Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tel Aviv at Night (Pictures) (part 3)

New park and residential buildings in Givatayim. Developers are taking advantage of every open area. City planners balance residential need with green spaces / © 2009
Azrieli group, builders of the Azrieli center in Tel Aviv (three buildings on the left) recently bought the Givatayim Mall (long building in the center) from the Africa-Israel group which has been selling off properties to repay bank notes / © 2009
Bomb diffusion robot returning to it's transport van. Security in central Israel is still a serious task with suspicious packages handled safely by bomb diffusion police units / © 2009
A newly renovated building on Ha'yarkon street in Tel Aviv and another Bauhaus building going renovation. Ha'yarkon street right on the sea was neglected for decades. With new investments in rental properties Tel Aviv is getting a much needed face lift / © 2009

Real Estate in Israel: A New Era of Growth, Investment in Rental Properties

Tel Aviv apartments are being bought by Israelis for investment. They are rented at higher prices than in the past. There is also a rise in apartment renovation both by investors and by owners. This trend reflects a shift of money from investment in financial instruments which started two years. Mutual and hedge funds are shrinking while investment Real Estate is growing. I believe this is an opposite trend than the American and European economies, where Real Estate was booming for many years until the bubble burst. Usually a long trend in investment is a good sign for the future strength in the economy. The new investors in apartments are also raising rental prices. While rental price rise in Tel Aviv is mostly seen as a negative economic trend, there is not much said about the huge amount invested by individuals. Israelis have been pushed to own their own apartments ever since the state was founded in 1948. This desire to own your own apartment came at a cost of a rental apartment market specially in Tel Aviv. But like cities all over the world, there is a need for good rental apartments. Since the rental market was not a strong investment destination for Israelis, rental apartments are usually in bad shape and are owned by out of towners.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Israel's Business Moral Weakness: Are We Learning ?

Reading the business papers the last few months in Israel and there are disproportionate number of articles reporting immoral executive behavior. I am worried about two moral issues: greed and fraud. Greed is a new accusation in Israeli business circles. Until this generation the country's businesses had a small fraction of the money we see today. Greed without the ability to "get the money" simply does not work. Fraud is also related to the amount of money involved but goes even deeper into the psyche and moral history of Israel. Let's look at greed in this article and cover fraud later.

Israel's incredible economic growth has brought a whole new class of problems. The first noticeable trend is a concentration of the money in a small group of people. Like the proverbial south America banana republic, Israel is made up of a few individuals and families who own a majority stake in companies and Real Estate. This is the first nouveau riche group in our long history as people. This new group now wants to live like the rich in the US and Europe. With life of luxury comes desire for more. As few succeed, many want to follow them. A race for more and to beat the "guy next door" results. Greed is the driving emotion to other forms of financial corruption.


Ajami (Movie) Dark Life in Jaffa

Ajami the movie is playing in Israeli theaters. [imdb] [] [FaceBook page] It is a collection of stories from the Ajami neighborhood in Jaffa. Jaffa being part of Tel Aviv officially (managed by the city) is an Arab city with a life all it's own just minutes away from central Tel Aviv. The stories depict a few young men and how their lives intertwines with each other and the outside world. The characters sneak into Israel from the Palestinian territories, get involved in drugs, find disapproval of parents in a Muslim and Christian love affair and overall struggle for a better life. While the plot was dark, and the acting iffy, the look into a life of Arab Israeli life was fascinating.

The movie is getting mixed reviews in Israel. The topic and presentation of an Arab language movie in the mainstream Israeli society is as oddity by itself. Arab and Jewish life, even here in Tel Aviv is separate in most respects. The interaction of the young heroes is just with Israeli police and a mention of a worker from the Palestinian territories losing a job with no place to stay at night (he worked for an Israeli boss.) For most Israelis the topic is hard to digest. We seem to be tired of stories about how difficult life is for Muslims in Israel. Ajami focused just on the dark side of life, which may have been intentional. Nobodies can deny the difficulty in a life we rarely see, while fictional, it probably does represent the life for some young Arabs in Jaffa. The scenes of an unofficial Arab court and the conversations among the young men looking for help from the big family head, Italian mafia style and even the get together of friends criticizing one for leaving Jaffa to live with a Jewish girlfriend, are a peek at a life seldom seen. There is pride mixed with the fear. There is love and passion hidden from family and the public. There is friendship and acceptance of life, yet fighting for respect and the right to stand up for justice.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Israeli Tech On Hold: VCS, Exits & Eggs

