How Do Israelis Do Tech? 'They Know How to Sell - Even Bad Ideas'

A Dutch journalist says he decided to move to Israel because he wanted to have an adventure; a Birthright trip to Israel gave this American courage to travel alone

Jan Frank and Nelke Visher.
Tomer Appelbaum

Jan Frank, 32, from Jaffa, and Nelke Visher, 65, from Amersfoort, Holland; Nelke is flying to Amsterdam

Hi, what’s a Dutchman doing in Jaffa?

Jan: I’m a freelance reporter. I work in the Middle East and I’m located in Tel Aviv .

How long have you been living here?

Jan: For five years. My mother comes once a year to visit me and my Israeli wife.

What did you do during this visit?

Jan: We went hiking and attended a performance of Batsheva [Dance Company].

Nelke: Jan brought me a bicycle and I rode around Tel Aviv.

It’s not like Holland.

Nelke: At first I was afraid because it’s so different, but I must say everyone was really polite. The cars and people on the sidewalks, they all let me pass.

This is the first time I’ve interviewed someone who says people were polite to him on the roads.

Nelke: Maybe they thought to themselves, “Here’s an elderly lady on a bicycle, we’d better be careful.”

Jan, how did you wind up in Israel?

Jan: When I was a student I worked at the Dutch Embassy in Tel Aviv. I learned a lot about the high-tech scene, and thought it was an interesting subject that still hadn’t been written about. And I wanted to have an adventure. My mother thinks I’ve made a lot of progress since arriving here, because now I have a wife and a dog and a driver’s license.

Nelke: I'm proud of him.

Isn’t it a little strange to write about the high-tech scene in Israel with all the chaos around us?

Jan: There’s much more work in blood and war, and in order to earn enough money, I occasionally have to write about the conflict. High-tech is “good news,” which is always less urgent.

Is there good news in the field?

Jan: It seems that the Israeli economy is only making progress. I hear a lot of Israelis complaining, and I know that it doesn’t necessarily translate into people having more money to waste, but the truth is that on the macro level, things are flourishing. In my opinion, in another 50 years, they’ll write about this period as one of unbelievable flourishing in the Israeli high-tech industry. It's interesting.

The question is whether there are enough Dutch people who think it’s interesting.

Nelke: Israel is always interesting. When I say I’m flying to my son in Israel, everyone has something to say.

Jan: People in Holland are interested in technology and want to learn how the Israelis do it.

Really, how do the Israelis do it?

Jan: Ninety percent of it is bullshit, but there’s always factual truth.

Namely?

Jan: Israelis have big mouths and know how to sell even bad ideas. That’s not bad; it's how the world works. And besides, when the Israelis decide to do something, they’ll go all the way, work for hours on end and go into debt and take tremendous risks. It’s suitable for entrepreneurship, but it’s not suitable for everyone.

Aren’t you tempted to be drawn into the high-tech bubble?

Jan: The money in journalism is so bad that sometimes I am.

How did you get to journalism?

Jan: I’ve always written.

Nelke: You could say that words are a family disease. His father is an editor and I worked as an editor for a scientific newspaper.

Jan: My mother has been working for 50 years, since the age of 16. Actually, since the Six-Day War.

Nelke: I have to work for another 10 days when I return, and then I’m in retirement ... I think I’ll miss work. I really like to edit. I like it when there’s an article that has to be rewritten and you have to make sure it’s at a high level.

Jan, do you also like your work?

Jan: At the moment I’m starting an initiative designed to connect Israeli startups with Holland, but mainly I write, and that’s about the only thing I know how to do. I must say that at first my writing wasn’t good enough nor did I know how to sell the stories. I arrived in Israel with something like 10,000 shekels [about $2,500 at the time] and I remember that I'd constantly calculate how much money I had and how much I could spend, but in a way that was the best thing for my writing.

Why?

Jan: Because in every corner I saw a potential story, the pressure worked. When you’re a beginning freelancer and you’re unknown, people say: “Why should I publish him?” And it’s a cycle you have to break, so I constantly suggested ideas. Now I think that 50 percent of the time they send me on an assignment and 50 percent it’s ideas that I bring, sometimes just from some drunk I met in a bar.

Lena Moss.
Tomer Appelbaum

Lena Moss, 34, from St. Louis, Missouri; arriving from Newark, New Jersey

Hi, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Israel?

I came to work. I work in human resources and I’m going to meet colleagues and tour a little. We work in an Israeli company.

Is this your first time here?

I was here once before. When I was 18 I went on a Taglit-Birthright tour and I remember the trip well.

Because it was so much fun?

That too, but mainly because I celebrated my 18th birthday here.

How did you celebrate?

I went with friends to the desert and we went camping and I woke up to the sunrise on that landscape.

Sounds good.

With Taglit we also went on a lot of tours, and did a lot of hiking and camping in various places. I also remember that one of the girls in the group managed on a single tour: A. to be bitten by a scorpion, B. to be bitten by a snake, C. to burn herself, and D. to break a bone.

An impressive achievement.

Yes, she went to the desert completely fine and returned with crutches and a cast. And if that’s not enough, before that tour she had also decided get her tongue pierced, and then she discovered in the middle of the desert that her tongue had become swollen and she couldn’t eat.

That’s stressful.

We tried to give her something liquid-y to eat, to push pudding down her throat. That was a terrible idea, but you could say that at least when it came to the piercing – she asked for it, more or less.

Are you still in contact with the people from Taglit?

Yes, at least with some of them. Recently I met one of the girls, who’s now living in Finland. I saw her in a store by chance, we met in the dairy products aisle and we both screamed and ran toward each other.

Did you recognize her immediately?

She looked exactly the same to me. And I asked myself whether and how much I’ve changed since then.

And was there an answer?

I think I’ve changed, and in terms of my personality Taglit caused part of the change. That tour at the age of 18 was meaningful for me, but not in the way my parents thought – that I would come back with a sense of a strong closeness to Judaism and would fall in love more with religion. 

Or with a Jewish guy. So in what way?

I remember Jerusalem when I was 18. I was so impressed by it and by the history that I decided to study history and political science. But in addition, that tour with Taglit made me far more independent and gave me motivation. I had a lot more courage to travel alone. Right after high school I traveled to Europe for several months by myself, and a year later I traveled by myself again. And there’s no question that to this day touring and traveling are my greatest loves, and Taglit gave me the gift of independence.

Good for Taglit.

Yes, and even now I have a sense of connection to Israel that I didn’t have before that trip. My mother volunteered on a kibbutz when she was young, so I had an experience somewhat similar to hers, which is also definitely nice.

Are both your parents Jewish?

My father is British and my mother is American, but both are Jews. I define myself as a secular Jew.

How much of a role does Judaism play in your life?

It’s definitely a part of me. I work for an Israeli company, I wear a necklace with my name in Hebrew, it’s part of me, of what I am, but it doesn’t define me. I love the history and the fact that I belong to the Jewish people, and I want that to continue and not to end with me. 

What do you do so it will continue?

On Shabbat we go to my parents’ house and we celebrate the holidays. But it’s not something that I feel I have to do, but more something with which I have a warm connection, something that I want to pass on to my children.

Your husband is Jewish, I assume.

No, I married a goy, but he participates in the ceremonies and the holidays together with me. Although we’re not from the same background, I think that we have the same ideology about religion. For both of us it’s more a cultural thing.

Where will you tour this time?

I want to visit the places where I was then, on the Taglit tour. To take a picture of myself at the Dead Sea doing exactly the same thing, 16 years later.