Beyond Masada / The Side of Israel You Didn't Expect to See: Not High-tech, but Industry

While Israel and the manufacturing industry don't naturally go hand in hand, the country has developed a tradition of locally-produced items for its very national-specific concerns.

Israel and the manufacturing industry do not naturally go hand-in-hand. Lacking coal and iron ore reserves, Israel has never built up the heavy engineering, shipbuilding and motor-vehicle concerns that characterize much of Europe and North America. Its population of only seven million constitutes a very limited home market. Israel thus depends on high added-value exports for its economic success, with the capacity to mass-produce specialized products at competitive prices.

The country, however, has developed a tradition of locally-produced items for its very national-specific agricultural, medical and military concerns. Secondly it has demonstrated highly adaptive talent − notably the remarkable entrepreneurial personality of German-born metal-working industrialist Stef Wertheimer.

With his post-army stipend running out, Wertheimer experimented in 1952 with converting a wooden shed in his home backyard into a cottage-industry metal tool-cutting factory. A crucial major breakthrough for his fast-growing firm named ISCAR came in 1969, when Israel could no longer import the vital blades and vanes for its jet engines and industrial gas turbines. In response, Wertheimer stepped in and adapted his machine-tools industry to found ISCAR Blades. That enabled him to expand beyond Israel’s pressing needs, becoming a major supplier to Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney, General Electric and other companies.

By 2006, ISCAR’s galloping success attracted Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway to purchase 80% of the company for $5 billion, completing the purchase of the remaining 20% in 2013. It was indeed its first purchase outside the United States, and that company has declared its intention of keeping it in Israel, despite its having well over 100 subsidiaries in nearly 70 countries. You can view ISCAR’s modern parent factory as it still stands opposite Tefen.

Tefen’s well-appointed and modern industrial park (opened in 1985) is the point where Wertheimer expanded metal-based manufacturing into the much wider and far-reaching concept of the industrial incubator, which operates in the following way: The park provides temporary premises, and serves as a vital and supportive environment for small and medium-sized firms during their initial five years. Tefen supplies its professionally-trained and experienced team to take care of the bureaucracy and infrastructural development, enabling each infant firm to focus exclusively on production and exports. Once the five-year period is up, the firm leaves to make way for newcomers. By then, it is reckoned as being sufficiently grown-up to continue in its own premises and run on its own steam.

With its industrial-curriculum school and permanent exhibitions, Tefen today is the headquarters and parent-model of the pioneer Wertheimer industrial incubator. The beauty and strength of the model is that it duplicable. Wertheimer has done precisely that, with four new parks running on the same principle in Israel’s peripheral regions in Galilee and the Negev, and one − GOSB Teknopark − in Turkey.

His latest project opened in Nazareth in 2013, a primarily Arab city until then almost entirely dependent on tourism. Data-processing giant Amdocs was the first to open in the park, employing local Christians, Muslims, Jews and Circassians. In short, Tefen is putting Nazareth on the high-tech map.

This reflects the six principles of Tefen’s industrial parks: exports, education, coexistence, community, culture and aesthetics. All should be in evidence on your visit to Tefen, and reflected in the cross-section of the population you are likely to run into on your visit. Indeed, underlying the enterprises is Wertheimer’s firm conviction that “production, exports, education and an advanced quality of life can replace terrorism and poverty.” Bluntly, melt down the cut-throat regional conflicts in skilled global production and something to live for.

As you explore the center, make sure that you take in its exhibitions, including the industrial sculptures, machine-tool and vehicle developments, art and the small, but poignant gem − the German-speaking Jewry Heritage Museum. That is for the connoisseur. There are displays commemorating the work of Jews from Wertheimer’s own background in numerous fields before − and after − the Holocaust, in science, music, industry, literature and rabbinics. With the gentle strains of liturgical or classical music depending on the room, you get the almost etheric sensation of floating amidst the Mitteleuropa-Jewish experience − punctured savagely with the prominent metal-cast Jude-incised yellow star.

Tefen’s future plans include more advanced industrial developments and training schools to enable the ultra-Orthodox and residents of the Palestinian territories to participate, as well as further afield in Jordan. Palestinians however have been very cautious: Wertheimer’s plan to open an industrial park at Rafah in Gaza has been sidelined since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000.

“You’re 85 now. Shouldn’t you be relaxing and enjoying what you have?” Wertheimer was once asked.

“No,” was the short reply. “Developing more industrial possibilities is what I want to do.”

To get there: By road: Acre-Tiberias route #85 to Carmiel, then turn 10 kilometers north along route #854 toward Ma’alot, just before Kefar Vradim. By bus: #361 Haifa-Carmiel, then l#12 from Carmiel to Tefen Industries.

Telephone (from Israel): 04 987 2977, 04 910 9609, 04 910 9624.

Guided tours may be booked in advanced − highly recommended.

Open: Sunday-Thursday 9 A.M.-5 P.M., Fridays and holiday eves 10 A.M.-2 P.M., Saturdays and holidays 10 A.M.-5 P.M.

Entry fees: adults 18 shekels, children 14 shekels; reductions for groups.

Jacob Solomon