Visiting VC head slams Israeli government

Israel has emerged in recent years as a world leader in a variety of industries, from technology to outsourcing to homeland security and more. But one US-based investor told the Jerusalem Conference Tuesday the country’s economic success has come despite an alarming level of governance. 

“Israel boasts many advantages for foreign investors,” said Ken Abramowitz, Managing Partner and co-founder of NGN Capital, “including terrific universities, a wealth of experienced managers, quality engineers and scientists, well-trained physicians and more. But I have never seen a lower caliber of government than you have in this country. Your foreign ministry is staffed with low quality people and a low quality leader (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni). The Supreme Court is a collection of far-left activists who then appoint more far-left activists to join them on the bench. It feels like all the smart people in the country have started their own companies, and the rest have been left to run the country.”  

Despite what he called of government obstacles, Abramowitz praised Israel for what some have called a “vibrant business climate” and said the country is one of the top three countries in the world for new pharmaceutical companies, start-ups that successfully list on international stock exchanges, and added that Israel boasts one of the world’s highest ratios of start-up investment per capita. He also told the packed audience his firm plans to raise $350 million by the end of 2008, and that the fund plans to raise its investment in Israel from two percent to ten percent, in a range of start-up companies that will include medical firms and more. 

While heaping praise on Israel, Abramowitz cautioned that too much venture capital money comes from abroad, and he encouraged wealthy Israelis and pension funds to do more to cement the local economy. In addition, he said there are too few local giants ready to purchase start-up companies for what he called “big money.” He also called for Israel to push annual growth rates from five to ten percent, saying the additional cash would help prevent exorbitant gaps between rich and poor, and would ensure appropriate funding levels for social and military programs.  

United Jerusalem 

Jerusalem‘s role as the undisputed capital of Israel and the Jewish people also played a role in the session. A majority of Israelis and Jews around the world may oppose the re-division of Jerusalem, but Session Chairman Harvey Werblowsky, cautioned that economic development in the capital is the surest way to ensure the city remains united under Israeli sovereignty.  

“It’s simple, really: The stronger Jerusalem is as an economic center, the harder it would be to divide the city,” he said.Werblowsky also said foreign businesspeople such as IDT chief Howard Jonas have looked to remove economic barriers for Americans who want to make aliyah while at the same time securing top-notch employees for a global market. He said the trend would continue in Jerusalem and the rest of the country, and that the technology and outsourcing sectors have made Israel a major force in the global economy.

Hareidi Women: Driving Employment and Growth

A major focus of the session concentrated on developments in the ultra-Orthodox (hareidi) community. Eli Kazhdan, CEO of Citibook Services, said his company has built outsourcing plants in ultra-Orthodox towns such as Modi’in Ilite (Kiryat Sefer) and Beitar Ilite, providing hundreds of jobs for observant women in an atmosphere that conforms to the sensibilities and expectations of that community.  

“We’ve got separate seating for men and women, work hours that are compatible for women with large families, and other conditions that make it comfortable for religious women to work for us,” he said.  Since Citibook began operating in Kiryat Sefer in 2003, Kazhdan said there has been a quiet revolution in ultra-Orthodox circles: Whereas there were virtually no businesses in the town in 2003, nine companies now operate there, employing representatives from approximately 900 families.  

Kazhdan credited important developments in Israel for the change – reduced child welfare benefits by the National Insurance Institute, and the quiet but definite trend for leading rabbis to suggest married women start to work to support their often large families. He said there are several reasons that outsourcing to religious communities is a winning proposition for foreign companies. 

“We cannot and don’t want to compete with India,” he said. “Even if we wanted to, we could never match them in price. But Israel offers many things that India doesn’t – American, mother-tongue English, fine cultural points, superior industry proficiency in a range of sectors. 

“In addition, cultural norms in the religious community are uniquely suited to business success. The work ethic for a woman in this community is so strong that people ask us to dock their pay because they stepped out of the office for ten minutes to make a personal phone call. These are not women who are popping out of the office every half-hour to talk on the phone or have a smoke. They take the issue of gezel zman – time theft – very seriously and you can be sure they are working hard from the minute they sit down until the minute they leave,” he said.

