One of the world’s most spectacular tech investor conferences took place over a few days in Jerusalem, making clear what makes successful innovation economies thrive
Last week I attended the OurCrowd investor conference in Jerusalem. OurCrowd is one of the world’s fastest growing investment platforms – a great example of the so called ‘democratization of venture capital' – and focuses predominantly on Israel, but also invests across the globe in the planet’s most promising start-ups.
The conference and activities spanned three days and I joined the group that on day one toured Jerusalem’s tech sector visiting the city’s key start-ups, the Mass Challenge incubator as well as the Alyn Children’s Hospital. The latter brought back the point that whatever we do as investors, it is not just about making money, creating a better society for all is an essential part of our journey. Under the guidance of Arie Melamed Yokel the hospital runs an active innovation center developing new technologies to help children and our tour of the facility was both moving and inspiring. Ensuring all participate in the benefits from innovation was the key message also from Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who we met for a longer discussion during the tour. She illustrated how the city’s underprivileged populations will need a hand and be given an opportunity to participate in the growth generated by tech, and bringing these groups into the fold is a priority of the city.
And growth in Israel of course has been spectacular due to a unique mix of circumstances. While the world at large has benefitted from the venture and innovation boom, Israel has been one of the most successful ones. The need for innovation driven by its need for security, the high level of maturity that young Israelis have because of time spent in the army (as opposed to most of their Western counterparts), the typical Israeli traits of chutzpah and impatience and the mission oriented nature of solving the impossible have combined to fuel the start-up economy. This is not exactly a new story, Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book on this was published in 2009, but the notable thing is how Israel is now moving from start-up to scale-up and building larger firms in IT, AI, Lifesciences, Agri and Cleantech in a way not seen before.
Part of the success is also the Israeli government which has fairly generous, but also incredibly effective funding programs. Over the years I have met with Canadian and Dutch officials, all of whom keep tinkering with start-up funding models and then you wonder why they just do not copy the way Israel has done things as it works, spectacularly.
Having twenty years of venture activity under my belt, I think I know what works and what does not. In the end it’s a people’s business and during one of the conference’s panels VC Judah Taub put it succinctly when he said that, ‘at a first meeting, an entrepreneur is selling trust, that’s all’. Well, there was no shortage of local entrepreneurs selling their business and their trust to me, it was amazing to see what incredible ventures are being built all over Israel and all are addressing real issues the world is struggling with. OurCrowd’s CEO Jon Medved was able to weave all these pieces together in some pointed talks during the summit day and highlighting again how tech has a social obligation and can be an agent of good as he proudly put up a slide of all the Arab nations tuning into see what was going on at the packed convention centre in Jerusalem. Medved expressed the hope that at the next conference they could be there in person. At the same time the Coronavirus got a lot of attention with beamed in video messages from China and Medved pointing to the companies in the room that were already working hard on helping to find vaccination solutions. Israel more than any nation understands the geopolitical forces pulling the world today and the need to be strategically positioned between the various superpowers. Leveraging both the USA and China relationships is something Israel seems to have mastered, and no, I am not endorsing any candidate in the upcoming Israeli election.
It was towards the end of the summit day that author Saul Singer pointed to the long and productive life of his father as evidence of what works in life. He had asked his father about it and the old Singer indicated that finding the balance of being rooted in the past while fully embracing the future was the right formula. It echoed Shimon Peres’ words in his book, ‘No Room for Small Dreams’ where the late politician’s longevity was driven by that very same quest for overcoming all possible barriers.
Now, I have lived and travelled all over the world and I agree, there is practically no nation on the planet that is so confident in being defined and attached to its past, but also so fearless in building a radically different and better future. As the attendees spilled over to Jerusalem’s central market (‘the shuk’) for food, beer and dance I reflected and said that if I were thirty years younger I’d move to Israel to be part of all of this to which someone said, ‘nothing to do with age, you can go anytime’. And maybe I will.
The conference inspired and provided a template on how to drive innovation and investment towards success. A lot of countries should take a note and see how they can learn from Israel. At the same time the insanely good Israeli food and energized crowd should give all of us good reason to go to next year’s edition of this truly incredible event.
As the debates over politics get more heated, more intense (Trump, Brexit, China) they are now more than ever spilling over into the business world. Many investors, entrepreneurs, lawyers, you name it have their own Twitter handle and have interspersed their benign business, market and family updates with some pointed commentary on current events. Only this week the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods blasted Trump over his handling of the Iran crisis. Former Dragon and renowned investor Brett Wilson’s Twitter feed makes it abundantly clear what he thinks about Justin Trudeau. And now that everyone has watched ‘The Crown’ on Netflix, we are all experts on royal matters, ready to opine on Harry & Meghan. Even I was close to dumping my analysis on why the Duke of Sussex pulled the plug on it all, but thought better of it.
To be frank I often struggle with it. I love politics, am a big consumer on news and have strong opinions on many issues. When something goes to my gut, I tweet. Most recently that was Hong Kong where I lived for seven years and I simply could not stay quiet seeing the mindless brutality on a daily basis. But then you can ask yourself, is it wise to do this? What if I am working on a deal and some people take a deep dislike to my opinions? What if a future partner scans my tweets and does not appreciate what is there? What could Dorsman be thinking, is he serious? Maybe it is wiser to delete your stuff and just stick to retweeting harmless announcements on SaaS metrics or Bitcoin. Or whatever.
Yet it seems we have crossed the Rubicon on this. And deleting tweets that may cause offence makes you even less of a credible person. And if you think about it, it may not hurt all that much in the end. I do business with lots of people I seriously disagree with and I expect others when they deal with me to be open and frank about it too. Let’s collaborate and engage. We are doing business, working on a deal, so who cares if you like Sanders, Warren, Trump, Trudeau or Merkel of whoever? I will gladly explain to North Americans what is going on in Europe or Israel and if you don’t agree, fine, it should not really preclude us doing business together. It maybe helps build a relationship and gives more insight into how the other person thinks through complicated issues. Many years ago, a company retained my services when they had read some political commentary from me and mentioned that was the reason to bring me on, they actually appreciated my frankness on certain issues and saw it as evidence of character.
It does not mean we should walk into a minefield and engage in social media attacks on very sensitive topics. Be smart. And hot topics are better dealt with during an in-person discussion with space to elaborate on the issue. It also helps to let an issue gestate, sleep on it, read some opinions of others before making up your mind and spewing it out on social media. Online platforms are truly awful places to debate, they’re useful though to make a point or ‘air’ an issue. I will keep doing that when necessary and I hope, even if you disagree, you will like me better because of it. And maybe work on a new deal.
The photo part is now updated following a pretty busy travelling season, find it here. I am not a great photographer at all and have no special cameras, all iPhone stuff, but I enjoy tracking everything chronologically with some images.
It is hard to discern the value of all the innovation conferences, start-up beers, accelerate connects and investment forums. But, there are times when it clicks and you realize that sometimes the energy really flows and the event creates something of lasting value. The workshop content clicks, the audience engages and more importantly, people talk. And with that I mean: take time to really engage in a deeper conversation, to probe, to listen, to challenge. For all the hype around ‘networking’ I noticed a few weeks ago how you can get people to really do that, to have meaningful engagement between total strangers, one that has a life beyond the event. It is not easy, I think the large events with thousands attending are nice but have limited impact, but smaller events like the one we hosted in Kelowna a few weeks ago can bring it out. Confine the speakers and attendees together for long enough in an informal setting, facilitate the intros (a good organizer will know who needs to talk to who) and then let it go and let people do their thing. Investors are willing to share, entrepreneurs are keen to open up and highlight their doubts, their struggles. Sure, some alcohol and good food helps, but the essence is the willingness to share and to give people the right space to do that. It was nice for once to not have to be the one to do all this work of talking and engaging (although I ended up doing lots of that), but to set the stage and let others reap the benefits of it all.
