Farming expert Trung Nguyen dreams of establishing a kibbutz-type village in central Vietnam that uses drip irrigation and other Israeli innovations.
Sandipan Dasgupta, a doctoral student in molecular genetics at Rehovot’s Weizmann Institute, wants to identify Israeli med-tech companies that can crack the enormous Indian market.
And Jamila Bravo Maagdalia is promoting energy and education initiatives between the Jewish state and Indonesia—a country with which Israel doesn’t even have diplomatic relations.
All three are graduates of the Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship, an initiative sponsored by the Jerusalem-based Israel-Asia Center that’s now in its seventh year.
In all, 11 fellows who have just completed the eight-month intensive program were honored at a May 27 reception in Tel Aviv attended by close to 100 invited guests, including dignitaries from the embassies of China, Japan and Vietnam.
Rebecca Zeffert, founder and executive director of the Israel-Asia Center, noted that 73 young leaders from 12 countries have now gone through the program. About three-fourths of them are now directly engaged in shaping Israel-Asia relations in business, government and diplomacy, media, technology, culture, and education.
Collectively, she said, these alumni have organized more than 60 delegations of investors and journalists, launched 12 Israel-Asia ventures, coordinated 55 conferences and events, and secured tens of millions of dollars of investment from Asia in Israeli companies.
“Seven years ago, when we founded this program, we saw that Asian students coming to study at universities in Israel were having a great time but living in a foreign students’ bubble,” Zeffert said. “They didn’t have access to high-level professional networks, and when they returned to their countries, the connection to Israel was being lost. So we decided to establish this program.”
In its third year, the Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship began accepting Israeli students as well.
“I believe and I hope that these are the young leaders who will lead Israel through its next 70 years, developing and strengthening its relations with different countries in Asia,” she said. “And we thank our generous supporters and government ministries who made this program possible.”
Dan Catarivas, a veteran diplomat who’s represented Israeli interests in far-flung postings from Beijing to Beirut, is now director-general of foreign trade at the Manufacturers’ Association of Israel. He’s also the Israel coordinator of the India-Israel CEO Forum, established during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s July 2017 visit to the Jewish state.
Catarivas commented on the novelty of Air India’s new nonstop service from Tel Aviv to Delhi, which crosses Saudi airspace—a first for any airline flying to or from Israel.
“I still remember when no airline ever flew east from Ben-Gurion Airport. It all started with the first flight from Hong Kong,” he recalled. “In the last 20 years, there’s been a total revolution. On the ground, businessmen are learning from one another. The business cultures of Asia and Israel are totally different, and it’s a very big challenge to bridge this cultural gap.”
Catarivas said that in 1958, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion took 10 days off to meditate in Burma, few Israelis had a deep understanding of Asia.
“We mostly come from Europe, the United States is our major ally, and in the Middle East we have a few problems,” he joked. “But Asia is totally new for Israel. It took a long time for the Israeli private sector and the government to understand that our future is east of the Jordan River, not west.”
Yet Asia still isn’t prominent when it comes to Israel’s economy overall.
“We are still in the process of building these relationships,” Catarivas told his audience. “We’ve had visits by the leaders of India and Japan. With China, unfortunately, we are still waiting for a big leader to come. We’re on the verge of signing a free-trade agreement with [South] Korea and we’re negotiating FTAs with Vietnam, China and India. We’ve also just signed a new investment agreement between Israel and Japan. So, from the government point of view, things are moving.”
Several Asian countries have no diplomatic relations at all with Israel—most notably Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam and North Korea—but in the case of the first two, trade does exist, and only last week Indonesia’s Yahya Staquf, leader of the world’s largest Muslim organization, visited Israeland met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Earlier this year, a Muslim man from central Jakarta began a Hebrew language course as part of efforts to “minimize the negative stigma about Israel and Hebrew in Indonesia” and “build a bridge of communication between our two countries.”
Catarivas insists so much more can be done, from the Israeli side as well.
“We are so ignorant when it comes to Asia,” he said. “There are such big differences between individual countries. Asia is not one bloc, it’s very complicated, and we have to adapt ourselves to different business cultures.”
This year’s fellows are working hard to achieve that goal.
“To bridge this gap, I’m doing a couple of projects to bring Israel and India together,” said Desgupta. “I’m writing a series of articles and blogs to give Israeli companies a taste of what it is actually like to do business in India — give them a demonstration of what’s it like, not just an artificial number. I’m also working with the Jerusalem Press Club to host one of the largest Indian media delegations in July ever to visit Israel.”