Young Israelis, Palestinians converge on entrepreneurship
By Ted Grossman
The opinions expressed are his own.
Today at the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas will speak for their peoples on the world stage in front of the General Assembly. Several hundred miles farther south on Capitol Hill, House Republicans have introduced legislation requiring the UN to adopt a voluntary budget model ending funding for Palestinian refugees, allowing Congress to control and allot the distribution of funds to Palestine, and cutting contributions to peacekeeping operations until management changes are made. And six thousand miles – half a world – beyond that, 44 Palestinian and Israeli students are working as business partners in the Middle East to run two entrepreneurial ventures. This summer, I witnessed an example of their cooperative spirit when the group – 20 Palestinians, 17 Israeli Jews, and 7 Israeli Arabs – came together at Babson College in Wellesley, MA for an intensive program in entrepreneurship.
The revolutions sparked during the Arab Spring show that social and political change can take root with just a handful of people. Here at Babson this summer, I have been overwhelmed by the commitment of both Palestinian and Israeli students to do what previous generations have failed to do: bring about peace in their homelands.
Despite the violence and hateful rhetoric they have endured and the deep political and cultural divides that permeate their daily existence, these 44 undergraduates agreed to participate in a seven-week program focused on developing an entrepreneurial mindset and the business skills necessary to cooperatively launch two new businesses under challenging circumstances. Studying together, learning together and living together, they initially found it challenging to establish trust and overcome apprehensions. But in a matter of days, these students were so busy with market research, supply chain dilemmas and writing business plans that they had little choice but to move beyond their emotions.
They were working toward a common goal and, in the process, they found more commonality than they had imagined. There was no “kumbaya” moment, no Disney magic, that’s certain. But through this process, I witnessed the power of entrepreneurship to serve as a bridge between disparate groups and its ability to create economic opportunity and prosperity through an integrated economy.
Entrepreneurship is forward-looking to the core. In any start-up, all involved must rise above personal differences and face the hard work success requires; the Darwinian rigors of the market don’t permit dwelling on grievances. Now, as the Israeli and Palestinian students embark on their journey as business owners, their political leaders are engaged in discussions at the UN that could have seismic ramifications on their everyday lives. The students understand that, in and of itself, this program will not create a two-state solution, nor will it bring down the fences that separate them physically or politically. They do however recognize that when a political settlement is reached and a Palestinian state is created, they will be in a privileged position to conduct business across the border because they have already developed mutually trusting and respectful relationships.
Escalating violence in Israel and Gaza, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen’s controversial proposal and Palestine’s UN bid remind us of the fragility of the political and military situation in the Middle East. It is against this backdrop that these students launch their businesses and confront the challenges and obstacles their environment presents.
But entrepreneurship by definition implies a certain disrespect for the status quo, and entrepreneurs are by nature more immune to naysayers than most. Our leaders could stand to adopt this mindset, exploring creative and productive ways to utilize funding that supports cooperative missions in the region. The return on an investment in these young entrepreneurs and others like them has the potential to pay dividends both socially and economically, and is surely better than withholding needed support. Our students can be a beacon of this model, continuing to put business necessity before political reality, and thereby in some sense participate in the broader entrepreneurial project of creating a new, more peaceful future for their peoples.