The Land of Milk, Honey, and Hi-Tech: My Two Months in Israel

When I stepped out of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport and onto the curb where my taxi awaited me, I felt something unique in the air– and no, it wasn’t my own sweat or the cigarettes seemingly everyone was smoking. As we started driving towards the city, I saw dozens of Israeli flags lining the exit ramp, dozens of powder blue horizontal stripes and stars of David, and I finally put my finger on that feeling in the air: everyone here is Jewish (well, actually 75%, but it feels like more). After half a second, I had another thought: that’s awesome. Growing up Jewish in America, especially in the suburbs of Boston, is by no means difficult, but Jews are a small minority everywhere except this tiny, Massachusetts-sized strip of land on the Eastern Mediterranean. The thought of a country full of people with a shared history and set of traditions excited me, and that alone was enough to make this country special to me, even though I’d never been here before.

For two months, I wouldn’t be the one fielding questions from non-Jewish friends — What is Shabbat? Why don’t you come to school on Yom Kippur? — but rather the secular, uninformed American inquiring about the history of our religion and our country. Why couldn’t a Haredi woman I work with shake my hand when we met on my first day at the office? For that matter, who are the “Haredim?” Why are Jewish people settling in the West Bank? One Friday night, after learning what the Western Wall was for the first time only a few hours beforehand, I went there for Kabbalat Shabbat at sundown. Amidst the singing and dancing, a man approached me asking if I wanted to put on tefillin and say the Shabbat prayers. My response: “Excuse me, what are tefillin?” I had a lot to learn.

And as I learned more, my conviction that Israel was in some fundamental way special grew. The land of Israel is physically beautiful, from the Yarkon Park that I lived across from for two months and its packs of deceptively large dogs, to Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea, to the Roman ruins in Caesaria. But it is also incredibly resource-scarce: unlike its neighbors, Israel has no oil fields, and 55% of the country’s land area is the Negev. But, thanks to breakthroughs in agriculture and desalination, Israel is able to feed itself and now has an oversupply of water. On top of this barren land, Israelis have created a technology-driven, first-world country with a mostly functioning democracy in less than 70 years.

I didn’t appreciate the extent of this democratic undertaking until I saw one of Israel’s neighbors for myself while looking out over Syria from the Golan Heights. Amidst the deep green crop fields, reservoirs, and vague outlines of mountains in the distance, I could see dark brown smoke billowing up in the air, followed by faint, thunderous echoes — firsthand evidence of the civil war being waged on the other side of the UN-monitored demilitarized zone. And when I met a Bedouin schoolteacher named Mohammed in a village literally a stone’s throw away from the Lebanese border, he said that he was proud to be a citizen of Israel and happy to live here because quality of life and opportunity were much greater than on the other side of the border.

Economically, I saw Israel’s advancement directly through my internship at Vertex Ventures, a VC based in a Tel Aviv suburb, where I dove waist-deep into the Israeli hi-tech ecosystem. Israel, and in particular an elite intelligence group within the military — Unit 8200 — has birthed an incredible amount of innovation, especially in cybersecurity. In June, Tel Aviv University hosted its annual Cyber Week, a cybersecurity summit where leaders from all over the world came to Tel Aviv to share their perspectives and hear from Israel’s own cyber experts, who are the foremost in the world. Practically every large tech company has an R&D center in Israel, leveraging the talent from TAU, Hebrew University, and the Technion to drive some of their critical research. An Israeli company, Checkpoint, invented the firewall in the early 1990s and continues to be the leading cybersecurity company globally. Israel, despite having a population of only 8.5 million people, has more companies listed on the NASDAQ than any country except China and the US. And Israelis continue to innovate in the security space, whether it’s Cato Networks, which is trying to redesign enterprise networks and security from the ground up, or two of Vertex’s own portfolio companies: Argus, which is developing a comprehensive security solution for connected cars, and Indegy, which is securing the systems that control our critical infrastructure.

Underpinning this all is what I believe to be a fundamentally unique culture. Israelis think like hackers; they look for shortcuts rather than the obvious solution, a habit developed in the military. They’re incredibly blunt — they say what’s on their mind — and are unafraid to constantly question authority. There’s even a yiddish word for this audacity: chutzpah. Everything is more relaxed and informal than in the United States, and people at the office poked fun at me when I came in on my first day in an Oxford button down.

