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Doing business in Jerusalem

Written by

By David Rottenberg

The turrets on top of the fortifications created a zipper-like line across the darkening blue sky. I imagined archers and spear throwers crouching behind the thick, grey stone walls as they fought Greeks, Romans, Saracens, Crusaders and countless other attackers throughout the ages. Innumerable battles have been fought and innumerable people have died in the several hundred walled acres that spawned three of the world’s major religions.
I was in Jerusalem, Israel, about to enter the Old City through the wide Jaffa Gate that is one of its few portals, half expecting to see camels and donkeys instead of the steady stream of cars. Flat wooden vendor carts with large spoked wheels parked by the side of the road sold delicious bread and rolls covered in sesame seeds. Many of the small cafes surrounding the Gate offered fresh squeezed orange juice. The street to the left, a straight cobblestone pedestrian walkway, was lined with small open shops that sold all kinds of merchandise, including nuts and spices, clothing, dishes and, of course, souvenirs.
The street to the right followed the curve of the wall and led to the Kotel, the Western Wall, all that remains of the Holy Jewish Temple that Herod the Great built. One also could see in the distance the glow of the golden top of the Dome of the Rock and the dark metallic charcoal colored dome of the Al Aqsa Mosque, two of Islam’s holiest sites. A short distance away, through curving narrow cobblestone streets, stood the Church of Holy Sepulcher, one of Christendom’s most sacred places. All three faiths lay competitive claims to this ancient walled city.
The Jewish Temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans and has been venerated by Jews for over 2 millennia. The eternal prayer has always resounded, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Because of political and military tensions, one must run the gamut of Israeli security to enter the large courtyard to approach the Wall, passing through inspection and metal detectors.
Many people come to the Wall, to touch it, to pray, to feel a spiritual connection with the place that millions have dreamed through the centuries of reaching. Sensitive individuals have told me of the energy that they feel emanate towards them as they approach it. It is often customary to write one’s name, the names of important people in one’s life and a brief prayer onto small slips of paper and then to tuck these slips into crevasses in the Wall, to join with the sense of eternity in the Wall. One needn’t be Jewish. The two last Popes and even President Obama have done so.
Jerusalem is a city of the faithful, a beacon to those who see religious experiences. But it is also a bustling metropolis, home to several hundred thousand residents, the titular capital of the nation. The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and the Supreme Court are located there. Yad V’shem, the world famous memorial to the Holocaust, is there. Hebrew University forms brilliant minds and Hadassah Hospital with its famous Chagall Windows treats Jews and Arabs alike there. The city is full of popular restaurants, shopping centers, and famous pedestrian malls like Ben Yehuda Street.
As a country, Israel has blossomed in the 60-odd years of existence, from a poor British protectorate to a busy, bustling economy that has attracted enormous amounts of outside investment capital. Even Warren Buffett felt comfortable to plunk down $4 billion to acquire companies. More than 60 venture capital funds are active there. There are more Israeli companies listed on NASDAQ than those of any other country outside the United States. Over $25 billion has been invested there in the past few years.
One reason for this prosperity is that Israel and the United States share many common values. Among these is the respect for the rule of law. On the political side, the Israeli parliament is based on a coalition system. That is, many parties of the splintered electorate must unite to select a prime minister. When the coalition fails, the government may fall. That is different from the system in the United States, where we have a two party system and where the party out of power defers to the party in power until the next election.
The judicial system, though, is based largely on English common law, with a bit of French civil law also applied. The principles of “stare decisis” prevail, recognizing the weight of following prior decisions. The judiciary is quite independent and may often take positions contrary to the government’s political objectives.
Property rights, banking laws, securities laws, inheritance laws and the like are similar to United States laws and are enforced fairly. Individual rights and human rights are upheld, despite what Arab propaganda may claim. One doesn’t find corruption here as one finds in many other countries in the Middle East.
Consequently, investors feel comfortable making investments in Israel. They feel they can “place their bets” and “take their winnings” without problems or restraints.
Another reason for investment in Israel is the quality of the workforce. It has the highest number of university graduates per capita in the world. Since 2000, three Israelis have won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, two for economics. Residents are largely well trained, technically capable, multi-lingual, and have a strong work ethic.
Many multinational corporations have established R & D centers there. Qualcomm, Microsoft, Intel, HP, IBM, Cisco, Google, and Silicon Graphics are among the household name companies creating innovations in Israel that we later enjoy in this country. Teva Pharmaceuticals, the largest generic drug manufacturer in the world, is an Israeli company. Israel invests a higher percentage of GDP in R&D than any other country in the world, with its universities serving as “breeder” centers and the government funding a wide range of programs.
Computer advances include ZIP file compression and Pentium chips. Companies have developed medical devices such as portable cardiac ultrasound, high speed CT scanners and an ingestible pill-shaped video camera that transmits pictures of one’s insides after being swallowed. An Israeli company, Panoramic Power, just won Qualcomm’s Ventures QPrize business plan competition for the most innovative business plan of 2009.
Tourism, textiles, pharmaceuticals, computer technology and agriculture are among the primary businesses. Tourism, in particular, has been affected by the declines in global economies. But, since much tourism is faith-based and group rather than individual, the industry has not been as deeply hurt as other parts of the world.
The fear of terrorism and concern with personal safety has a deep impact on tourism. But, in Israel, the perception of safety is high, given the security measures that are clearly visible throughout the country.
Doing business with individual Israelis can be different from the way business is done in the United States. Here are some cultural differences to be aware of:
Israelis don’t usually exchange business cards.
Israelis often don’t shake hands when meeting and greeting.
Israelis are less concerned with punctuality. Allow 15-20 minutes before becoming concerned.
Hiring a translator is a good idea if one doesn’t speak Hebrew, in order to avoid having your contacts speak with each other in a language that you don’t understand.
Cross cultural business training seminars can be helpful to ease negotiations and prevent faux pas. They also can offer deeper insights into Israeli negotiation strategies.
Tel Aviv is perhaps the financial center of the country but Jerusalem, as the legal center, is the place to get things done, to get contracts drafted, signed and recorded. There are really no elegant resorts or luxury hotels at this time in either city, although plans have been made to build more luxurious places to stay. The King David Hotel is perhaps the most elegant hotel, more because of its history and prior famous guests than because of its accommodations. Jerusalem Regency, Dan Hotel, David Citadel, Inbal Hotel and Renaissance Jerusalem all offer comfortable rooms, fine dining, and business services.
Many restaurants in Jerusalem are kosher or serve only dairy. As “kosher,” all meats must be slaughtered in a ritual way and the restaurants operate under rabbinic supervision. There are fine dining restaurants in major hotels and throughout the city, many of which are listed in a popular magazine, Jerusalem Menus. Some of the best are located in Talpiot, German Colony and close to Ben Yehuda, the pedestrian mall.
A visit to Israel and to Jerusalem, in particular, can be spiritually uplifting and very profitable, for those doing business. It is a unique country, with a unique population, and an amazing history. But, for all its differences, it is remarkably similar to our way of life and thereby is very familiar. One should not miss an opportunity to go there. For tourist information, visit goisrael.com.

David Rottenberg is the editor of Dining San Diego Magazine, a guide to many of the city’s favorite restaurants. He is a member of the Southern California Restaurant Writers Association, a member of ASJA and vice president of the North American Travel Journalists Association.

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