Since I lived in Hong Kong from 1992 to 1999 I do not consider myself impartial to what is happening there . I wrote about it at length a few years ago and that is as valid as it is today. The territory is in deep trouble with the Hong Kong government and its overlord in Beijing accelerating the erosion of the 'One Country, Two Systems' principle. And this is not a domestic or internal affair as the Chinese would like to claim. Far from it. The handover over Hong Kong to China in 1997 is agreed and documented in the Joint Declaration between Britain and China and the Basic Law, both international treaties.
Yesterday I went to downtown Vancouver to join a moving protest and a solid if sobering speech from Canadian MP Jenny Kwan. Most of the attendees were upset and some quite emotional about what is going on in Hong Kong. It was made clear that the struggle of the pro-democracy movement is Canada's fight too, which it is. In fact it is a fight for all of us who see a steady proliferation of authoritarian rule around the world, with China leading the charge. And the outcry and international reaction to it all so far are muted, giving a free pass to the perpetrators.
The best part of the protest was the end when the crowd together sang the Cantopop classic from 1993, Beyond's 'Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies' ( 海闊天空). It brought tears to my eyes, never thought that would happen to me on a Vancouver street. But then, the song not only touches the nerve of love for Hong Kong, its people and the time I spent there, it somehow captured an era that is gone and will be gone forever.
A story that neither we, nor Timseltown will ever come to terms with
The first time I read about the murders on Cielo Drive must have been somewhere in the early seventies when I started to read through the vast book collection in my parent’s house. I recall being mystified by a few photos taken in a hallway where a bearded guy was led to court, followed by one of three very young women all wearing the same simple outfits led in the same direction. Being six or seven years old it was hard to place these, what happened, what was going on here? What was not difficult to sense was that, whatever this was, this was so far out of anything ordinary there must be something deeply unsettling behind the images.
Over the years it became clearer who Charles Manson was and who Sharon Tate was. And to this day I wonder why Chrysler ever thought it was a great idea of naming a car ‘Sebring’ because every time you see it drive by you think of that Hollywood hairdresser who got brutally murdered alongside Tate. And then there are the infrequent touchpoints: a book, a Wikipedia entry, a discussion and the story comes together in all its unsettling gruesomeness. Because no sane human can or will ever comprehend why total strangers ritually knife an eight-month pregnant woman to death in her own home. And digging into that history, you consequently learn that Hollywood was incapable for some fifty years to look this into the eye and turn it into a movie. The wound inflicted by the drama is too deep, too violent and above all, too close to home.
Quentin Tarantino took it on, fifty years after the event. He opts for telling the story in an indirect way, with Brad Pitt and Leonardo diCaprio carrying the role of fictional observers living next door to the house of horrors on Cielo Drive. And in a strange way, finding some false and very short-lived redemption by presenting a radically different outcome of the story. As mystifying the ending to the movie may be, there is that split second you actually think Tate, Folger, Sebring, Frykowski and Parent (who does not show up in the movie at all) ended up living much longer than they did. It does acknowledge that none of us can or wants to see what really happened that night which was indeed my biggest fear going into the theatre. It will always be an unwatchable and inexplicable horror and Tarantino does appear to be making this point in a clever and compelling way.
To be clear, it is hard to see how the general movie going public gets this film. It is a long-winded expose, full of industry references and facts. This includes the ‘spaghetti western’ part, honouring the late Sergio Leone and his epic ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, note that title. That movie was, like this one, a cinematographic lust for the eye and so what does result is a beautiful painting of Hollywood in the late sixties, with Di Caprio, Pitt and Margot Robbie as Tate carrying the almost three hour epic. Contrasting the party at the Playboy Mansion with the goings on at the Spahn Ranch the movie gives you the historical context to really analyze what happened, but you will still need to have a lot of the background facts to put it all in place.
As one of my daughter’s texted after having seen it and following my multiple explanations, ‘I still do not get it’. With that she referenced the movie of course, but in a way the Tate murders will always elude us all. Still, Tarantino’s movie gives us a glimpse and enables us to come a bit closer to an unfathomable part of Hollywood history.
Tech has some nasty habits and they surface in all deals, big and small
In terms of a captivating and thus a super fast and engaging read, John Carreyrou’s ‘Bad Blood’ ranks high. And as someone active in tech and investing, this book for me was pure gold, so much is recognizable and some of it is quite instructive at the same time. In short, the Wall Street Journal’s Carreyrou started researching the billion-dollar biotech start-up Theranos a number of years ago following some tips. He caught on to what turned out to be a fraudulent disaster that famously collapsed last year. The revolutionary and unique blood testing technology propelled its founder young and enigmatic Elizabeth Holmes to instant stardom, and now she is in the dock facing a possible sentence of twenty years. Theranos was able to raise hundreds of millions of investor money, appointed some illustrious political heavyweights on its board (George Schultz, James Mattis, Henry Kissinger) while giving its commercial partners (CVS and Walgreens most notably) the runaround. A few things in the book really stand out and deserve some further attention.
Disconnect between R&D and Commercialization – the core problem Theranos ran into was in the end believing that its product was ready for the market. In order to progress and keep raising dollars for its ambitious vision, it had to show commercial traction. The product was nowhere near where it should have been for that and Holmes and her boyfriend/COO Balwani pushed so hard on their team while leading their partners in all directions but the right one, that in the end the product was not delivering at all. Although I have never seen this phenomenon to this extent, I do regularly see how founders push their teams to deliver too early, too crappy a product and then endangering the whole venture by losing client and then investor confidence. This relentless push is of course Steve Jobs in action, idolized by Holmes who even started dressing like him, with one major difference: biotech is not software, or hardware. Holmes went too far and failed hard.
The Female Founder & the Older Guys - I have seen this dynamic in the Vancouver market too where young female CEOs very often get a lot more attention than male founders and not always for the right reasons. Seasoned male investors fall in love with the company and its tech, but if you listen to them carefully that passion often mutates into something that is more focused on the young woman who is pushing the tech than the business deal. In doing so they suspend judgement and make an investment for all the wrong reasons. What is even more galling in this case is that they were really seasoned guys – Tim Draper, Rupert Murdoch – who ended up jumping into Theranos and Holmes’ fantasy without much of due diligence. Even worse, veteran politicians and military men who had joined the board of Theranos started questioning their own advisors and opted to follow with whatever Holmes and her gang of aggressive lawyers served up as unquestionable progress at Theranos. Nowhere is this sadder than when former Secretary of State George Schultz – who sat on the Theranos board – disses his own grandson Tyler who as young employee quickly figured out those things were not adding up at the company. His parents ended up $400k out of pocket in legal fees in what essentially could have been resolved amicably at the family dinner table. Was Schultz this captivated by Holmes? It is hard to believe, but it is the inescapable conclusion if you read the book.
Hype driving Financing – It is a bit of a pity that Carreyrou does not dive deeper into the financing cycles that enabled Theranos to keep tapping – at increasing valuations – into investor’s pocket books. Due diligence and proper governance were all thrown over board, the ‘fear-of-missing-out’ combined with Holmes’ ever rising star kept the machine going, unquestioned. And anyone who did raise some concern could count on super lawyer David Boies (he of the Florida recount fame) to unleash his dogs: from letters to lawsuits to surveillance.