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Stolen Holocaust art at Israel Museum

 The Israel Museum opened two new exhibitions of Holocaust-era art Monday, giving light to nearly 100 paintings and Jewish ceremonial artifacts stolen by Nazi looters during the Second World War.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Marriage Portrait of Charlotte von Rothschild

Hundreds of Jerusalemites braved a blustery, cold night and a weather forecast of snow to attend the gala opening of “Looking for Owners: Custody, Research and Restitution of Art Stolen in France during World War II.” The exhibit includes 58 paintings by some of the biggest names in European art, representing hundreds of years and a wide variety of painting styles and topics. Paintings include non-Jewish works by artists such as Paul Cézanne and Édouard Manet, as well as Jewish painters such as Marc Chagall, Max Liebermann and others.

Israel Museum officials stress that while most of the art was stolen from Jewish collectors and private homes, some of the works were taken from French non-Jews and culture institutions. Many were sold in “legitimate” commercial transactions for prices far below market value or in forced sales. Following the war, many pieces were returned to France, but restoring the material to the rightful owners proved impossible because many or most of the original owners were killed, both in concentration camps and as a direct result of the war.

Marc Chagall, The Rabbi

Superior Aryan Culture

In a gallery featuring many priceless masterpieces, one of the most sobering features of the exhibition is a series of eight photographs documenting the theft of French art. There are images of hundreds of classic paintings, boxed up and awaiting shipment to Germany, one shows the walls of the Paris Central Train Station laden with fine art, and another shows a similar view of the private homes of some Nazi higher-ups. And of course, no exhibition on Holocaust-era theft would be complete without images of stolen Torah scrolls and other Judaica.

As with many things Nazi-related, the numbers are astounding. From April 1941 to July 1944, 138 railcars were packed with 4,174 cases of stolen artwork and shipped to Germany – an average of more than three per month. In all, more than 22,000 objects were taken during this period, some of the nearly 60,000 pieces of art looted during the war. 

Museum officials consider the “second” exhibition, entitled “Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocuast,” to be secondary in importance to the French exhibit, but in many ways it is more descriptive of every day Jewish life in prewar Europe than the primary exhibition. With more than 50 Jewish ceremonial objects, paintings, books and prints, all stolen from Jewish families throughout the Third Reich, the artifacts are stunning in their simplicity. Museum Director James Snyder said many of the objects, particularly the Judaica, would not be considered “valuable” in the international art marketplace, but nonetheless they are an important record of the history of European Jewry.

Torah Crown, Alsace, France

Decade-long Effort

In addition to providing a non-traditional history of the Holocaust period in France, the exhibit highlights one of the most painful subjects for survivors of the tragedy: restitution and poverty. Museum sources say efforts to bring the exhibit to Jerusalem have been under way for more than a decade, but have hit stumbling blocks along the way from French authorities and culture institutions such as the Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR), the current custodian of many of the French works, who were concerned about possible restitution claims by Holocaust survivors in Israel.

The concern was not unfounded: In the mid-1990s a legal battle surrounding a loan by Austria’s Leopold Foundation to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art caused  Attorney General Robert Morgenthau to prevent the return of several paintings by early 20th century artist Egon Schiele to Austria because of claims by two families that exhibits in the show belonged to their relatives murdered during by the Nazis. The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest legal authority, eventually decided against the plaintiffs, but the case set a precedent for future claims.

In order to host the exhibition, the Israel Museum pushed the Knesset to the Immunity from Seizure Law preventing survivors or heirs from claiming ownership of the property. The controversial bill became law in 2007, and museum officials say that many of the law’s detractors eventually came to support the law, for a variety of reasons.

“The law is important because there was no way France was going to agree to let us host this exhibition here,” said Dena Scher, the Israel Museum Foreign Press Officer. “People began to realize that if we don’t pass the law we are never going to see these paintings.”

Furthermore, Scher said the law is a positive one that moves not only to protect the rights of Holocaust survivors, but also provides a mechanism to facilitate potential claims.

“The law only says that survivors can’t lay claim to the art HERE in Israel. But it also stipulates that the lending country, in this case France, must have a functioning body to adjudicate survivor claims. France does – there is a tribunal that meets once or twice a year to listen to claims.

“In addition, we had to publish the works at least one month before the exhibition, to allow the public to survey the works and file claims if they had any. All the works in this show were put on the Justice Ministry website on December 28 and stayed there for a month. No claims were made, and the material was prepared for shipment at the end of last month,” she said.

The joint exhibition is set to run through June 3. A follow-up show is scheduled at the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme over the summer.