The chairman of the board of an Israeli clothing manufacturer told "Business Under Fire'' author Dan Carrison a joke that speaks volumes about how Israelis and Israeli businesses cope with the waves of terror, especially in the past four years.
"One day G-d called all the leaders of the world into Heaven. He told them they had made a mess of the world, and that it was time to start the whole experiment over. 'Go to your peoples,' he thundered, 'and tell them in six months I shall cover the earth with another flood.' Contrite, the American president advised his countrymen to repent and prepare to meet their Maker. The Russian president told his subjects to eat, drink and be merry, for soon the world would end. The Israeli prime minister told the Knesset, 'We have six months to learn to live underwater.'"
The joke teller was Dov Lautman of Delta Galil Industries, which makes about $600 million worth of underwear each year that is sold under such brands as Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Nike, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan through such retailers as Marks & Spencer, Target, Wal-Mart, Victoria's Secret, J.C. Penney and the Gap.
Lautman was among 30 Israeli business executives and managers whom Carrison interviewed for "Under Fire,'' all determined to weather the worst that those dedicated to their destruction can throw at them no matter long they do it.
That determination, Carrison writes, is not founded on any hope of peace in the foreseeable future. But neither does it reflect despair.
"A lack of optimism does not necessarily translate into poor economic performance. In fact, it can be argued that Israeli companies are rock solid because of their indifference to rumors of peace or war. The Israeli CEOs, executives and managers I interviewed all had an implacable air about them, behind the charm, behind the humor. Like soldiers too long in battle or like patients whose constant pain has finally smoothed the facial features these managers were imperturbable," Carrison writes.
He came away from his interviews with the impression that those businesspeople would not be overjoyed by a peace treaty. Nor would they be devastated by a Palestinian violation of the treaty. They are dismissive of the news media and not overly concerned about world opinion. They see it as their responsibility to lead their country and their economy to increasing levels of performance.
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"The Israeli business community has demonstrated to the world that the issue of peace with terrorists as a prerequisite for business excellence should be forgotten. Peace is not a realistic possibility as long as there are legions of fanatics in the world, and it should be completely irrelevant to the profitable functioning of a business.
"If there is reason for optimism, it is the certainty that the civilized societies will eventually reduce the frequency of terrorist attacks to an acceptable level. Just as organized crime has been controlled but not conquered, terrorism can be stifled," Carrison writes.
Lautman's company has not been hit directly by terrorism because 90 percent of its sales are in Europe and the United States. It has contingency plans for meeting delivery schedules through plants in industrial zones outside Israel.
But Lautman told Carrison that every business is affected by the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, because it makes investors squeamish about Israel.
Moreover, he points out, Israel is small, the size of New Jersey, and everyone knows someone who has suffered from terrorist attacks.
The theme of everyone being affected was echoed by other executives and managers of companies with facilities and customers abroad and well-secured, largely inaccessible domestic plants. Some are high-tech companies providing cutting-edge terrorist-detection and protection equipment to customers in Europe, Asia and the United States.
Tourism is the Israeli industry hurt worst by terrorism. Yet hotel managers make money with occupancy rates as low as 15 percent. They have had to drastically reduce staffing and the percentage of rooms available. But they insist on providing first-class service.
Their customers are primarily locals: Many Israeli companies provide incentives for employees to vacation in Israel. At the same time, however, they focus marketing efforts on American Jewish organizations and American Christian evangelicals.
Everyone Carrison interviewed who is in tourism criticizes the news media for exaggerating reports of bombings and scaring people into believing that Israel is unsafe. Israeli cities, which have little violent crime other than terrorism, are safer than most European and U.S. cities, tourism businesspeople say.
Nevertheless, from their own descriptions of the continuing suicide bombings and assaults on buses, the horrors of the bombings of Mike's Restaurant, the Bialik Cafe and Dolphinarian nightclub, it is understandable that some venture capitalists and other investors who go to Israel keep their planes ready to leave.
Carrison offers a readable account of a business community thriving under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. And he extracts valuable lessons for businesses in the United States, should the same terrorists trying to sink Israel's economy mount a similar effort here.