In the Land of Milk & Honey Part 4: Soldiers and Start Ups

On our second day in Jerusalem we acquired a muscled young man named Akiva, who would join our trip up until we reached Tel Aviv. He was introduced as our “medic” – except he had a handgun strapped to his belt, “medic” apparently being a euphemism for “armed guard”.

From then on, Akiva and his gun were with us everywhere we went. Including our kayak on the Jordan river, although he covered it with a pink plastic bag then. Thankfully the weapon was never unholstered, nor were his “medic” services required. I never asked, but there is zero doubt that he served in the IDF – Israel Defence Forces, the country’s military.

In Israel, military service is compulsory for all citizens (with a few exceptions) over the age of 18: 3 years for males, 2 years for females. Think what that does to a nation. Almost every person has undergone basic training, knows how to use a gun, and is probably tougher than you or me. A lot of them have seen real action. Two or three years is a long time. If Israelis didn’t have enough to unify them as a people, surely those years will have created a universal shared experience.

It also means that most people are fit AF, which doesn’t do the general aesthetic any harm, I can tell you.

Young soldiers in the olive green uniform of the IDF are a common sight on the streets and public transport. When we visited the Holocaust museum there was a hoard of IDF soldiers on a tour at the same time. Weapons obviously not being allowed in the museum, their massive guns were just stacked up in a huge pile outside.

Of course Israel is not the only country with compulsory military service, but 3 years is longer than anywhere else I know of. I haven’t done a comprehensive survey of the population’s opinions on it; only two men, aged 30 and 33, who served about ten years ago. One extended his service for a year (though he wasn’t allowed to tell me what he did during that year). The other said he hated every moment of it, but that looking back, he thinks it was good for him. I didn’t have a chance to talk to any women about it, sadly, though I would love to.

What does all this have to do with Israel’s thriving startup culture, I hear you ask? Well, it would seem rather a lot, surprisingly. Israel is the start up nation; so much so that there is a tour specifically dedicated to that in Tel Aviv, that we were taken on, bright and early one Sunday morning.

I had had less than three hours’ sleep the night before, and had been out every night the four preceding nights, so I was not in good spirits that morning, to put it mildly. But you know a tour is good when you wake the fuck up and are hanging on every word despite being basically dead.

That may be because I work in a start-up myself, so naturally have a keen interest in the topic. We met Gal Shvebish, the CEO of Snaappy, an augmented reality communication app, and someone asked him why Israel has so many start ups. The answer surprised me; he said it was linked to the country’s military culture. I suppose it makes sense; when you’ve been broken down mentally and physically then built up again to eat shit for two or three years, and may have been in real life-or-death situations, starting your own business mightn’t seem so daunting.

Of course there are many other reasons for Israel’s thriving startup scene. Mr Shvebish said there was little fear and shame attached to failure, a very necessary quality in the industry. He also said that the Israeli temperament in general is unapologetic and brazen; again, necessary qualities if you want to have a start-up. Indeed, my friend who said he had hated his military service is an entrepreneur himself, with his own language school in Tel Aviv. Anecdotal evidence that clearly proves the validity of this theory.

So to sum up, Israel is full of fit, badass mofos who like to start their own businesses.

The start-up scene in Palestine’s Ramallah, where we visited an accelerator, was quite a lot different. Their start-up culture is a baby bud in comparison, but very exciting and full of promise. We spoke to two young Palestinian women who had both been educated abroad, and it was moving and inspiring to hear their tales of hope and making a positive impact in their troubled home country.

However, they face their own challenges with tech startups, what with Palestine not having 4G, only WiFi internet, so usability of internet-based apps is complicated. One popular app gives live updates of danger zones to avoid.

Meanwhile I’m filtering my face on Snapchat to look like a teddy bear on drugs. Puts things into perspective!