those claims to rest, at least in respect to the systematic character of aforementioned bias. Here is a story about Israel that runs in the global media, but so immensely favorable that its potential to change perceptions may prove durable. That story was sparked by a book, Start-up Nation, the story of Israel's economic miracle, written by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, and it explores how Israel became one of the fastest growing entrepreneurial economies in the world.

The book's success is phenomenal. It is on top of all major bestsellers' lists, exchanges hands in diplomatic circles, and is read even by heads of Arab states. Its impact reached my own private life, when I discovered one morning at the office, that a camera crew had invaded the place with expensive gear, and there, sitting face to face, two men engaged in a conversation. The interviewer was Bob Simon, a senior correspondent from CBS, and the interviewee, Yossi Vardi, a prominent figure in the Israeli hi-tech industry.

The dynamics of the discussion was fascinating. On one side, the reporter whose questions were shaped by the narrative of the book, Israel as a “start-up nation”. On the other, the entrepreneur selected to provide, support or strengthen that narrative. With forty years of activity in high-tech, Yossi Vardi is an old-hand and the de facto spokesperson for an entire industry. However, the way he embraces this position is ambivalent. He appears unassuming, slightly uneasy, cautious to play down his achievements. At one point of the conversation, he claims to be a Forrest Gump character.

“I am the Forrest Gump of the IT industry”, says Vardi. Bob Simon doesn't blink, but I am thinking to myself, “what the hell does that mean?”. Yossi Vardi is anything but a Forrest Gump character. This is a man who has aligned a string of financial successes, among which a claim to fame with a $400 million exit at the turn of the century. Stupid is he not, nor does he strike to be excessively ingenuous. So? “Luck”, he insists when the journalist presses on, “I got lucky”. But these humbling down tactics don't faze the journalist, who acknowledges them as part of a gentleman's composure. Besides, Bob Simon has a story to bring back home, a story of money and success. Yet, when he asks, “How much are you worth?”, he anticipates the obvious answer: “You won't tell me, will you?”

At this point, I wonder how much is getting lost in translation. Yossi Vardi's silence doesn't necessarily mean that his net worth is a private matter, or that it is “nobody's business”. Rather, the question itself is anathema in Israeli society. The way it is phrased suggests that the worth of a person has anything to do with money. Israel may have lost some of its Zionist ideological luster, but Yossi Vardi is a child of a very particular zeitgeist. Zionism is rooted in soviet-style socialism, and this heritage is apparent in Vardi's speech. How much of it is noticed or picked up by the American journalist?

Yossi Vardi mentions that when he lands in Ben Gurion airport after returning from a business trip abroad, it is the scent of oranges that makes him feel home. With his chevron style mustache and round face, only a tembel hat is missing to complete the portrait of a Kibbutznik. It is easy to draw a parallel between the pioneers of yesteryear and the entrepreneurs of today. Technology is the new land to seed. What makes Forrest Gump endearing is that he is stupid and rich. He is a caricature of American capitalism. The Kibbutznik, on the other hand, is endearing because he is stupid and poor. He toils under the sun for meager returns. But in more than one way, he laid the foundations for all that was to come.

Today, Israel has industry clusters where the high concentration of universities, large companies and start-ups facilitate the cross-pollination of talent, funding and research. According to Dan Senor and Saul Singer, this is the key explanation for Israel’s knack at innovating. There is no doubt that Israel has been successful in fostering entrepreneurship, but there is equally no doubt that attempts at rationalizing that success is fraught with dangers. To their merit, Dan Senor and Saul Singer resist the temptation of self-aggrandizement, but the success of their book entails that its central proposition gets relayed by third parties with less discernment, establishing a narrative, and narratives are always problematic. The interview is testimony to this phenomenon, and explains, I believe, Vardi's toning down of the conversation.

Even more damaging to the myth of Israel's riches, and largely kept silent, is the current data indicating that the trend of the IT sector pushing the economy forward has stopped. The IT is no more the growth locomotive it was ten years ago. Yossi Vardi cites the often quoted and valid critique that the social divide hasn't been reduced, that opportunities in the workplace are not equally distributed, that whole sectors of the economy are lagging. But will there be room for dissonance in the final cut of CBS' 60 minutes episode?

If it was no coincidence to go with Yossi Vardi as the archetypal Israeli entrepreneur, neither was the choice of the filming location. The hub is on the last floor of a tower in downtown Tel-Aviv, and offers a spectacular view from its terraced rooftop. Entrepreneurs and start-ups share a common office space where the clickety-clack of keyboards and mice provide the perfect soundtrack for the CBS story. But truth of the matter is that the hub doesn't see itself as an incubator of technology startups. Rather, its aim is to promote social innovation. This is in line with the mission statement of the international organization, and a constant concern for the Israeli founders of the local branch. Danny Gal is one of them, and he too is present on the set, watching the conversation from a distance. And when the cameras stop rolling, he approaches Bob Simon to make sure he got his record straight about that particular point. But I'd worry that anyone packaging content for mainstream TV audiences would consider it as a moot one, too.