It is not a secret that the Israeli technology sector is taking a nap. A big component of Israel's success in the technology sector was start-ups. Israel's entrepreneurs and engineers got into the business of starting up companies and selling them to American companies. This business has been going for over 10 years until about 2005. American venture funds bring investment capital from Wall Street and American retirement funds. Israelis start companies and usually sell them to American companies. The return in this sector is usually higher than the stock market. Everyone is happy. Until something changed!

In 2006, 2007 and 2008 there have been very few "exits". 2009 is not much better. These are sales of companies or initial public offerings in the stock market. Exit(s) is a buzz word in the Israeli start-up sector. It is what Israeli entrepreneurs seek more than anything else: cash for a 5 to 10 year hard work. Selling a company brings good returns to the investors and does not involve the process of taking a company public. But the shift in technology from software and networking to Internet and software services has slowed down the investment-development-exit train. Established venture capital funds were dealt a blow, many small ones are completely gone. Entrepreneurs in many tech sub-sectors needed to reformulate their ideas and start working on new prototypes. What Israel can teach the world is how quickly change happens. In US and other large markets change does not have to happen as quickly. The market's momentum can hold up companies and financial pipelines. But then they eventually crash. In Israel small scale reveals quickly what changed and where the new developments are going.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Breslev Spirituality: Young Jewish Orthodox in Tel Aiv

Once in a while, in the evenings mostly, on a busy street in Tel Aviv you will suddenly see a white van with speakers on top. When the van is moving they play a peculiar hip-hop music with a Klezmer flavor (old eastern European Jewish style music.) When traffic lights turn red or when there is a convenient place to stop two young men dressed in loose white pants and shirt hop out and dance on the street. The scene is a bit like what the hippies looked like in the 60's in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco without the flowers and the Indian patterns. This is one form of communication from the breslev community in Tel Aviv (see also Breslev.) The Breslev community, followers of the Rabbi Nachman of Brezlov, have organized into loose groups and attract mostly young men from non-religious background. Their message is based on the writing of Rabbi Nachman from Breslev who preached lightness and happiness in being Jewish (late 1700's to early 1800's). At the time Jews in eastern Europe aspired to become great Torah masters. Rabbi Nachman believed in living Jewish life with a purpose based on spirituality not ability as a proficient Torah student or in practicing Judaism. This message appeals to many young Jews who do not have the background or knowledge to join traditional Jewish communities.


Shift Your Image of Tel Aviv (Part 3): Technology Business, Seminars

Israel has a great technology reputation. Intel Israel and the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) give us a reputation of solid and innovative technologists. There are about 20 internationally known Israeli companies, some connected with bigger American companies. Less known is the rest of the Israeli technology world from top ranked education in the Technion to government driven start-up funds. Meetings among Israeli technologists is an interesting local phenomena. Most people who come from other countries wonder how we can have productive meetings that satisfy everyone. In 2008 the hi-tech sector in Israel went through a very low period, many meetings were canceled or required an entrance fee. As the market recovers, there is somewhat of a recovery and the meetings are back "on". Meetings and conferences are usually free to attendees, they are paid for by exhibitors (suppliers to the specific field.) I went to the IT-SMF yearly show where this year they awarded a prize to the company most successful in implementing ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) - a set of procedures and practices to improve IT quality. This is the first time the group honored a company with a prize. There were three contenders: Pelphone, the city of Petach Tikva and the international support group at Comverse. Pelephone won the award this year with the other two getting second place (I guess they scored close.)