The latter point takes me to my own personal approach to early stage tech and investing. Investors should always focus on, together with figuring out where the tech stands, the team. Theranos was a revolving door from early on (notably Apple employees being hired and fired long before the many scandals broke), many observers noted the bizarre security measures, not to mention the dysfunctional communications and absurd HR practices. That should have been the red flag early on, long before a few brave whistleblowers risked their reputations and financial health to uncover what Theranos really was.
Read the book. Really, read the whole thing.
A few weeks ago, Michel Bacos passed away at age ninety-four. It got some media attention, but not more than a few small obituaries and twitter references. I briefly mentioned it, but this week a video snippet of his funeral service appeared online and it prompted me to write about the man and his actions in a bit more detail.
Bacos had a colourful life. French, but born in Egypt, he fought during World War II and went on to become a pilot for Air France. In that capacity Bacos found himself as the captain of the ill-fated Flight 139, which on June 27, 1976, was scheduled to fly from Tel Aviv to Paris with a short stop over in Athens. There, a gang of German and Palestinian terrorists boarded and hijacked the plane and directed it to first Benghazi in Libya and eventually to Entebbe in Uganda. The plot thickened there. It turned out the hijackers were getting strong support from then Uganda dictator Idi Amin. Over the course of a few days the pressure was turned up as the terrorists sought not only a dollar ransom, but the release of a large number of Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel. It put the government of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a very difficult spot given its stance on non-negotiation with terrorists and the long distance to Uganda made any rescue attempt next to impossible.
After only a few days, the crisis worsened as the Israeli and Jewish passengers were forcibly separated from the rest of the travellers, resulting in scenes reminiscent of the Holocaust. Not long thereafter, the non-Israeli contingent was released. At that point captain Bacos and his crew were given the option by the terrorists to leave too, but Bacos did not even consider it for a second and opted to stay with his passengers. He did give that option to his crew, all of who unanimously agreed to stay on. Given the likelihood of a very bloody ending to the affair, an extremely brave and commendable move and one that would put Bacos in the history books. The captain himself did not think that much of it when he commented later:
“There was no way we were going to leave – we were staying with the passengers to the end,” he said. “This was a matter of conscience, professionalism and morality"
After all diplomatic efforts had been exhausted, the Israeli government launched one of the most daring rescue operations ever, liberating the hostages and crew, killing all of the hostage takers as well as destroying a significant portion of the Ugandan air force. During the operation three hostages were killed, as was one of the Israeli commandos, Yoni Nethanyahu, the older brother of the current prime minister. One passenger, Dora Bloch, who had been evacuated to a hospital prior to the rescue mission was subsequently murdered by Amin's security forces.
Bacos was honoured across the globe and his resumed work as captain not long after the drama, insisting his first flight back on the job would be to Israel. His heroism and the natural way in which he assumed full responsibility for his passengers under the most adverse circumstances are of course deeply commendable. It made him a hero and an example how to keep the moral high ground, even in a situation where you may not get out alive.
But at a deeper level there is more to the move Bacos made. What he did was essentially what most Europeans failed to do during the Second World War. Taking a stance and doing the right thing when ordinary Jewish citizens are being singled out for death just because of who they are was exactly what was lacking in most of Europe. And it was exactly that which contributed to the death of six million Jews. Bacos must have sensed his actions had a far deeper meaning beyond just acting morally during a plane hijack. He may never have found the right way to express it, but if you see the short video of his funeral you sense what is going on. You see French flags, a priest, some French veterans, but you hear a national anthem that is not French at all. The anthem was played at Bacos’ own special request and it is the one national anthem that expresses hope. The hope.
The flight to Bali is some twenty hours from Vancouver so I downloaded a few Netflix items on the iPad. One of them was the Bobby Robson documentary, More Than a Manager. On the way out I watched it and was blown away, so much that it kept my mind going during the two-week holiday. So as a result I watched it again on the way back. Why did it grab me, what made it so captivating?
Bobby Robson was a very successful football coach and an engaging media personality, but it was the way his life story was framed that made the movie so compelling. The makers, Gabriel Clarke and Torquil Jones let the story zip back and forth in time, but it is anchored in Barcelona where Robson managed the illustrious local team for one season, in 1996-97. In soccer terms this is the absolute top one can reach, yet even though Robson got some good results in the capital of Catalonia, the knives were out for him from day one. He had the unenviable task to step into Johan Cruyff’s shoes while the Barcelona’s management was already planning on hiring another Dutch soccer giant, Louis van Gaal. It is almost painful to see how Robson gets humiliated in this exercise. In particular as the documentary moves on and you realize what a phenomenal coach and extraordinary human being he had been.
Sir Bobby, as he became to be known, was what we today would call a ‘mensch’, which is best described as a person of deep human integrity and honour. And that was the foundation of his role as coach, his ability to deal with notoriously demanding talent and get them to do their very best. His success was driven by his ability to simply connect with the players at a human level, care for them, tell them to do better. He did that in a way in which the players would eventually go out on the pitch and do it for him as they felt they simply could not let their coach down.
Nowhere is this clearer when the filmmakers bring on Paul Gascoigne, Britain’s enfant terrible football star who throughout his life struggled with alcohol, violence, depression and drugs. Nicknamed ‘Gazza’ he was despite all the mishaps and dramas surrounding his career one of the most talented players England ever had. A talent, it has to be said, that was never fulfilled to its fullest.
Now well into his fifties, Gascoigne reminisces about the 1990 World Cup where Robson managed the England team that only just missed the final. It turns out that long after they stopped working together Robson would find time during his hectic career to call on Gazza, just to see how he was doing. As the story of the relationship between the two men unfolds you feel how the documentary is uncovering the coaching magic Robson applied and how it had kept the troubled talent going and motivated. Robson and Gascoigne last saw each other at a charity game only five days before Robson’s death in 2009. On that day, Robson, suffering from late stage cancer, came into the stadium in a wheelchair to a thunderous ovation and looked for Gascoigne who he knew was about to play. Gascoigne explains that Robson found him, had someone stop the wheelchair, looked up at the old payer and just said, “play well, play well, Gazza”.
Gascoigne cannot hold back his tears as he relays the story and nor could I watching this dramatic end of the documentary. You do not often get this raw emotion captured in such a forceful way. But also, beautiful as you realize it was only Robson who was able to put the talented player out of his misery to perform in a way that probably no one else could. And that’s what Gazza realizes too as he explains it on screen.
The emotional highlight of the documentary is also the essence of Robson and of coaching – be it in football or business – it all comes down to very basic and simple human understanding. The coach needs to get the player to do well, the players needs the coach to tell him that in the best possible, but above all, simplest way. We cannot say to ourselves when the day starts ‘do well, today’ but if someone else says it in the right way, it might just work. Gazza realized that the few good years he had on the pitch where Robson’s work and that those times were gone forever.
One of the things I keep talking about is how regional centres are taking off across Canada and North America in general when it comes to start-ups and early stage investing. Capital, connectivity and above all the ability to live in small scale and affordable towns with great natural surroundings are contributing to growth in all of these places. With our fund we now have invested in Victoria, Nelson and Squamish and I see more places like that coming into our portfolio.
Over the past two weeks I have visited Whitehorse, Victoria and Lethbridge, all places with lots of entrepreneurial activity and emerging investor networks. I did a few talks, met with entrepreneurs and discussed their plans and challenges while also trying to get a handle on how to support new angel investors in getting into this rapidly growing and exciting asset class. The short of it is: you can start a successful tech company anywhere. I am also discovering there is lots of capital and government support to help these efforts in the right direction. Here is a summary of the event I helped organize in Victoria, the photos above from left to right: the NorthLight Innovation center in Whitehorse, Yukon, the great group of attendees in Victoria and the University of Lethbridge.