But above all else, Israelis are resilient. On my third night in Tel Aviv, two Palestinian terrorists opened fire on crowds seated outside the Max Brenner at Sarona Market, killing four and wounding several others. Every other day, I go to the Vertex office in the WeWork space in that very building, and, every day, thousands of Israelis and tourists wander the market’s food stalls in search of the perfect shawarma or hamburger. While I was slightly rattled — I hadn’t been in Sarona yet, so the impact was lesser — the Israelis moved on quickly, simultaneously mourning the loss of fellow citizens while recognizing some violence as reality. WeWork was full the next day. Within a week, the market was bustling again, packed with the same Israelis and tourists falling back into their old habits. As an IDF soldier explained to me, “After a certain period of time, you accept it as a fact of life to some degree. Besides, when you let it affect your everyday patterns, you’re letting them (the terrorists) win.”

When I came here, I was worried about my security. Concerned and, in hindsight, grossly misinformed friends told me, “Wear a backpack when you can,” “Stay alert on the buses and in crowded places,” “Be especially careful in Jaffa.” So, my first few days, I was on alert and slightly uneasy on my commutes to work, even thinking to myself a few times, “What are the odds this bus blows up?” But these fears quickly evaporated despite the Sarona shooting as I developed increasing faith in the Israeli security apparatus, which is quite simply incredible.

I’ll admit that my interrogation at the El Al check-in desk in Boston — “What temple do you belong to?” “Oh, you don’t? Why?” “Why don’t you speak Hebrew?” — was nothing short of jarring, even though my ticket was ultimately stamped Green since their background check and brief profiling indicated that I was not a threat. And, because everyone who’s roughly college age is in the IDF, military personnel fill the buses during the morning commute, many of them with guns. I’ll never forget my stomach’s somersaults the first time I saw a solider get on the bus, going to work just like I was, dangling an M16 over his shoulder two feet from my face. Even after two months, that still gives me anxiety.

Privately, the Israeli intelligence and security apparatus is impressive. Watching The Gatekeepers, I heard six former heads of Shin Bet explain how they systematically dissected each community in Gaza and the West Bank to identify local leaders, terror cells, and potential informants for Israel. But there are also public operations that foster peace of mind — whether it’s the anti-missile system on my El Al flight, bag checks and metal detectors going into important buildings, and the fact that it’s essentially impossible for a civilian to own a gun (aside: gun ownership is nowhere near a right here, and Israelis are all very confused by and disappointed in our own gun laws in light of recent terror attacks in America). The serious bag checks and metal detectors rarely take more than ten seconds, and I know that the seventy-five-year-old security guard at Sarona who smiles and cheerily greets me with “Boker Tov,” every morning before half-assedly checking my backpack probably can’t stop a terrorist. But it’s a deterrent, and, justified or not, I feel as safe here as I do in the US. Some of my female friends even say they feel more safe here than at home.

But Israel, like all countries, has its warts and flaws. Selfishly for me as a non-Hebrew speaker, I struggled with the language barrier, even though pretty much everyone I interacted with here spoke functional English. I was unable to participate in most of the pitches and meetings with entrepreneurs simply because many of them weren’t comfortable enough in English to present their ideas clearly. Business culture can be relaxed to a detriment, most visible in the bad service we received most bars and restaurants we went to. But as a nice British guy who I met watching the Euro Cup explained, “Everything here is so blasé. It takes a week for them to respond to any communications, and if you send them an email during the month of September (the high holidays), you might as well have never sent it at all.”

More broadly, there are several fundamental questions Israel needs to address, the first and foremost of which is the Palestinian one. But there are several others. How will the government’s relationship with religion and the rabbinate evolve, and will the government continue to support Jewish settlements in the West Bank? How can Israeli society integrate its Haredi and Arab minorities, the two poorest and fastest-growing groups in the country, into the labor force? Right now, the government seems to be moving backwards with at least one of them– the Knesset just passed a bill exempting Haredi schools from having to teach math, science, and English. And finally, can Israel remain or become a Jewish state that is not only for its Jews but for everyone who lives here, a place where a Jewish majority can peacefully coexist alongside Christian, Muslim, Bedouin, and Druid minorities?

Nevertheless, as I sit in the airport fresh off our redeye home from Tel Aviv, I can only look back fondly at Israel and the ten weeks I just spent there. I left America a blank slate, armed only with a copy of Start-Up Nation and a very limited knowledge of Israel’s history, and now return here with an incredible set of memories, lifelong friends from the Birthright Excel community, and a deeper understanding not only of Israel but of myself. Israel is not just Jewish but truly innovative, beautiful, and actually a ton of fun. I’ll never forget the long Friday afternoons at the beach and longer nights at the Shalvata, the sunset runs along the HaYarkon, or the bottomless bowls of hummus at Abu Hassan– and the amazing people I did it all with. While I am concerned for Israel’s future­, concerned that, if it isn’t careful, Israel could lose everything, I also believe that Israel can and will overcome those problems and remain a prosperous, democratic nation that I can be proud of far into the future. While I don’t have plans to make Aliyah right now, Israel feels like home to me, and I can say this much for certain: I’ll be back.