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Shift Your Image of Tel Aviv (Part 2): Virtual Peace, Like London or Paris or Rio

The words peace and Tel Aviv do not fit in the same sentence too well. You will not find them in the daily BBC report on Israel. Israeli political corruption has taken the place of negotiation with Arabs, so politicians do not speak of peace much. Hate speech from Nasralla or Ahmadinejad will certainly not have Tel Aviv and peach in the same sentence. But if you think a little more creatively than a global news media, London, Madrid, New York and Paris have experienced more violent events the last five years than Tel Aviv. From a personal perspective, Tel Aviv is safer than many western cities. There is more security here than just about anywhere (OK Baghdad excluded.) Private security guards are everywhere. You can not enter a mall, bank, train station or school without opening your bag or purse and passing a metal detector. Palestinians or for that matter any Arab looking male under the age of 50 no longer work or shop anywhere in central Israel. Cars with Palestinian license plates are as rare as a Ferrari anywhere in Israel. I call it virtual peace. This is like virtual security in war torn countries where sections of cities are walled off and private security forces protect anyone that values his life. If you look at Tel Aviv and all of central Israel, essentially we have the same situation. Just that our "wall" is a fence around the country. Here we are safe, we don't worry and we play and enjoy life.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Retirement In Tel Aviv (Part 2): Keeping Fit at 70 (or 37)

You see people of all ages in Tel Aviv. In contrast to retirement communities in many places, people stay in the city and actually some people come to retire here. On the streets, in restaurants, in symphony halls, there are young and old. Unlike many cold climate cities, Tel Aviv is a great place to grow old and keep fit. To some keeping fit is a walk by the sea or a swim in the morning surf. To some it is getting out into a bustling city and seeing people going about their daily activity. Older people are not just kept in special homes or in a certain part of town, they are part of everything here. This is a second in a series of articles about retiring in Tel Aviv (see first article.)

One retired American with family in a Florida retirement community says that he would be dead by now if not for Tel Aviv. On visits to the US he sees friends and family sitting around pools half the day. They need help getting into town just to shop or see a doctor. Most can not drive and are too far away from anything, without convenient public transportation they are essentially prisoners in a very nice building complex. In contrast at 72 he is getting round on foot and with public transportation. He goes to Jerusalem by bus or train, about an hour ride. Living in north Tel Aviv he has access to anything he can imagine. Even heading to Ikea to shop for furniture a van service called sherut (service) gets him within 10 minute walk in Natanya. His suspicion of "being dead by now" when looking at Florida retirees is a bit of exaggeration, but it does reveal an important factor in the quality of life. For the average retiree the quality of life in Tel Aviv is better specially when it come to health. Another American couple spends the summers in Tel Aviv and winters in Arizona. Tel Aviv summers are actually cooler than Arizona. They loves getting around by car and seeing the country. Most days they just walks around Tel Aviv and enjoy the variety of activities the city has to offer. From movies to museums, if you have time during the day, attendance is light and range of activities is endless. This couple clearly sees health as a combination of physical and mental activity. Israel's culture and lifestyle is an eye opening experience to many, this can help keep you fit mentally and spiritually.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Tel Aviv Wants To Be Amsterdam: In Bicycling

Tel Aviv is a great place to bicycle. It is flat, the weather is great most of the year and most roads are bicycle friendly. But people here do not get around by bicycle. They prefer cars, mopeds, taxis or buses, anything motorized. There is even a trend for electric scooters as a commuter vehicle. City hall decided to promote bicycling. There are good reasons for people to get around by bicycles, after all in Amsterdam and Beijing you see more bicycles than taxis. A recent article in the Globes, a business paper, reported of city government push for more bicycle commuting. As you can imagine, what government decides is not exactly what people will do. So is turning Tel Aviv into Amsterdam in bicycle transportation just a matter of some PR? What makes the Chinese and Dutch take to the road by bike while Israelis take taxis or buses?

