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A tale of two Israeli cities

Last week, Israelis had one more reason to be proud of themselves ― one of their cities was singled out for a rare honor. The Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail selected the “most creative cities” of the world.

Leaning on the Global Creativity Index, devised at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, the newspaper looked at the three T’s (technology, talent and tolerance) that have made cities shine.

The Globe and Mail even went a step further, in choosing “cities that are best positioned to nurture their creative edge into the future.” Alongside with London, Sydney, Stockholm and Shanghai, Tel Aviv made it to the top of this prestigious list.

Here are some of the reasons the people of the Globe and Mail chose Tel Aviv as one of the cities that not only excel today, but will probably continue to do so tomorrow.

“The entire population of Israel may number only 7 million ― smaller than New York City ― but this Middle Eastern state spends more of its GDP on research and development than any other nation.”

Add to this the leadership qualities gained by many Israeli entrepreneurs during military service, and you get a “Start-up Nation,” like the title of the book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, explaining Israel’s economic miracle. Is this the only reason for the success of Tel Aviv?

Steve Brearton of the Globe and Mail is not sure. However, “What we do know is that while Tel Aviv is small, it’s one giant innovation engine.”

Gil Hirsch, who splits his time between Tel Aviv and California, explained to Andrew Braithwaite of the Globe and Mail how you form start-ups in Israel: “A bunch of guys meet up, usually over beer; one of them comes up with an idea, everybody gets excited and, minutes later, there’s a company.”

This is exactly how, together with three friends, he had founded, a company whose site was quickly integrated by Facebook.

“There’s also no fear of failure here,” added Hirsch. “Just a fear of not trying.”

Even Tel Aviv’s notorious traffic jams can’t stop the surge of creativity, especially since Israeli software engineer Ehud Shabtai invented Waze, a GPS navigator that gets inputs of real-time local traffic conditions from other drivers. And so on and so forth.

For me as an Israeli, this recognition of Tel Aviv as one of the most creative cities of the world is, of course, a source of pride. However, as a resident of the other great city of Israel, it made me think of my hometown, Jerusalem.

Indeed, you only drive 40 miles from one city to the other and you’re in a different world. We Jerusalemites, nesting proudly in the mountains, absorbed in holiness even if we are nonreligious Jews, struggling with the serious fundamentals of existence, are looking down at our friends in Tel Aviv with curiosity. Obviously they are doing something ― see the Globe and Mail story ― but still to us they look like a crowd of hedonists, who always sit at cafes or party on the beach (we say it out of envy, of course).

Compared to our city, the weather there is terrible, and one wonders how they can come up with all those brilliant ideas when most of the year they are sweating like (fill in the blank).

The Tel Aviv folks, on the other hand, look at us Jerusalemites as an endangered species, aliens who have been locked in a time capsule, a bunch of extremists, people who claim to be talking to the divinity on a regular basis, because in Jerusalem it’s a local call.

Yes, we host the Knesset and the seat of government, but in today’s Israel that’s another reason for scorn, and even the Supreme Court, which is supposed to carry the biblical torch ― “For out of Zion the law shall go forth” ― is under attack.

Our Tel Aviv friends, then, don’t seem to be looking up to us for inspiration these days. Coming back to the “most creative cities” issue ― not that for a second I believed that Jerusalem could ever qualify.

With so much history, with a population that is heavily conservative (the Arabs and the Ultra-Orthodox mainly), entangled in one of the most loaded conflicts of the world, this city is definitely not a natural hotbed for creativity. However, certain recent trends forebode even more constraints to Jerusalem’s progress: closing ourselves off from modernity, and marginalization of women.

In today’s Jerusalem, most of the Jewish pupils in kindergartens and elementary schools are Ultra-Orthodox, children who hardly learn English and math, because the curriculum is focused primarily on religious teachings. When these kids grow up, the chances that they will ever come close to the Tel Aviv kind of creativity is slim.

Shunning women from the public sphere (like running ads with men only or forcing women to sit in the back of a bus) is another sure sign that Jerusalem is looking back, not forward.

Here is a challenge to our Tel Aviv mavericks: Invent something that will blend modernity with tradition, openness to the world with pride in our own heritage, agility with gravitas, tolerance with conviction ― in short, Tel Aviv with Jerusalem. It will surely be the greatest Israeli start-up ever.

By Uri Dromi

Uri Dromi writes about Israeli affairs for the Miami Herald. ― Ed.

(The Miami Herald)
(MCT Information Services)