This Palestinian Woman Has a New, High-tech Plan for Forging Mideast Peace

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Jennifer Atala, the head of Atala Consulting, Tel Aviv, July 2017.
Jennifer Atala, the head of Atala Consulting, Tel Aviv, July 2017.

There are lots of good reasons for Israelis and Palestinians to consider business partnerships. For starters, they operate in the same time zone – not a trivial matter in the age of global economics. It’s not just their clocks that are in sync, but also their workweeks: Israelis and Palestinians work Sundays but typically take off Fridays. Barring traffic and other unforeseen developments, it takes less than an hour to get from Tel Aviv to Ramallah, creating ample opportunity for face-to-face meetings.

Given these advantages, in a perfect world, cross-border business partnerships between Israelis and Palestinians would be flourishing. But that’s hardly an apt description of the current state of affairs.

Here’s where Jennifer Atala, a young Christian-American-Israeli-Palestinian, sees herself stepping into the picture. Change can happen, she believes, but it requires more than just bringing people together for the sake of bringing them together.

“I don’t think sitting around a table over a plate of hummus or participating in an Israeli-Palestinian soccer camp or dialogue group is necessarily a bad thing,” says the 37-year-old consultant who today splits her time between Haifa and Ramallah. “Sure, it’s important to plant all these seeds, but I’m convinced the best way to create change is through business partnerships that get people to sit down and solve problems together.”

As a facilitator of such partnerships, Atala brings to the table an unusual blend of skills, experience and family history. Her father is a Christian Arab whose parents were expelled from their village in the northern Galilee during Israel’s War of Independence, while her mother hails from Mississippi. Born in Florida, where she was baptized by a famous televangelist, Atala grew up in Georgia and New Jersey and had many Jewish friends. Her 13-year career as a business consultant and project manager has included stints in the Middle East.

Three years ago, Atala took advantage of her Israeli citizenship, obtained through her father, to move back to the region. As a “returning Israeli” – Israeli citizens who have spent extended periods abroad and are entitled to benefits when they move back to the country – she was able to enroll in a state-funded Hebrew-language immersion course for immigrants, an ulpan, and transform herself into a true Israeli. (It’s not much of a surprise she was the only non-Jew in the course.)

“I clearly don’t fit into any box,” she remarked during a recent conversation at a Tel Aviv café.

Following her relocation, Atala worked in Ramallah as a senior marketing and technical adviser for a global consulting and management firm. She ran a project aimed at helping fledgling firms in the West Bank and Gaza Strip break into the global market.

Once the project was over, she decided to go solo. A key focus of Atala Consulting, her new business, is helping Israeli and Palestinian high-techies find one another and form alliances.

Given the ongoing tensions and hostilities, Atala believes she is uniquely positioned to serve as a matchmaker. “I’m white,” she says, noting her blond hair and blue eyes, “and I think that helps, at least with the Israelis. But I also happen to be a daughter of refugees, and that resonates with the Palestinians.”

A high-tech office in Nazareth.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Wars and an assassination

Atala’s great-grandfather had been the mukhtar of Iqrit, a Christian Arab village in northern Israel that was razed after the 1948 war. The displaced family relocated to Haifa, where her father began studying engineering at the Technion, Israel’s prestigious technology institute. Feeling disillusioned after the 1967 Six-Day War, he left the country and continued his studies at the University of Alabama, where he met her mother.

While growing up in the United States, Atala says Mideast politics were hardly ever discussed at home. “My first political memory is of the Rabin assassination in 1995,” she says. “I remember my dad watching TV and being very upset.” Only when she was much older did she become interested in her roots on her father’s side and begin identifying as a Palestinian.

She moves easily between her very different worlds, blending in just as well in Israel as she does in the West Bank, and just as well in the West Bank as she does in the United States. Her American English (no southern drawl by now) is peppered with Hebrew and Arabic slang, as well as some Yiddishisms – a remnant from her childhood days in New Jersey, where she was surrounded by Jewish friends. Not only is she fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, she has created a wide network of business contacts on both sides of the Green Line.

That was evident several weeks ago during a rare public gathering of Israeli and Palestinian high-techies in Tel Aviv – a pitching session of sorts for Palestinian engineers keen to obtain outsourcing work from Israeli companies. Atala, a familiar face to many of the participants on both sides, had been invited to serve as the facilitator.

After graduating from the University of Chicago, Atala spent a year in Haifa working at the Mossawa Center, a group that advocates for the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. She then spent more than 10 years back in the United States working for the USAID development agency and the World Bank, after completing her master’s degree in international economics and development at Johns Hopkins.

Now back for her second stint in the region, she believes she has a better sense of where she can make an impact. “I feel I can contribute best not through social activism or government work, but by using my gift as a connector to bring people from both sides together in business partnerships,” she says.

Although she travels easily on both sides of the Green Line, that doesn’t always guarantee an easy crossing between the two. But by now she has learned how to avoid trouble.

“One of the first times I passed through an Israeli military checkpoint, I decided to use my Hebrew with the soldiers. That turned out not to be a good idea,” she recounts.

“I have a bit of an Arabic accent when I speak Hebrew, so the soldiers were confused and pulled me aside for questioning. After that I learned that whenever I cross the checkpoint, my best option is to speak English and behave like an entitled American. They never bother me then.”

Shabbat dinners

As an only child to parents who moved around regularly, Atala says she always considered Haifa her home base, long before she ever lived there. That’s why her decision to relocate permanently to the region, puzzling to many, was quite natural for her. “My entire extended family is here,” she says.

She also has her adopted “Jewish families” in Jerusalem and Kibbutz Hanaton in northern Israel, with whom she often spends Shabbat and Jewish holidays. “I love Shabbat dinners,” she notes, making clear, though, where she draws the line.

“I always decline when my Jewish friends invite me to their Independence Day parties,” she says. “I have to explain to them that with my family history, this is not a day of celebration for me.”

Although her business is brand new, Atala is willing to disclose that she is on the verge of finalizing a few information technology deals. She won’t work with just anyone, though: “It has to be clients for whom this is mutually beneficial and who are not just in it for a public relations stunt or to feel good about themselves.”

In her case, compounding the challenges of starting any new business is the growing support in Palestinian society for the “anti-normalization” movement, which views any efforts aimed at promoting coexistence with Israel as legitimizing the Israeli occupation. Although it doesn’t bode well for her fledgling enterprise, Atala understands where these feelings come from.

“At different moments, I feel like I’ve fallen in different place on the spectrum of anti-normalization,” she acknowledges. “But overall, as I see it, if the Palestinian partner is not being taken advantage of and wants to do business with an Israeli partner, then that is their prerogative. Personally, I don’t think we can move forward in this place until we start connecting to each other on a human level. Sadly, that is becoming more and more difficult.”

Just how difficult she recently learned the hard way. A certified yoga instructor, Atala taught classes on a volunteer basis in Ramallah for the past few years. But last week she was told by the studio's owners that she was no longer welcome because they found out she also teaches yoga in Israel.

Not that she makes any effort to hide who she is or how she feels about the conflict with her Israeli students. “Always, at the beginning of the first class, I tell my students that I’m a Palestinian whose family was expelled from the village of Iqrit,” she says. “And if they haven’t heard of it, I tell them they should look it up when they get at home. In that little way, I feel I’ve planted a seed.”