Why we should double down on the surge of support for the heartland to build a future for Israel
The vicious attacks of October 7, 2023, reminded us of the central role the heartland communities in Israel’s South and North play in the Israeli reality. For nearly a generation, Israel’s leadership has focused on transforming our country into Startup Nation, a hi-tech superpower located on the beaches of the Mediterranean. Rarely were Israel’s agricultural communities thought of other than in the past tense, or as vacation spots to get away from daily life in Israel’s vibrant center.
As an entrepreneur and founder myself, I too believed we could buffer ourselves from the failure of the peace process by focusing on global technology needs. We thought that by selling abroad we could side-step the conflict in our neighborhood. Shrink it and move on. We thought financial returns would drive opportunities for all citizens, helping to normalize our daily lives and Israel’s place in the world.
Tragically, we were wrong. The Startup Nation vision was a mirage. While we, the top 10%, benefited from increased international investments and direct international flights, the majority of Israel was being left behind economically. A “Second Israel” watched with growing frustration as our Startup Nation bubble grew further and further removed from their on-the-ground reality.
The explosive events of October 7 dispelled this Startup Nation mirage. Our attention was immediately drawn to the critical nature of those heartland communities along our borders on whom we depend for food security, ecological security, and physical security. We recognized that without the survival of these “rooted” communities – the communities who literally tend our nation’s soil and provide us the securities we depend upon – our country will wither and die.
This is why many of us sprang into action, helping to pick fruits, vegetables, and tend the livestock we rely upon daily. And through these experiences we are learning how wrong our leadership’s belief was that the heartland’s prosperity mainly required quicker access to the center. How wrong the belief was that we would all be better off when our fruits and vegetables are imported and those rooted communities would transform into bedroom communities for tech centers for multinational companies.
We now know that while that approach may have saved us a few shekels here and there at the supermarket, it cost us our resilience. We now know that the center needs strong roots in our heartland, and that our heartland needs more than high speed rail links to the center to survive. We now know Israel’s prosperity depends on a thriving whole.
For that, we need a new blueprint for Israel.
Our blueprint for a post-Oct 7 Israel should start with our commitment to ensuring our heartland communities thrive. It requires us to leave behind the oft-used metaphor describing Israel’s economy as a train pulled forward by the tech-sector locomotive. The locomotive metaphor reflects the failed paradigm that the Periphery depends on the Center for survival. What we learned is that reality is more interdependent. What we learned is that our communities, across Israel, depend on one another to survive and thrive.
I believe a more useful metaphor to capture this interdependence describes Israel as a tree, one whose roots need to be solidly planted in our soil to weather the storms. With strong roots tended by our heartland communities, and a broad enough core economy resting on that foundation, we can support the growth of outward-reaching branches to bear fruit in the markets of the world.
Practically, I recommend our first step be to build on the current wave of volunteerism and investment in the South and North to establish new institutions dedicated to strengthening the connection between Israelis and Israel’s soil. This can be done through a set of national and international service fellowships and industrial collaborations that may include:
- University-accredited work-study programs for Israelis and internationals located in our heartland communities that use project-based learning focused on solving challenges faced by agricultural communities in this age of climate insecurity
- Essential Capital funds dedicated to the technological needs of our heartland backed by public guarantees, to attract innovators to focus their pioneering energies in our heartland
- Public housing opportunities for individuals and communities interested in moving to our heartland, with professional opportunities for reskilling and upskilling to contribute to our food, ecological, and physical security; for example, intra- and inter-faith programs providing economic opportunities for the ultra-Orthodox to work side by side with secular Israelis and Bedouins and Druze communities who have worked the land for centuries
Focusing the first stage of our blueprint on mobilizing society and industry to strengthen our roots in the heartland will also open opportunities for future stages of development to complete normalization with our neighbors in the Middle East. For example, our neighbors know extreme heat events related to climate change require new solutions with existential importance. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who have particularly benefited from the Petroleum Age, are desperately seeking paths to a climate-resilient transition. This shared reality is an opportunity.
Israel, until now, has dedicated a small part of our pioneering efforts and investment to addressing the challenges raised by climate change, partially because we were so enamored by the cosmopolitanism of Startup Nation. Dedicating the first phase of our national blueprint to addressing the needs of our heartland can both build our resilience and open new opportunities to continue the path of economic cooperation Hamas’s actions tried to derail.
Our survival requires us to move beyond the Startup Nation paradigm. To ensure our resilience, it is time for us to leave behind the mental models of yesterday and develop a blueprint whose first phase must be dedicated to connecting our center more organically with our heartland. A blueprint driven by the mission to transform Israel into a rooted nation, comfortable in our soil, making the desert bloom for ourselves and for our neighbors in the region.
How can you support the heartland communities in these times of great need and rebuilding? There are a number of direct and indirect means to support the communities of the South as they rebuild, and North as they return home. Here are a few ways you can help by using the tools of public diplomacy:
- Tell the stories of the heartland. The world will quickly forget the destruction of whole communities by Hamas’s murderous actions. Many have forgotten already. Honor these communities by telling their story, focusing on their resilience. Their dedication. Their bravery.
- Celebrate volunteer efforts to support the heartland. Citizens of all backgrounds have rushed to help the heartland in the aftermath of the massacres. Everything from volunteer missions coming from the Diaspora to work the fields led by Taglit-Birthright Israel and Masa, to an emergency fund for Israeli agriculture called ReGrow Israel. Celebrate these stories, to remind ourselves and the world that we are resilient and intend to build back better.
- Share your aspirations for the future. Remind the world that the recovery does not end once the buildings are rebuilt, or the fields are rehabilitated. It will take years of nurturing, of love and care and investment, to inspire in Israelis a call to return to the heartland. We can achieve this, together. Just as we were born following unimaginable tragedies and founded our country by setting up communities in our heartland, we can now dedicate ourselves to ensuring our heartland communities survive this unimaginable tragedy and thrive once more.