On International Holocaust Memorial day, January 27, Dutch news media reported the death at age 96 of Dutch TV playwright and journalist, Eli Asser. Asser was a household name growing up in The Netherlands in the 60s and 70s, as the creator of some of Dutch TV’s biggest comedies that everyone talked about. Although I may have been too young to get all the jokes, the shows, the songs and its writer with the big moustache are etched in my mind. Yet behind the happy image of all the comedies, there was an incredibly dark history.
As Jews, both Asser’s parents and siblings were deported and murdered and Eli himself barely escaped the same fate. He wisely decamped from Amsterdam – which was the center for deportations of Dutch Jews – to the ‘Apeldoornsche Bosch’ (translated as the ‘Apeldoorn Forest’), which was a Jewish psychiatric hospital with an attached children’s center in the Dutch countryside, far away from the escalating impact of the Nazi occupation. For a number of Jews the logic was that if one could get to work there, one would be relatively safe from the onslaught of the deportations and murder, which by 1942 were in full swing. So Asser and his future wife, Eva Croiset, moved to the facility where the twentyish Eli landed a job as a nurse in training. Unbeknownst to them, the clinic’s staff and all the other residents, the ‘Apeldoorn Forest’ however had been shortlisted for evacuation, with all staff and patients slated for deportation and death. The German occupier had picked January 21, 1943 as the date for this and made the tactical mistake of sending an advance team to the facility a day before, to plan for the operation. Upon their departure it left most of the staff in the position to evaluate what would happen the next day, and more importantly the opportunity to make a run for it while they still could. This however posed a deep moral conundrum, which was this: do we escape and save ourselves from a certain death or, do we stick with the patients who need us now more than ever? Eli and Eva were torn but in the end rolled the dice and escaped that night, literally ran across the lands surrounding the facility and took cover for the rest of the war with farmers in the (then) remote province of Friesland. They survived the war.
The liquidation of the ‘Apeldoorn Forest’ has gone down as one of the most cruel and violent chapters of Dutch war history. The Nazi’s low view of mentally retarded people, in this case all of them Jewish, was on full display as patients were dragged from their beds in the cold January night, often naked and disoriented. Together with staff they were kicked and beaten into awaiting trucks that took them to the Apeldoorn train station and put on a train that went straight to Auschwitz. The staff had made an incredible effort to prepare for the trip, with packed luggage, pre-packed food and meals, prescriptions and all medical supplies carefully organized, nothing of which the patients and staff were allowed to take on their ill-fated journey. Upon their departure the SS went in and destroyed everything they could see to pieces in a long orgy of hate and mindless destruction. Denying extremely vulnerable patients these very last dignities on the road to their deaths stands as a lasting testimony to the moral wasteland that Nazi ideology unleashed on Europe.
The 1200 patients and 50 staff arrived in Auschwitz and the patients were all killed upon arrival, none of the staff survived. There is very little historical evidence to be found on the latter part of this story, however there are a few accounts that described the unloading of the cattle trains with disoriented patients and their caregivers, some of whom were shot on the spot as they lacked the ability to comply with any of the instructions they were given. Those that were not shot were gassed. The one person to have witnessed this arrival was Rudolf Vrba, the well-known Auschwitz survivor who ended up living in Vancouver where he died in 2006.
Eli Asser’s daughter, Hella de Jonge, made a phenomenal documentary on her family’s wartime story and her parents daring escape from the Apeldoorn Forest, called ‘Don’t Lose Courage’ and it is in Dutch and available on YouTube here. What Hella captured was Asser’s dark side and the guilt he had carried with him for some seven decades for having survived something that none of his family members and people in his care at Apeldoorn Forest were able to.
Eli passed away in the very week that marked the seventy-sixth anniversary of the gruesome evacuation of the Apeldoorn Forest and was announced by his daughter during a speech this Sunday, Holocaust Memorial Day. In a tweet to commemorate this day Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addressed the six million victims by telling them that we “will never let you down”. It was a statement with a deep impact as it looked back and forward at the same time. Eli Asser did indeed believe that he had let some of them down and it tormented him for more than seventy years. May he rest in peace and may we never forget and never let down the patients and staff of the Apeldoorn Forest.
By contrasting nationalism with imperialism it becomes clear why the first is so much more preferable, says Yoram Hazony in a recent book
As we are bracing ourselves for the finale of Britain’s Brexit move, there is a plethora of opinions and articles telling us why this is a reckless move, yet there are very few cogent arguments as to why exiting the European Union (EU) makes total and logical sense. The Israeli writer and academic Yoram Hazony does not make the Brexit case per se, but he sets out a compelling argument that explains the evil that has befallen mankind from empires that have subdued nationalism in favour of all encompassing dogmatic visions of a better future. One does not have to look very far – Hitler, Stalin – to find some real life evidence and Hazony makes it clear that none of these men espoused nationalist instincts, in fact they sought to destroy these and therefore any comparison of present day nationalist tendencies are nowhere close to fascism or Nazism.
Hazony explains the continuum of the tribe that amalgamates with other tribes, in turn to form a nation, which in a possible next step could become subordinated by a larger empire. And while some may think it is rich to compare the former Soviet Union to the European Union, the dynamics are similar: a dominant nation leads the formation of a union, gives it an ideological foundation that is mostly unquestionable and the resulting combination will lead us to some sort of nirvana where the sovereignty of all constituent parts has been eroded, because in a perfect world you do not really need it. And where the Soviet Union was driven by Russia, in the new world Germany is more or less the force of empire: that which it was not able to do by force, it now has accomplished through ‘peaceful means’. I would add that the EU is not primarily driven by Germany; there is a Franco-German axis that has been moving this process forward. In that process in particular Belgium and Luxembourg act as the willing henchmen (think Juncker and Verhofstadt) executing the project and dragging along the naysayers.
The essence of the book is in how we need to understand ‘nationalism’ in positive terms as something that has helped build great nations and Hazony keeps going back to the examples of the British, French and Dutch ventures as they emerged and enabled phenomenal social, economic and cultural growth. He is right and it is also why we are seeing strong anti-EU movements in each of these very countries. As a born Dutchman, I fully subscribe to his positions, as the blood and toil of the 80-year war (1568-1648) that created its independence and unique culture (the consensus model that aligned Protestants and Catholics) has been signed away without much of a proper public consultation or vote. In the 1980s and 1990s we were taught and we all believed that ‘Europe’ was a good thing, a wealth and peace creator and no one in his or her right mind should question it. We consequently did not.
My arrival in Britain 1990 however provided me with a crash course in the downside of the European project, poignantly summarized by one of my erstwhile British colleagues who asked me “When did the European Economic Union as it was always known become the European Union?” I had no answer, it just happened.
Now that I am based in Canada and travel back to Europe regularly it has been bewildering for instance to see military on the streets of Athens to enforce the country’s debt restructuring. It has essentially turned Greece into some sort of indentured servant owned by the EU, mostly as it turns out by Germany. The omnipresent EU flag is now flown alongside the national flags and the question is when will it replace native colours entirely? At least the Dutch have recently decided to display their ‘red-white-blue’ in parliament to at least have a sense of national identity in the top-down avalanche of Euro-blue. Here in Canada I often wonder how all the liberals who speak so approvingly of the European project would settle in a world where their capital was in Dallas instead of Ottawa, their currency was the Americano and where, despite all well intentioned assurances, an American elite would drive most if not all of the decision making?
