Stef Wertheimer Still Dreaming of Miracles at His Nazareth Industrial Park

The industrialist’s park, which he built and personally financed two years ago at a cost of 85 million shekels, is meant to house 1,000 workers – Jews and Arabs alike – and serve as a foundation for more industries. But for now it only employs 300 people.

Janan Bsoul
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A jewelry workshop at the Nazareth industrial park. An estimated 70% of the workers are Arab.
A jewelry workshop at the Nazareth industrial park. An estimated 70% of the workers are Arab.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Janan Bsoul

The entrance to Stef Wertheimer’s new industrial park on Mount Precipice – at the very southern end of Nazareth, overlooking Jezreel Valley – is reminscent of the entrance to the hotel they built in this Arab city in preparation for the Nazareth 2000 project. The hope for growth in tourism in the new millennium created a lot of excitement, accompanied by building at an accelerated rate – but then the second intifada started and shattered all those dreams.

The Galilee city’s industrial park, which was opened in April 2013 with both then-President Shimon Peres and Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer in attendance, is intended to house 1,000 workers. Although the park only currently has only 300 workers, that situation is intentional, say the park’s managers.

“I could fill the place within half a year,” says Arie Dahan, the manager of all the industrial areas established by Wertheimer, who invested 85 million shekels ($21.5 million) of his own money in the place. “We’re populating the site in a slow and controlled fashion, out of long-term thinking,” says Dahan. “Wertheimer’s worldview is clear: a mix of clean companies that operate in manufacturing and exports. Like all the other parks Wertheimer built, this park also serves as an incubator where you start, and from which you leave to establish larger factories around it.”

Today, quite a number of offices in the area stand empty, like a large part of the two-year-old industrial park, which is located in an impressive and beautiful building – but is still cut off from the city. The area itself is an important pilgrimage site for Christian tourists. Legend has it the mountain is the site of the Rejection of Jesus described in the Gospel of Luke, when the people of Nazareth didn’t accept Jesus as Messiah and tried to push him off the cliff, but he miraculously passed through them and appeared elsewhere – possibly by jumping off the mountain, according to one Christian tradition.

There are currently four companies here, employing 300 workers – and if it weren’t for Amdocs, which doesn’t produce a tangible product, it wouldn’t even be that number.

Dahan: “True, but within five years this place will be full. Dozens of companies who want to move in are approaching us. We will not bring in metal workshops and garages, or [non-green] workshops. It’s important for us to create jobs here that will allow the Arab community to integrate into the workforce, and that the areas in which we’ll operate can grow and employ more people over time.”

You’re not part of the city’s large and bustling industrial area; the building is quite cut off.

“For now. We hope that, within a few years, there’ll be quite a number of plants around us that started in this building, and will become an entire industrial area – as happened in Tefen [another Wertheimer industrial park, in Western Galilee]. That’s why we must also change the [zoning] of land [here]. This land was planned for the building of a hotel, and its [zoning] was changed. Establishing the park took eight years, until we reached what you see today. We think for the long term.”

Nazareth industrial park. The building prompts confusion about the park's purpose.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

People don’t really know about you. Everyone I asked sent me to someone “more involved,” “someone who knows”...

“Those who need to know about us know.”

‘More important than academia’

The visit to the building is confusing. There’s a reason people pass by the building without knowing it’s an industrial park. It looks like a large house or hotel, and is surrounded by silence. When you get closer, you mostly hear the wind blowing through the impressive scenery. In the courtyard and interior space, there are statues and works of art by Arab artists, and the exhibition changes. In the evening, meanwhile, the building hosts cultural events and concerts. The empty lobby features a large board listing the floors and their inhabitants, with empty silver spaces. It all looks quite sterile – shiny and polished. There’s a cafeteria and dining room on the first floor for the workers.