While Tel Aviv is a great place to bicycle, Tel Avivian's love their cars and mopeds (called Tus-Tus.) Cars are somewhat of a new phenomena for most people in Israel. Until the 1990's car prices were too high for most Israelis due to 100% import duty. When taxes were reduced to 50% and then 30%, cars became affordable. Tus-tusim (plural for mopeds) are a perfect vehicle for city commuting and are preferred to bicycles, it's a bike except there is that engine. Moped riders ride just like bicyclists, pass between cars in intersections and ride and park on side walks. So what makes these Dutch and Chinese pedal instead of moped? It's hard to say. Tel Avivians are probably just as practical as Chinese. Tel Aviv is just as flat as Amsterdam and probably has as much free parking. For the most part biking on the streets is safe. When streets are too crowded there are sidewalks, which most walkers do not mind sharing with bikes. The only real problem with bicycles in Tel Aviv is theft. Which leads one to believe that someone out there wants the bikes. Which means that they should want to bicycle around town. Actually, the theft seem to come from the teenage market (and teenagers themselves.) Teenagers seem to want expensive bikes and do not mind a slightly used one, so they buy or steal them. Police does not seem care and bicycle registration programs are not promoted enough or encouraged. A good lock and some common sense where to lock your bike is usually enough to prevent theft.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hotel Location in Tel Aviv: What to Do and Where to Do It

Looking for a hotel in Tel Aviv is easy, a google search of "hotels tel aviv" returns 3,580,000 results and 11 advertisements. All this action is driven by Google's search and advertising system. People search for hotels and therefore bloggers and web site developers write about hotels. In comparison "restaurants tel aviv" gives only 1,880,000 results and 3 advertisers, most pages are written by locals for locals, "rock climbing tel aviv" gives 18,200 results and "judo tel aviv" give 55,900 results. But google and most of the hotel sites usually don't tell you much about where you are and where to find that fun and interesting "stuff". Stuff you can do, places to see, experience like the native Tel Avivians. To hard core bikers and surfers, niche sport sites can be a better place to get information on hotels near where you are going to be doing your activities. Other information such as experience with a rental business or where to find a diving partner may direct you to the part of town where to stay. I spoke with a SCUBA instructor and he explained how the one rental shop on the water may not be the best choice for experienced divers. Although most divers come to Israel for Eilat on the Red Sea, there is still good diving around Tel Aviv, so ask a local diver. There are also groups that will give you information and even let you tag along when they dive together. There are other places to dive just north and south of the city, in 45 minutes you can be in Caesarea and dive among Roman columns from a 2000 year old pier.

If you are looking for a hotel in Tel Aviv, you may want to find other things first. On a business trip and want to Kayak? Make sure you can get to the Tel Aviv marina just off Gordon street. You can also ask someone in a nearby hotel for a boat reservation. If you stay far away from the beach it may take more time and trouble than it's worth during morning traffic. The same goes with Judo and rock climbing. There is a rock climbing wall in the Ha'yarkon park, if you are staying in the very north section of the beach area it's a walk away. Would you like to start your day biking or running in the park? Ha'yarkon park runs along the whole city from the Mediterranean eastward through Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak. It has long paths, is well maintained and even serious runners on most mornings would appreciate the scenery.


Monday, October 5, 2009

Gilad Shalit's Plea for Freedom: Nervous, Quiet, Worried in Tel Aviv

Unless you have been living under a rock in Tel Aviv you definitely hear, see and FEEL the quiet nervous tension here. This quiet two minutes and forty second plea for freedom was streamed on TV and computer screens like a thunder bolt in mid-summer. The first few seconds after he finished was the most silent Tel Aviv has been in a long time. Than came the whispers and interpretations. What can you say to a prisoner held for four years? What can you tell the family? What should the government do? Tzipi Livni more than two years ago blurted out in anger something like "we are not going to bow down to the Palestinians on the count of one..." Immediately Olmert, Ashkenazi, Barak and everyone you can think of wanted to hit Livni on the head with a baseball bat (OK we don't have baseball here, we can find a bat somewhere.) But there was something to that blurb that is finally sinking in for Israelis and Palestinians: nobody wants to back down and look like a loser. The Israelis are not willing to let murderers out just to be treated like heroes in Gaza. The Palestinians are not willing to settle for not getting everyone out of prison, specially their big heroes. Shalit sits in a hole just beyond our reach. To most at first impression he "looked good". But the way he looked did not calm the nervousness. Just seeing this face reading quietly a simple speech [video/transcript] made everyone's hair stand in the back of his neck.