The point Hazony makes of course is that the more authority you let go and delegate upwards, the likelier it is you will never get it back. In the process national identities and decision making erode and at the local tribal level the average citizen will have a hard time to identify with the group and leadership that now apparently has come to represent them. The Brits consequently have taken an entirely logical step to try and release them from the imperial EU project. Maybe they can provide a way, much like Thatcher laid out, where independent European nations live and work together without such crushing tools as one currency or one political center. An eight percent blow to British GDP may in the end be a small price to pay for freedom and avoid the demise of their nation.
The book lays out a clear argument, but in the final chapters Hazony takes his reasoning one step further by explaining how this love of empire leads inevitably to deep criticism (and eventually hate) for countries that cling to and fight for their national identity and freedom. The USA, Hungary and Poland are getting the steady stream of abuse as we all know, but in no other case is this meted out as regularly and as harshly as against Israel. The Jewish nation has been so successful for close to 4,000 years precisely because it never sought empire, as instructed in the bible where good neighbourly relations where laid out as a guiding principle. Jews also learned that no nation would lift a finger to prevent their annihilation, their justifiable claim to security has forever been shaped by that one experience, the Holocaust. The contempt for Israel is – apart from the reflexive and deep rooted anti-Semitism – driven by looking down on the Jews’ outdated attachment to the concept of nation in a world where open borders and joint sovereignty is the way forward, according to the ‘European elites’. Hazony puts it succinctly when he argues that Auschwitz helped create Israel, but Israel’s critics argue that Jews by standing up for their nation’s borders and freedom have essentially become Auschwitz. Think that one through.
Hazony’s book is a thought provoking and refreshing read. So it is sobering to see how far the European empire has moved ahead and how deep the hate is against those nations that are swimming against the tide. Yet it may not be too late, but unwinding the EU will be an unpleasant and potentially violent (Brexit, the riots in Paris) process. Letting it go forward unchecked however will not be unpleasant, it will be dark.
Photo: the EU blue alongside the Bulgarian flag in Sofia, June 2018.
In what was an otherwise busy week, I was glued to the screen watching the entire farewell ceremonies for George H.W. Bush, from the loading of his casket on Air Force One bound for Washington to his oldest son’s funny and moving eulogy to the return and internment at College Station, Texas.
One thing struck me deeply. We have now been for two years into a spectacle of continuous opposition to Trump with endless talking heads on cable news, hysteria on social media all the way to a lawyer defending a porn star who at the same time hinted at a run at the presidency, a move that was even taken seriously. Everything one could think of has been thrown at Trump, yet it seems nothing has worked in effectively opposing the current president and as of this day the deliberations as to who could beat him in less than two years from now remain unresolved. Yet, in death it seems the elder Bush has somehow unleashed a spirit of what America may need and what the presidency and real political leadership is all about. When all the former presidents, vice presidents and spouses lined up in Washington Cathedral it became more than evident how they all so differed from the current occupant of the White House. There was no need to make it explicit, the entire week morphed into a quiet and steady rebuttal of Trump and turned out to be so much more effective than all the noise of the past few years.
The presidency of Bush reminded us that the office is one that represents the entire nation and a bipartisan approach is in all likelihood the best route to effectively bring the nation together and move it forward to unity. It requires one to do what is right and in Bush’s case as former senator Alan Simpson so eloquently eulogized, making decisions that you know will eventually hurt you, but will benefit the nation as a whole. In short: country over party. The late 41st president reconnected us with a better past where it seems Washington operated on that 'kindler and gentler' notion.
Now it is worth remembering that Bush was not beyond hardball power play. In all the moving remembrances we did not hear that it were his campaigns that gave us Lee Atwater, the late political genius who is credited with forever poisoning the well of campaigning. As with any other politician, Bush had to remove many obstacles to the White House and the man who more or less simultaneously was in the mix for the same job was Kansas senator Bob Dole. Of the same age and like Bush a World War II veteran, although it is worth noting that Dole came out of the war barely alive and had forever lost the use of his right arm. The two men struggled and it was Bush that came out as the winner as president and two-term VP, whereas Dole served on Gerald Ford’s losing ticket in 1976 and lost the election as the GOP nominee against Bill Clinton in 1996.
Yet it was Bob Dole who defined the mood of this week by paying his respects to the late president in the Capitol Rotunda. At age ninety-five and bound to his wheelchair he was brought in, helped to his feet by an aide and with a trembling left arm saluted his once political rival, his fellow veteran and his former commander-in-chief. The moment captured more than a last farewell, it was a nostalgic and painful goodbye to the greatest generation. The generation that gave us deep and wise political leadership and that evaporated on us with the coming of age of the baby boomers. These were the men who had seen war in its various and ugly forms and who understood intuitively that the post-World War II world order was a unique historical gift. These men gave that order the careful and deliberate management, the smart diplomacy and above all the never ending efforts to keep as many people and nations on the same page to preserve a measure of world stability. These were the men that were in the end able to set aside differences and do what is good. These were decent men. These were the men that were patriots and loyal family members who fought for the very best for as long as they could.
In the sadness of Bob Dole’s eyes and the effort it took to make that last salute we came to realize how far we have drifted from that golden age of leaders and by consequence that formidable age of American world leadership. In Bob Dole we witnessed the passing of an era, a turning point into a deep unknown and likely very unstable future. And Bob Dole, I think, was fully aware of that sobering reality when he brought out that final salute.
Went to see Bohemian Rhapsody last weekend. Phenomenal piece of rock history and wonderfully built up to the finale of Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985. What always stuck in my mind was how Bob Geldof was concerned that Queen would not exactly be able to wow Live Aid, which by his estimation was more of a Boomtown Rats or U2-type crowd. It is something that does not come out in the movie that much where the focus is more on Queen’s demise in 1985 and the question if Freddie Mercury could pull of a live performance. He could and he did and wrote history, it was voted as one of the best live rock performances ever and you can watch the original here. I do it regularly, it is 24 minutes well spent.
Of course, there is always a personal memory and Queen grew on me after this performance. I never forget the devastation when Mercury announced he was suffering from AIDS in late November 1991, followed by the news of his death only about a day later. What I did not know was that he lived and died at Logan Place, which was less than a block a way from where I lived at the time on Lexham Gardens in London’s Kensington neighbourhood. It felt weird knowing he was that close to where I was when he passed away.
The summer after Wembley hosted ‘The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness’ which similar to Live Aid saw a phenomenal line-up of artists perform classic Queen songs (with Queen) to a huge crowd. Lisa Stansfield’s rendition of “I want to break free” is one for the books.
So that was the election for school trustee. The benefits of being an incumbent with a solid track record and a strong message about the future for our students did not resonate with enough voters, unfortunately. The low turn out in Lions Bay as a result of an acclaimed mayor and council did not help the numbers.
While disappointed I can look back on four great years. The best way to put it is that in daily business life I sometimes go to meetings with some reluctance and negative feelings. At the West Vancouver school district that never happened. I dove into meetings and events with enthusiasm and every event, be it a board meeting, a committee meeting, a school visit, it always generated positive energy. People in West Vancouver, Bowen Island and Lions Bay generally have no idea what an amazing school district they have, one of the best in BC and probably in Canada. It competes head on with private schools and delivers cutting edge and innovative education. The dedication and professionalism of all staff is something to be really proud of, it was a joy to be working with them and I actually learned a lot too. It was an honour to have been a part of it, to have contributed to it and to see it flourish and grow. I will miss it.
Now on to new things. The show, as they say, must go on.
One of the last frontiers of great food and wine at affordable, normal prices. This is the Pingo Doce in Carvalhais.
