At the end of the session on technology at the Jewish News-BICOM policy conference, the reaction of the audience was a mixture of pride and frustration. Pride that Israel’s high-tech and science sector is viewed so positively in Britain and that shared trade, finance and cyber security have drawn the two nations closer together.
Frustration that even in a period when Israel’s security and settlement policy is not dominating UK headlines, much of what the public hears and reads is of disturbances on university campuses, boycotts and anti-Zionism. Bad news drives out the good news.
The reality is more nuanced. Post-Brexit, the £5 billion or so of two-way trade between Israel and the UK is obviously very valuable to UK commerce. But it is what we don’t always see that is often most fascinating.
When barely a day passes without cyber-attacks on British institutions, almost all the victims look to Israel for solutions. BAE systems, the UK’s largest aerospace and defence group, has set up cyber-security operations in Israel.
Among the best places to track Israel’s changing role and image is in the pages of The Financial Times. The newspaper may sell fewer copies than The Big Issue in the UK, but its presence online (behind a paywall) and in the hotels and lobbies across America and in business capitals gives it enormous traction.
Last week, the German writer Frederick Studemann was in Beer Sheva in the Negev. What astonished him was a cluster of buildings with the corporate logos of Deutsche Telekom, EMC, Lockheed, PayPal and others plastered over them. He found they had clustered in the desert to tap into Israel’s world of venture capitalists, computer engineers and ‘world-class cyber security’. What struck Studemann was less the hardware and more the human capital of ‘highly trained former conscripts’.
When president-elect Donald Trump talked about building a barrier or fence along the Mexican border, rather than a wall, media attention immediately turned to Israel. The FT suggested it was an opportunity for Magal Security Systems, the world’s largest provider of perimeter security. The company’s shares doubled on the Tel Aviv stock market in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election win.
Israel has the technology of border sensors, advanced cameras and monitoring equipment. Much of this has been tested on the controversial fence between Israel and the Palestinian territories and, more recently, Egypt and Israel’s Sinai border. India has turned to Israel for help in building a ‘smart fence’ with Pakistan.
It’s not just security and technology transforming Israel’s image. We should not underestimate the soft power of the cuisine of Yotam Ottolenghi, who forms part of a changing Israeli narrative. In his image, there has been a flowering of Israeli-style restaurants in hipster London such as the Palomar in Soho.
The FT’s John Reed last month noted ‘Israel is homeland to global TV show successes’. He wrote that Netflix (home to House of Cards) had bought the rights to Fauda, an Israeli TV series about a military undercover operation seeking a Hamas militant. The much-acclaimed Homeland series is derived directly from Israel’s Prisoners of War and Shtisel, an Israeli series about the strictly-Orthodox community, has recently been sold to Amazon to be screened as Emmis.
Gradually, the contemporary narrative of Israel as land of occupation, boycott and war is being displaced by a story of technology triumph, science and culture. Long may it last.