On the fourth floor, where the industrial park’s offices are located, Wertheimer, 89, awaits us. He’s very proud of his seventh industrial park. After a few minutes in conversation with the industrialist, we realize that, as opposed to the impression of the Nazareth residents – who speak about a high-tech park – the site is actually meant to “encourage local industry that promotes working with your hands, which is more important than academia.” This is a mantra Wertheimer has been repeating for years.

“There are too many college graduates, and what is missing is industrial professions,” explains Wertheimer. “The park was built with the goal of accommodating industries for the children of the residents of Nazareth, and providing them with employment in what they want – from jewelry to high-tech, everything that people here like to do,” he adds.

The focus on industry, he says, is merely a tool to realize a larger vision: To learn how to live with the neighbors and strengthen the north, so that Jews and Arabs don’t run away to the center of the country.

Stef Wertheimer. Invested more than $20 million in the Nazareth site, which is now about one-third full.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

School for goldsmiths

The mix of firms operating in the industrial park is interesting: All are exporters, and all employ both Jews and Arabs. As of today, there are three industrial manufacturing companies in the building, all based on Wertheimer’s requirements: Alpha Omega, an international company for planning and producing medical equipment – owned by the couple Reem and Imad Younis – which employs 70 workers, Jews and Arabs alike; Broadcom, a semiconductor firm that employs 20; and Amdocs, the largest firm in the park, which in many respects is responsible for the sense that this is a high-tech park. Amdocs, which doesn’t manufacture but does export, employs some 200 people in the park, most of whom are Arab and engineers. The company has already filed a request to expand this number by 50 to 150.

The fourth company operating on the premises is Julie Diamonds, which manufactures and designs jewelry with diamonds and other gemstones, and also exports its products.

There’s also a school for gold and silversmiths in the building, financed completely by Wertheimer. The courses are offered to some 20 students of all ages, Arabs and Jews alike. They study for 10 months – and a business to employ them is just being set up in the building.

It’s estimated that about 70 percent of the park’s employees are Arab.

A proven model

The question of the slow occupancy of the building, in a region that suffers from a chronic shortage of industrial areas, comes up time and again. One person involved in the establishment of the industrial park said a primary problem was the lack of an entrepreneurial culture in Nazareth. Also, the park is aimed at clean industries and not those industries generally found locally. Wertheimer, however, disagrees. “I’m interested in every person with hands,” he says, before immediately adding, “I don’t take people who aren’t right for us.”

And who is right?

Wertheimer: “We develop industry here that will reach an international level. Our expertise is to ensure exports, whether it’s medical equipment or wood production. As long as the factory is intended for export, we have no problem including them here.

“Within five years, 1,000 people will work here,” he continues. “We don’t want to make mistakes.” Wertheimer says his model of industrial parks has proved itself in the past – including in Tefen, Tel Hai, Omer, Dalton, Lavon and a park in Turkey – so people believe and support him this time, too, in Nazareth.

Reem Younis, the CEO and cofounder of Alpha Omega, says the park has been nothing but good for her and her firm. “The dream was to establish a company in Nazareth. It was not possible before, because there weren’t any appropriate buildings and there were no master plans for industrial areas in Nazareth. Coming here matches our vision – to establish a global company in the place where we live,” she said.

“It is time for Nazareth to stop being only a tourist and culinary place: there should be high-tech here, too,” added Younis. She believes more young people will go into industry and that more manufacturing businesses will open. “In addition, we are proving that it is possible to work together, Arabs and Jews.”

The level of racism seems to have been rising in Israel in recent years.

“We must be optimistic. Whoever’s not optimistic cannot live here.”

Dahan notes that one of the park’s characteristics “is the cooperative work between Jews and Arabs.” Dahan adds that during Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip last summer, “everyone came to work as usual and no one boycotted or was absent.”

Wertheimer doesn’t like the questioning about how many Arabs work in the park. “Whoever is here is here because they’re good workers, not because they’re Arab,” he declares.

“Everyone knows the [religious] nature of the tourism in Nazareth. But I want people to know it because of its industries, not because Jesus jumped, or didn’t jump, from the mountain,” he says.

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