Making capital work for the betterment of the planet
During my years in Hong Kong in the 1990s I remember getting together with a number of locals to clean up some beaches of plastic, and by that I mean not picking up a few straws and cups. Many beaches were literally covered in plastic and the assault on the city state’s beautiful natural environment was one of the things that prompted Irene and myself to eventually move to Vancouver at the end of that decade. Yet it took another good decade and a half for deep changes in attitudes around the environment to take hold and prompt drastic action, in the West, but in China too. When we left the prosperous Sino-British free market enclave the lingering question in my mind was: “what if we are able to generate so much wealth, but are not able to enjoy it in a clean environment? What is the point?
Joel Solomon, the now well-known founding partner of Renewal Funds and champion of investing in clean and sustainable businesses, asks more or less the same thing in his book 'The Clean Money Revolution': “How much is enough?” He tracks his journey from a kid with health issues in Tennessee to organic farming in British Columbia to becoming an investor and relentless promoter of clean investing and helping to create what we now know mostly as ‘impact’ or ‘clean’ investing. His thesis is very simple: capitalism in its present form is destroying the way we live, so we need to reinvent it such that the power of capital is used to create a better and cleaner world. The argument is to not only divest from all businesses that steadily destroy the planet, but also from the ones that ravage communities and exact a deep toll on humans, physically and emotionally. Rampant consumerism is what needs to be addressed and the book posits that while we may be winning the money game, we are losing access to meaning and end up deeply unhappy. I would go even further and argue that we are currently losing both the money and mental well-being games.
Solomon tracks the origins of this thinking back to the 1970s and 1980s and notes that it took a while to organize, channel and get traction with well-to-do investors to move their money from ‘traditional’ investments into ‘clean’ opportunities. Many of these clean deals became successful and it is good to read up on the success of Stonyfield Farms – probably the best and creamiest yoghurt on the planet where Solomon was an early investor – and of course Ben & Jerry’s icecream. Such ventures that are based around clear values and focus on health and sustainability are able to change the way we consume and moreover, can change and impact the values of the larger firms that eventually acquire these smaller firms. The proceeds of these acquisitions get reinvested into new clean deals and that helps to grow an ecosystem that will cast its net wider and wider and eventually change the way we live and consume.
One of the things in the book struck me. As we have abandoned the church in the West we have replaced it with a deep worship for consumption and money, which, as we are finding out, leads to depression and, judging from social media, an endless quest for meaning. Solomon realizes in his book that this worship for money has run its course as we are not only wrecking the planet but our mental and physical selves. He points to a journey where we can learn to do with less, but also with products that are better and have more quality. And we can do this while preserving our system of free-markets and making money, we are just allocating this in a different direction. The one aspect in this argument that needs some elaboration, and it may well be outside the scope of his book, is the non-physical part. If we stop worshiping money and consumption but move to a cleaner state, what values will we be living by, and will they bring us the meaning we seek in life? Solomon dives into a description of Hollyhock, a centre for learning, connection and cultural transformation which gives a bit more context to the ‘meaning’ part which is great, but it falls short of what social-political and moral structures will underpin a world where clean money will come to rule.
There are some parallels with Steve Jobs who spent his early days hanging around organic farms and promoting the same wholeness message that we find in Solomon’s book. Yet the incredible success of Apple is now a story of what I call ‘hyper capitalism’ with manufacturing in low cost centres in China, totally overpriced products, quarterly earnings calls (a practice Solomon frowns upon) and spawning a culture of call centres across the globe where employees ensure Apple’s cashflow is given a further boost. Amazon and Facebook fall in the same category of course. This dichotomy makes it clear that even the cleanest and most idealistic businesses will eventually resort to the hard-core extractive capitalism that Solomon so detests. This is not a criticism, but merely a logical question coming out of the book and one that has to be addressed as we move forward.
Although not overly political, the book picks Reagan as the one who has helped unleash the forces that are now ravaging the planet. It is a pity that Solomon does not recognize that the Reagan era brought in the free market reforms and the appeal to individualism and entrepreneurship that are creating the very companies that are now driving the clean money revolution. And it was the former president himself who always said that capitalism was an imperfect system, and we simply had not been able to come up with something better. Solomon envisions a not materially different capitalist structure of society, only steered in a different direction and focusing on different outcomes. No one could have foreseen what the liberalization of markets in the 1980s, combined with Asia’s emergence as an economic powerhouse would mean for the environment and the way we now live.
When I moved to Vancouver in 1999 the quest was to find a different way of living in an environment where the quality of life would be better than in other centres across the globe. Solomon points to Vancouver as a success story as one of the greenest cities on the planet, but as we are learning now Canada’s west coast paradise is a basket case when it comes to fostering some measure of economic equality and creating opportunity. It may be green, but it often feels more like the playground for the uber-wealthy with an almost irrational reverence for money and property values, a very limited framework to build growth for all.
The book really hits it when it talks about entrepreneurship and early stage investing and Solomon’s lessons are applicable to beyond just clean money. He takes the smart approach by investing small amounts, taking minority positions and working closely with the entrepreneur making it clear that building relationships and collaboration lead to far better outcomes than banging the shareholder dogma ‘I need a return on my money’ routine. He is prepared to take a loss and hones in on the key question when investing in entrepreneur-led companies; “how will this person function in a crisis?” Reframing the relationship between investor and founder/entrepreneur is key and the case studies in the book underline these lessons in detail. Investing is not strictly a numbers game, it is above all a people’s game.
In the end, Solomon makes the right arguments on how to move forward (including finding ways to slow population growth), but for them to really go mainstream they need to be socialized across society and the political spectrum. The new approaches will need to part ways with government-enabled neoliberal politics and market dominant theories. The emergence of new political movements on both the left and right is evidence there is growing ‘intellectual room’ to move things forward in a new direction while preserving freedom of choice. Joel Solomon’s book is a great contribution to this discussion and at the same time a great work of reference for those who want to track the origins of clean impact investing.
How a workshop on term sheets has evolved to helping build better and deeper startup ecosystems
So when I was asked by Canada’s National Angel Capital Organization (NACO) in 2015 to do a workshop on term sheets and deal structuring, I was initially somewhat hesitant. Life was busy and what possibly could I tell angel investors about terms sheets that they didn’t already know? In my mind this was all old stuff about which there was lots of information to be found online, assuming you could Google the right terms. Yet, I gave it a go and now some three years on the 4-hour workshop has evolved from a relatively dry start to a lively discussion on deal terms and start-ups with lots of case studies and some horror stories that have already provided their value in steering some investors away from bad situations. And there is always a panel discussion that brings out even more good stuff with the audiences. More importantly, there are now more and more entrepreneurs in the audience for whom this is as instructive as it is for seasoned and aspiring angel investors. And then there are lawyers and accountants and others active in the ecosystem that join the sessions. The success has now even spawned a new workshop, ‘The Art of Valuation’ and I can proudly say that I have been to places that I never thought I would ever go to. Active investing in start-ups is now happening in places as remote and far away as Whitehorse in the Yukon and they are making solid progress.
In the first week of May a marathon was organized by the NACO team, five term sheet workshops, back-to-back, over five days in Atlantic Canada. The trip took us to St. John’s, Halifax, Charlottetown, Moncton to finish in the city that was battling the floods, Fredericton. And in each town I went through the now 90+ slides with case studies, theory and a local panel. And each time I was wondering if the audience would ‘get into it’, like it and engage with it. One of the things I have learned is that in some places there are non-stop questions and an incredible level of engagement (Regina in Saskatchewan comes to mind) and in others, well, I will not mention any names but sometimes you have to beg the listeners to challenge you or ask any questions. You never can tell where the debate will go. It also means I have learned to pace, if there is no debate I automatically fill up the spare time with start-up anecdotes and when I run out of time there are ways to speed up the content delivery without the audience really noticing it.
