One of the first things you notice when you get to Israel is that it’s a far smaller place than the headlines would suggest. You can go from the bottom to the top in about the same time it would take me to drive from City Hall in Tampa to Miami Beach.
Within those narrow boundaries lie inspirational and instructive stories of resilience, renewal and innovation, as I discovered during a recent trip there. And it is nothing short of remarkable that these stories can be told despite constant tensions and a fractious political atmosphere.
I was in Israel at the end of March with a delegation of 12 U.S. mayors as part of a trip from Project Interchange, an institute at the nonpartisan American Jewish Committee. It is easy to become caught up in the complicated mosaic that is Israel, especially when the stark reality that confronts the region came into focus while we were there.
Authorities dealt with several terror attacks, including one outside Tel Aviv where five people were killed. Yet, despite the constant presence of conflict, Israel is not a nation under siege. Far from it.
Rather, Israel is a place very much open for business, especially in the technology sector when it comes to cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. The more they thrive, the more they expand. More than 60 Israeli companies have a presence in Florida. And the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator based in Tampa is helping to increase that number.
One thing that became apparent is that in Israel, success often hinges on not going it alone. We received a presentation from a tech company called Babcom — which means “your door” in Arabic — located a small town near the Gaza Strip. Babcom is a story that more people outside Israel need to hear. It was founded by Arab and Jewish businessmen who had a shared goal of creating good jobs for everyone regardless of ethnicity.
Israel may be the Jewish homeland. But it is also a place where a large percentage of its population are non-Jewish Arabs. This community is active in social and political life — for example, Salim Joubran, a Muslim Arab who sits on Israel’s Supreme Court.
Of course, Israel has a complex set of issues to deal with, none more so than trying to find a way to co-exist with the Palestinians. Toward that end, we traveled to Ramallah, the largest city in the West Bank, and visited Exalt Technologies, a software developer that would not be out of place in Silicon Valley.
The delegation received presentations from a diverse coalition of Israeli and Palestinian business leaders. They are dedicated to strengthening Arab-Israeli ties and laying the groundwork for a two-state solution. Working to overcome the deep-seated injuries, we witnessed what many of us might have previously believed was an unlikely if not impossible partnership.
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True, such collaborations remain the exception to the rule. For now. At least efforts are being made to forge a path forward.
Jane Castor is the mayor of Tampa.