I think you know things are bad when nobody talks about it. The old white elephant in the middle of the room, the king walking naked in the middle of the street, Shalit still "there" four years later. The situation indicates two big shifts in attitude in Tel Aviv:

1) Israelis are no longer willing to trade Palestinians at any price. If we "JUST" get Shalit without a complete stop to terrorism "they" are not going to get the "very bad ones". (Israelis are not willing to release mass murderers which for the Palestinians are heros)

2) Israelis can be silent and tolerant for a long long time. We can take stress, we can take Iranian presidents on TV, we can take Nasrala and Haniya on TV. We can take silence from Ashkenazi and Bibi... few remember 8 years of shelling from Gaza, Israelis remember.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Linked-In and Facebook in Israel: A Buzzing Business Network

Social networks are buzzing in Israel. Linked-In and FaceBook are two of the most popular destinations for Israelis. Linked-In is a strong entrepreneur and recruiting site with groups focused on technology in Israel. FaceBook is a used more for social causes and leisure activities (parties, social causes, group announcements.) The other sites gaining popularity is Meetup, a service to announce and reserve places in local events. Israeli techies are not new to digital social communication. Up to this wave of WEB20 services blogs and chat boards were the main form of group communication. Blogli.CO.IL is a free blogging service in Hebrew similar to Blogger.COM and WordPress.COM. Message boards like Ynet communities, The Marker Cafe (business and work related), Walla.CO.IL, tapuz.CO.IL (opinions and personal blogging) were the hot destination until today. Google also added a complete Hebrew support to Blogger.COM but that did not seem to attract participation from the other services or create a new set of followers. At this point in time most blogging services are similar enough and to move from one to another does not happen en mass. Israelis are great in following new trends and trying new products. But they are also finicky and tend to latch onto things in a completely unpredictable nature. Remember that these are trends, some come and stay, some go down in flames (quickly.)

If you have an Internet service, a new product or even an idea, think about testing it in Israel. Most Internet users read and write in English well enough to understand new ideas. There is a big Russian and smaller Arab speaking population. They tend to follow the mainstream Israeli (i.e. Hebrew) trends. Other European languages are also spoken here but not in as large number as the other mentioned (Spanish and German are probably the next languages in popularity here.) For the most part the Israeli digital market covers a great deal of professions and interest. Israelis have a good standard of living so many products like electronic gadgets, software and media (movies, music) are consumed in good amount. Finally, Israel has a large population of digital professionals, from designers, to software developers, business entrepreneurs to marketers, writers and editors. This makes the market which is small and manageable a good place to start and deploy ideas quickly.


Night Time Pictures of Tel Aviv: Azrieli Area


Friday, October 2, 2009

Polished Slick Political Speech in Tel Aviv

Tel Avivians recently upgraded their image of slick politically correct speakers. Not by international standards, but certainly by Israeli standards. Israelis for a long time had an image of rough and undiplomatic. Today in fact, Tel Aviv behaves much more like a modern European city than an Israeli Kibbutz from the 1950's. The change from brash, brutally honest, "I don't care what you think of me" to civility is something foreigners notice right away. Specially visitors who have not been here in a decade or two and remember the days when Israelis were on top of the world. In general, Israelis are not particularly interested in politics. In everyday life, you do not hear much political talk, there are just too many other issues to worry about. If you are interested in politics try a few people and see who bites. Tel Avivians are not worried about what they say, so they will tell you what they think. If you need to decode what they say here are a few things I heard recently. Here is a short decode table:

  • I do not understand politics: I am tired of the empty promises before elections and the excuses after.
  • Politics is in my blood: My great uncle was a low level beurocrat in the histadrut (national labor union, at one time representing most workers in Israel.)
  • I follow politics religiously: 1) I watch the news every evening. 2) I hear all kind of things but believe very little until I see real action.
  • Politics is my religion: I vote in most elections and I do not practice any religion regularly.
  • I don't want to hear about politics: 1) I really don't care what politicians say and do. 2) Bring it on, I love talking (arguing) politics.
  • I am not that interested in politics: Politics are a waste of time but if you got an opinion I am sure we can argue about something.