The Atlantic region did well in this department, there was good attendance and great enthusiasm to learn. It occurred to me that each year of course new entrepreneurs come to the market to start a business and each year fresh investors appear once they have cashed out, retired or otherwise are tired of playing the real estate or stock market game. And age is totally irrelevant: I see very young angels and I see older entrepreneurs. In my own BC-based network I am working with two female founders who are well into their sixties but who share a drive that should put many young people to shame. They all want to get going and it was no different in the Atlantic.
It also makes for great encounters, in Fredericton I ran into an older Dutch entrepreneur who was somewhat familiar to me, and when I asked if he was that well-known news anchor from the 80s and 90s in The Netherlands he confirmed enthusiastically, “yes, that is me” followed by “can you take a look at my new venture?” At the same event in Fredericton, a young female entrepreneur on the panel was able to share one of the best case studies ever on dilution and convertible notes, it got everyone in the audience (and me) thinking. In Halifax I ended up talking to an entrepreneur who had put some four years into developing a pretty revolutionary travel app – yes there is still lots of space in that sector. In Moncton a biotech entrepreneur confidently told me had raised $10 million from angels for his venture and in St John’s a team of young cleantech founders told me over beers how they had been able to get a British Columbia angel investor into their deal. And the processes put in place by an angel fund in Charlottetown were, to say the least, highly professional and impressive.
Talking terms, talking deals has moved from talking to angel investors about how to avoid mistakes and do better deals, to an integrated experience that helps the early stage ecosystem as a whole. Together with Boris Mann we developed the Common Docs, which is now a prime resource for investors and entrepreneurs in all of Canada (and internationally), delivering a great toolbox to do deals better and faster and not waste lawyer's time. Taken together, all these elements have grown into something that is facilitating the diversification and growth of our economies where more entrepreneurs (again, of all ages) start ventures across many different sectors and are able to source capital from an ever widening pool of angel investors, venture capital firms and other sources. It is a great story and it gives me enormous joy to be to be part of it.
Note: the tour would not have been a success without the great team consisting of NACO staff Yuri Navarro and Elena Dudarenko, Kirk Hamilton who presented 'An Entrepreneur's Guide to Angels' and our Atlantic wizard, Sally Ng,
Photos: from left to right: Halifax, the hotel patio in Fredericton, Moncton.
How the story of diaspora and determination entered my life and how it fascinated and inspired
My love for books must have originated in my dad’s study. Many hours I spent there flipping through his shelves were I could find anything about history, psychology, geography, biology, and of course war. Lots of war. As a teenager growing up in World War II it had framed his world, his thinking and he kept reading about it until his last days. It was a deep search for the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ and the more books and studies appeared over the years, the more sources there were to try and figure out that question. Amid all of the books there was one thick volume that showed victorious soldiers in a desert like landscape, all smiling and all in color. As I must have been five or six I was able to organize events based on the color or black and white nature of the photos, and the cheering soldiers were not from the 1940s. It fascinated me although I could not pinpoint why they were so happy and where exactly they were.
The black-and white shots in other books were far more gruesome. Emaciated corpses, gallows, kids rounded up by armed uniformed men and the haunting photo of young men chased down a Dutch street by – that much I had learned by then – German soldiers. Over the decades that followed the story of the Holocaust unfolded for me and the razzia on the Jonas Daniel Meyer Square in Amsterdam in February 1941 would go into history as one of the first and more brutal exercises of Nazi persecution in the occupied nation. Of the 427 men rounded up that day most had died under horrific circumstances by the summer of that same year in the Mauthausen concentration camp. The contrast of the cheering soldiers and the terrified young men was telling.
Life in the early 1970s in The Netherlands was, by all accounts, great. The restored economy after the war had started to pay its dividends, economically and socially. The age of flower power influenced middle class life and open liberal norms where an integral part of the left’s steadily growing influence, the ruling Labour Party was above all, perceived to be cool.
And the Dutch punched way above their weight internationally: calling out the Greek colonels, protesting against Pinochet in Chile and against the fascist regime that was still governing Spain under General Franco. As fierce as the government and the many activists were about transgressions against human rights in said countries, as deep was the love for other states. Passion and support for the young state of Israel, barely twenty-five years old in 1973, constituted an article of faith in the lowlands during the seventies. I still recall the emotional embrace between Dutch Prime minister and Labour leader Joop den Uyl and his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Rabin. There was a deep love for Israel and during the Yom Kippur war a local artisan store in my hometown raised funds to send to the Jewish state, it was only natural that we as kids found a way to contribute a few coins to this noble cause. A small nation, up against a massive force of Arab nations armed by the Soviet Union put Israel in the position of the underdog. They could and should count on our support. And although it is hard to make the retroactive argument, we must at the time have sensed that Israel was given a shot not just because it was an underdog and a fresh young nation. Its birth and fight for survival in all likelihood carried a dark part of our own Dutch history that had to be redeemed.
As deeply rooted I was in Dutch culture my yearning for the outside world was big. America was light years away and my dad’s business trip to New York was a community event that we talked about for weeks. China was even further away and we were led to believe that Mao had figured out socialism and that the Chinese were happy denizens in their monotone outfits. Too young to understand but having the right age to be fascinated by the foreign, I yearned for everything from outside our borders, the more exotic the better.
It was in this context that our fairly progressive school implemented a weekly program of folk dances, from grade one to grade six. It was of course awkward in the beginning, but gradually we got the hang of dancing for a few hours each week, opening our world to new rhythms and foreign cultures. The dance teacher turned out to be a man of the world and had organized the visit of an Israeli dance group to our town, including a performance at the school and some homestays for the young Israeli dancers. As luck would have it, my mom served on the school board and invited the group’s leadership team for a dinner in our house. Seated next to the wife of the group’s leader, Ruth, I was taken in by what these tough and Mediterranean looking people brought into our lives, arguing loudly with each other and with their hosts. It fulfilled my need for the exotic and the more exciting things the world had to offer. The group’s leader was a quiet man and most of the attention went to his radiant wife and the lead singer in the group, Effi Netzer who as I later learned was and still is one of Israel’s pre-eminent folk singers.
There were also a few men that tagged along with the group and their role was not all that clear. They hung around the group in a disinterested way and had no creative responsibilities and I recall the ongoing debate among us kids, wondering what Gil, Dov and Moshe were up to. It was my father in the end who undid the magic but managed to up the fascination with the entire visit by disclosing that these were armed security people. He could of course not resist mentioning that they were ready ‘to go’ if any threat to the dance group would present itself. The conflict in the Middle East had somehow made its way to a sleepy Dutch suburb, some excitement, at last !
Connecting the Dots
All these impressions started to merge and make sense in one way or another as the threads provided by the horrors of the Holocaust merged with the unfolding story of the state of Israel. As impressed as a young kid can be with armed security forces in the house, it was the realization that our visitors had no other option than to bring their own protection to the table wherever they traveled. It was clear, even then and at that age that no one else would really bother to ensure the safety of travelling Israelis. On the contrary, in the few instances that they had realistically expected to rely on foreign security it had failed miserably, the wounds of the massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972 were still fresh and raw.
