There are more that 26 armed conflicts in the world today. The images of Syria, Iraq, Libya and more remind us how precious and fragile peace and security can be. And peace is not simply the absence of war. Might there be a special role for business?
At the time of this posting the situation in the Middle East appears more unstable, some say hopeless, than ever. It appears that nobody can find a solution to the bloody bombings, the conflicts and bitterness, the suffering and distress, and the spreading of terror around the world. It’s precarious. It’s dangerous. And nobody sees an easy solution.
Some time ago I had the opportunity to speak as an invited guest at the dedication for the new Arison School of Management in Israel. During the talk I raised questions about where the peace is going to come from. From the lawyers? Not likely. From the military? Not likely. From governments? From the religious leaders—Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and so forth? My proposition, tentatively offered, was that it would be none of these. The best place to look, I argued, would be the world of business—that business could be the most important ground and force for peace. Forget about the major headlines of Bernie Madoff and Enron, I said, because the 21st century is going to be a time when we learn to unite the dynamism and entrepreneurial capacities of good business with the global issues of our day. I did not have many examples, but made the argument anyway.
After the talk a stranger came up to me. He said: “I’d like to invite you to meet me at my helicopter tomorrow morning at 8:00. I want you to see this thesis in action—business as a force for peace.”
He went on: “It’s a story of human imagination and the capacity to make something from nothing except hard work.” The next morning we flew to the Galilee region, across the desert to an area without any natural resources. It is called Tefen, and later I discovered that this unassuming man was perhaps the wealthiest person in Israel; his worth was estimated to be over four billion dollars, and what he has created now accounts for over 10% of Israel’s export GNP.
His name is Stef Wertheimer. And for what he has accomplished, he honestly deserves to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
When I got out of the helicopter, I could not believe my eyes. Up until the mid-1980s Tefen was a barren hilltop grazed by local herds of goats. Today the scope of industrial exports manufactured at Tefen equals that of the entire Jerusalem area. Beautiful homes and neighborhoods surround what Wertheimer calls a “capitalist kibbutz”—with four Tefen Model Industrial Parks that have given birth to more than 160 new businesses and schools for all the children that now populate the area. Most surprising: the whole thing is based on the principle of coexistence, Arab and Jewish—living together, going into business together, building schools and art museums together, and dramatically transforming entrenched conflicts into collaborative energies for economic empowerment, development, and peace.
Stef Wertheimer is literally igniting a revolution in hope by harnessing the best in business to melt frozen animosities easily and rapidly, and in the process create islands of peace and shared prosperity. His theory: Create 100 more of these islands—a distinct and special kind of entrepreneurial industrial park modeled after the “Tefen Miracle”—and strategically locate them throughout the eastern Mediterranean. It’s literally this region’s version of a Marshall Plan and one that, growing numbers of supporters from Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority believes, could lift the region out of poverty and take the biggest step toward finishing terrorism. It’s something all of us should take notice of. In his book War and Anti-War: Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century, the prolific author Alvin Toffler cites Wertheimer’s example as one of the most important quiet revolutions in the world today.
Many are now calling the 83 year-old Wertheimer a genius, but most do not know that this genius and entrepreneur dropped out of grade-school. He couldn’t cut it. He failed in most classes. For survival he created his first business, and the first two people hired were an Arab and a Jew, respectively. A seed vision was born and was motivated, as he puts it, “by the metaphysical concept of survival” and his growing conviction that creativity and entrepreneurship together were the only things that could create conditions for lasting peace, dignified lives, and eradication of strife. “A booming industrial base will provide more security than any military outpost.”
Today Wertheimer is working tirelessly to establish 100 of these industrial parks throughout the non-oil-producing parts of the Middle East—his version, as mentioned above, of a Marshall Plan for the region.
The most exciting part of my visit? I was sitting in on a class of Jewish and Arab 10-year-old children—laughing and playing and singing—learning together in a region of the world most define as hopelessly entrenched in hatred. It’s a story that, with the click of the button, should be shared with everyone everywhere in the world.