20 June, 2016

From Start up nation to Orthodox State

By Suhasini Haider

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are two sides of the Israel coin — one the seat of Ultra-Orthodox traditionality and the other a haven for modernists and innovators. The contrast is stark, yet bespeaks the same Jewish identity.

Israel, we are told, is a tale of two cities: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As much as Jerusalem is steeped in thousands of years of history and conflict, Tel Aviv is young, hip, bright-lights-big-city. Tel Aviv, built right by the ancient port town of Jaffa (Yafo), is only about a hundred years old, settled on sand dunes by a group of European Jewish immigrants. With the most gorgeous waterfront and continuous beach, Tel Aviv is the city that doesn’t sleep, the party city and the gay capital of the Middle East. When we land in Tel Aviv, the city is awash in rainbow colours because of an upcoming gay pride parade that is amongst the world’s biggest. On our first night, we walk into a club on Tel Aviv’s iconic Dizengoff Street (named after its first mayor) well past midnight. “What time do you close?” I ask the young lady at the entrance. “When the last person leaves,” is her smiling reply. Everyone here, it would seem, is young, everyone comes from somewhere different, and everyone is accepted here.

Tel Aviv is also a melting pot in the literal sense, with hundreds of different restaurants and cuisines. We dine at Fanta’s Ethiopian Café, tucked away in a more quiet neighbourhood, where she serves us the sourdough staple bread Injera, which is something like a large south-Indian Appam. Fanta moved to Israel when she was 8 years old and, like many we meet in Tel Aviv, is not a supporter of the more conservative Likud Party government of Benjamin Netanyahu. “I would like to see a more liberal party in power,” she tells us.

Interestingly, while the world outside sees Israel’s politics as an ultra-conservative monolith, there are as many shades of opinions here as in any other vibrant democracy. During the trip to Israel, we meet the former foreign minister and livewire opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who leads a faction of the centrist Zionist Union. “When Israel was created, it was clear to us that this is the establishment of a state for the Jewish people and, according to Jewish values, it would be democratic, which means equality to all its citizens without discrimination,” she tells us, adding that she remains an advocate of the two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, something more right-wing parties don’t accept.

“In order to forge peace with our Arab neighbours, we need to reachout to the Palestinian people too,” Ms. Livni says. Her candour isn’t unusual as many openly question government actions here, and what makes it more interesting is that the ruling coalition had only a 1-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset or parliament until recently, when it took on board an even more right-wing coalition partner.

Away from politics, Israel is also known as a pioneer in innovation: the “Startup Nation”. In 2015, Israeli start-up received the maximum venture capital in the world, and it is ranked 3rd worldwide in innovation on the Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) for the World Economic Forum (India ranks 42nd on the same index). Even so, the young start-up entrepreneurs we meet are raring to work in Bengaluru, and have already made connections. Their projects are a fusion of what we agreed was Indian Jugaad and Israeli Chutzpah: using low-cost technology to make successful ideas. Nissan Bahar reworks old computers and provides them to schools where multiple students can use them with “keepods” to load their own programs and operating systems each time they log in. He calls Tel Aviv “crazytown” for the way it embraces risk.

Faception, an Israeli start-up headed by Shai Gilboa, has developed a software they claim can distinguish human traits, including potential security threats, in Tel Aviv. | Reuters

25-year-old Asaf Kindler is working on the next gen to the “Bitcoin” concept with “Bitwalking”, and finding philanthropic uses for it. His builds applications for those who can’t, including one that helped detect Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone. “Tel Aviv is a soft bubble,” he tells me, “You have the ability to fail again and again and still be cushioned.” All of the young men and women we meet have been through compulsory military training which, they say, leaves them raring to catch up on their careers, but also gives them the ability to adapt. “One thing you learn in Israel is that you have a plan; that’s fine, but it’s only a base for change,” says Philip Pfeffer.

Another interesting start-up is actually a community service: Hatzalah is a volunteer service that connects up people willing to be ‘first-responders’ in emergency situations. We meet young Gavriel Friedman, who tells us that they often reach the scene long before police and ambulances can, simply because they have so many volunteers who are provided motorbikes by the group to beat traffic and more than one will reach the emergency caller as a result.

One of the most visible uses of innovation in Israel is that for water. In the past decade, Israel has gone from being a country of shortages to having a water surplus. “We no longer ask about the rain in our country,” the young pilot told me proudly on our visit to Golan, where he pointed out large ponds of sewage which are treated and “recycled” for agricultural use. Along with recycling more than 80% of sewage water, Israel used a combination of measures to defeat its drought conditions. Water is taxed at two rates, bringing them nearly at par with electricity if you use too much water, a measure that ensures citizens don’t waste water, and you never see people using water pipes to wash cars, etc.

^ Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley with Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti (right), Uri Yehuda Ariel Hacohen (second left), Israel Agriculture Minister and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan during India Water Week 2016, in New Delhi on April 04, 2016. | Sandeep Saxena

Every farm, garden and flower patch is watered with drip irrigation lines by law. And if you add crop yield innovation, it is possible to grow much more with much less. Finally, there is the technology Israel has pioneered worldwide — for desalination. We visit the IDE desalination plant at Sorek to see how sea-water is made potable, at the largest such plant that processes more than 624,000 cubic metres of seawater each day, accounting for about 20% of Israel’s domestic water consumption.

All the modern technology does clash, however, with the orthodox religious views of many in the country, that institutionalise Jewish practices in daily life.

The Sabbath (Saturday) is strictly observed in many places, the day Jews are commanded to keep as a day of rest and prayer and abjured from undertaking “any creative process”. This includes lighting a match, cooking, turning on your computer or pressing a switch on all day. As a result, our hotels have “Shabath elevators”, or elevators that have been programmed to stop at every floor so you don’t have to press any buttons, and a hot plate is kept on from Friday night so as to heat food, while public transport doesn’t work.

^ An orthodox Jewish family walks the pavements of Ashdod looking like a piece of retro art in a modern world. | Suhasini Haidar

But there’s more to the conservatism, that is now represented by the fast growing group in Israeli society. “Ultra-orthodox” or Haredim families are more prominent than before, and while the average Israeli woman has 3 children, the average Palestinian will have 4, and the average Ultra-orthodox Jewish woman will have more than 6 children in their lifetime. They also live secluded from other Israelis, don’t take jobs, and don’t allow their children to join military service. Women are expected to cover up, cover their hair, and not drive. There is even a Haredim newspaper that does not quote women or allow their photograph to appear. A G-8 photograph that morphed out German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s face caused quite a storm online. That and the segregation of men and women in schools, buses and in Haredim neighbourhoods, invoke comparisons to orthodox Islam.

Eventually, the future of Israel will involve bringing together all the strands that make up its society. The colours of the rainbow Tel Aviv is awash with are a small indicator of their range, and will need to come to terms with its Palestinian identity as well. At the heart of its debate, that one hears more of in Tel Aviv, perhaps, because of its questioning youth, is: was the nation built for the Jewish people, or are the people built for a Jewish nation-state?

WATCH: Inside the world's largest desalination plant at Sorek in Israel

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