So I began to stich the pieces together and after reading Leon Uris’ books Exodus and Mila 18 as well as Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins’ ‘O Jerusalem’ the picture of Israel’s emergence became clear. A home for a persecuted people who had been given no other option than to fend for themselves, where and wherever they were, conquered meter by meter, shedding lots of blood. From expulsion to diaspora to holocaust to redemption through statehood, the Jews had been able to overcome the deepest misery history had meted out and had returned to their ancestral lands some two thousand years on. And the cheering men in the book in my dad’s office were Israeli soldiers who had recaptured Jerusalem during the Six-Day War of 1967. The story of Israel represented a form of determined self-reliance that for us as post-war, young and relatively complacent Western European kids was hard to fathom. It was exactly what it made so appealing. What for Israelis was an inborn need for survival was for us something we could only hope to strive for.
What became even clearer was that the terms Israeli and Jew are interchangeable. Many Jews - in fact most of them – were not Israeli, yet they are part of the same tribe. If there was any doubt about this it was not long after the visit of the dancers that on a hot summer day through the open windows in our neighbourhood I could her radios announcing how Israeli commandos had liberated Israeli and Jewish hostages at the faraway airport in Entebbe, Uganda. They were saved from likely mass execution by terrorists. While most passengers had been released after a number of days, the terrorists had ensured to separate all Jews from the other passengers. For those not up to speed of what happened at that faraway African airport, I encourage you to Google the name of Dora Bloch, and read on from there.
Israel’s bold military move delivered the exact evidence of the self-reliance that Israelis had to exercise in order to survive. For when it came to the crunch, the rest of the world either did not care or were too conflicted to take a position in what appeared to me to be a very simple ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ scenario. Baffling as it was, the UN found room to criticize Israel for violating Uganda’s airspace (remember Kurt Waldheim?) and Air France captain Michel Bacos who had remained with the hostages when given the option to go also came under fire for reasons no sane human being could possibly comprehend. It was all evidence of an incredible double standard against which Israel – and Jews in general – were measured, something that continues to this day in each and every international venue.
As time wore on the contours of the Holocaust started to become even clearer with online testimonies of survivors and newly found documents in archives across Europe. We had dutifully learned that it all was the work of one madman whose extreme racist views swayed a nation down a troublesome path of mass murder and eventual self-destruction. Yet we had to make some effort to find out that, what Hitler did was simply activating the deep undercurrent of anti-Semitism long existent before his emergence as a political force in Germany. And not just Germany, I might add. And although the Dutch could claim some high ground as having opened our doors to Jewish refugees throughout the centuries – proudly marketing Baruch Spinoza and Anne Frank as ‘Dutch’ wherever possible – most of Europe was drenched in deep anti-Semitic sentiments. The fact that Christianity finds its roots in the worship of an errant Jew who had challenged the orthodoxy of his nation’s beliefs and found death on the cross at the hands of the Romans whose hand in turn had been forced by the local Jewish clergy, did not help.
It took the Dutch nation to this day to acknowledge the pitiful and regrettable role it played in the persecution and death of some 102,000 Jewish citizens as rounding up the young men at the Jonas Daniel Meyer square was just the start. It was something that was conveniently swept under the carpet during our history classes and the fact that there had been some Jewish survivors was presented as evidence of the heroic efforts of the Dutch resistance. For instance, it was not until 2011 that Ad van Liempt’s book about the complicity of the Dutch police in the deportation of those Jews unveiled the fanaticism and depravity that was put on display in facilitating the Nazi occupier’s dirty work. It was a nauseating read. Again, Dutch guilt more than anything else was what drove this ‘special relationship’ with Israel.
Israel’s confidence and successes grew under holocaust survivor Menachem Begin who inked the nation’s first peace deal with Egypt and who had the clairvoyance to neutralize Iraq’s emergence as a nuclear threat by bombing the reactors in Osirak. The latter was seen as an act of aggression but by most objective standards, a sensible pre-emptive act. Israel had by the early eighties transformed itself from a young and threatened nation to a confident power player and the correlation between success and worldwide criticism manifested itself strongly after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. And although Israel was absolved of the relentless criticism over the atrocities during that war – read Dov Landau’s phenomenal biography of Ariel Sharon – a questionable pattern had been set. The love affair with the young state had started to show its cracks and I clearly recall how among the late teenagers that we now were I had to outline the justifiable and rational underpinnings of something the rest of the world considered an unjust war. No, the invasion of Lebanon was not a pretty affair, but nor was lobbing missiles into Israeli schools located in northern Israel.
However inspiring the story of Israel’s birth and early years was to some, geopolitical realities framed the nation’s successes much differently. The ‘Arab oil tap’ and the steadily growing Muslim population in European cities would shift attention and respect away from Israel at a time when its underdog status had long evaporated. The old contours of anti-Semitism started to emerge again after an absence of only a few decades. In recent years it seems to have been unleashed in full force, note for instance how the leader of the British Labour Party recently found himself embroiled in a scandal for supporting the very sentiments we had all thought had disappeared from mainstream political discourse. It is not a coincidence that Israel’s current prime-minister, Nethanyahu has often said that what is left of European Jewry should pack up and come home to Israel.
It is indeed sad that in a city that appeared to have successfully resurrected itself from the horrors that took away most of its Jewish citizens, anti-Semitism is back as part of daily life in the city. A city whose name in Yiddish designates a ‘safe place’ something it really wasn’t in the end. As a kid I grew up not only in my dad’s study learning about the Holocaust, Jews and Israel, I grew up with people that hardly ever used the word Amsterdam. They just called it what it was supposed to be, a great and safe place: Mokum.
Then and Now
The scene in our little school was breathtaking. Some thirty Israelis in their early 20s performed dances and song in the school’s central hall and the place broke down under the incredible energy, thrill and boundless enthusiasm. We as kids went crazy, clapping and cheering, we had never seen anything like this before in our lives. It was as if rock stars had descended upon our little school. The dances apparently were just the start as we were promised a solo performance by the group’s female lead singer. The announcer, probably forgetting he was at an elementary school, could not restrain himself – nor could we – over her incredible beauty. Tanned with dark hair and on seventies-style high soles, Haya Arad banged out a song that many years later with the help of Google and Spotify I was able to discover was the Nurit Hirsh & Ehud Manor classic, Ba-Shanah ha-Ba'ah. She performed it as if she were a big star in a major venue rather than a Dutch school with some kids and teachers and parents clapping and singing along. We all went into some frenzy and the school was shaking, this was music, this was singing !
The show finally was tilted to a different level when folk singer Effi Netzer took the stage with his accordion and urged everyone to sing long with a self-composed catchy tune. To this day I can sing it and realized it revealed the deepest aspirations of all of Israel:
Time will come, hear and say
Peace is yet on its way
Together and never apart
Sing this song with all your heart
This was followed by a never ending Halellujah, Hallelu, Hallellujah, Hallelu …. “
When the group left, the now celebrated security men in tow, we begged them for signatures and encircled the bus so it took them quite some time to make their way back to the airport. The event sealed a love affair and a hope that whatever was in store for Israel, we all hoped for it to be the very best.
More than anything, the story of the Jews and their hard fought journey back to Israel impressed upon me the virtues of self-reliance and determination against all odds. But there is also a component of guilt as our post-war generation had escaped the worst ravages of history and was given access to a seemingly carefree world. And maybe even some envy, because what if history came back and it turned out that we were totally unprepared for dealing with it ? The latter question may be answered in decades to come and in that process, what better to do than pass these lessons from history on to your children?
Top: Flags outside the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem
Center: The razzia on the Jonas Daniel Meyer square in Amsterdam on 22 en 23 February 1941.
And: a stone’s throw from the Israeli-Egyptian border near Eilat, my two daughters and a Dutch-Israeli friend unaware of the meaning and history that this photo represents, they just had a great time snorkelling in the Red Sea.