Like many a speech on Israel, Dan Senor’s began with all that ails the Jewish state: constant war, few natural resources, an economic boycott by its regional neighbors.
Yet for Senor, this is all preamble for the good news: Despite its disadvantages, Israel has emerged as an economic powerhouse, listing more of its companies on NASDAQ than any countries besides the United States and China, attracting more venture capital than any single European economy, and leading the world in the percentage of its economy spent on research and development.
“Israel is a constant innovator driven by small enterprises and tech experimentation,” said Senor, senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Instead of giving to Israel and making demands of Israel, we should be learning from Israel.”
Senor set out to explain Israel’s entrepreneurial model in his talk at the 2011 Major Gifts Event of United Jewish Appeal of MetroWest NJ. Some 320 people attended the Oct. 13 gathering at The Crystal Plaza in Livingston.
Senor, coauthor with Saul Singer of Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (Twelve), traced Israel’s entrepreneurial success to at least three broad societal trends: a culture of risk-taking, an influx of immigrants, and mandatory military service that turns young Israelis into leaders.
“In Singapore, they are terrified of taking risks,” said Senor; Israelis, by contrast, learn how to experiment, fail, and apply the lessons of that failure to their next enterprise.
Israel has managed to absorb 70 nationalities in its short history, benefiting from diversity and a “globalized outlook.”
As an example, he spoke of Shai Agassi, founder of Better Place. The son of an Iraqi immigrant, Agassi is a global leader in efforts to create an energy grid for electric-powered cars.
The military, meanwhile, is a “crucible for the leadership experience,” said Senor. Instead of heading to university, 18-year-old Israelis join the IDF, where they are put into positions of leadership and responsibility and learn to make “decisions on the fly,” leading to an improvisational spirit “tailor-made for an entrepreneurial venture.”
Not all is well in Israel, Senor conceded. Fervently Orthodox Jews and Arab Israelis are exempt from military service and so are unable to develop the networks and skills necessary to keep pace with globalization. And Israel continues to reel from a “systematic and strategic” global effort at delegitimization.
Asked by an audience member why Europeans who invest in Israel are not more vocal in defending the Jewish state, Senor was blunt. “We don’t ask them to,” he said. “And as a result, they don’t connect the dots.
“There are several valuable lessons to be learned from Dan Senor’s research,” said Kenneth Rosen, a chair of the event. “His description of how Israel achieved its economic success despite so many obstacles was fascinating. The Major Gifts Event had a warm feel of friends getting together with friends who share common goals of betterment of our community through philanthropy.”
Paula Saginaw, UJA Campaign chair, said, “To come together with over 320 men and women who share common values and a strong sense of community felt great. These are the most generous, most committed, most philanthropic donors in MetroWest.”
She noted that while the campaign’s “major donors” represent only 3 percent of its 13,000 donors, they raise over 60 percent of its $20 million campaign.
Also chairing the event were Judy and Billy Greenblatt, Karen Rosen, and Randi and Eric Sellinger.