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Hope That Business Can Trump Politics Unites Inter-ethnic Trio

May 27, 2003
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A dozen years ago, when Hisham Jabi heard his cousin Lobnia had been shot and killed by Israeli soldiers, he shuddered with anger and vulnerability.

“Why in the hell did they kill her?” Jabi asks, saying Lobnia’s only crime was nursing her 13-day-old baby on her balcony after curfew.

“I could have done anything violent against Israelis. I was 20, and I was really angry,” says Jabi, now 32. “I could have been a suicide bomber, I swear to God, if Hamas people had come and played on my mind.”

In the years since, Jabi’s feelings about Israel have changed from hatred to understanding — and he credits his business for the shift.

Through an office equipment distribution company he launched in 1993, Jabi formed relationships with Israelis that showed him the human side of his enemy.

Invited to dinner by Israeli colleagues, he “started to see the beautiful part of Israelis,” Jabi says. “They have problems like us, they have feelings like us, they want to have a state for themselves, they want to protect their kids.”

The discovery “changed my life,” he says.

Jabi’s business experience and his change of heart toward Israel is what he and two Jews are counting on in their new enterprise: offering microloans to young Palestinian men in rural areas who want to start businesses.

The project, called Jozoor — which means roots in Arabic — rests on the theory that if Palestinians are invested in promising businesses, they will be less attracted to terrorism.

Unlike other investments that require stability, “microfinance thrives in a quickly changing environment, since entrepreneurship is based on rapid adaptation to meet market changes,” the company’s Web site says.

The idea that business interests can trump politics also underlay the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. Then, however, Israeli and Jewish attempts to aid the Palestinian economy, and massive infusions of foreign aid, didn’t stop Palestinians from resorting to terrorism to achieve their political goals — even targeting the very joint ventures and industrial zones that were building their economy.

But Jozoor co-founder Bryan Berkett considers Oslo a success.

“In 1999, only a combined 13 Palestinians and Israelis lost their lives, the economy was doing well, and people were too busy making money to care about throwing rocks or trying to overthrow Israel,” he says. “Then with the intifada, for a variety of reasons, you saw both a sharp decline in the economy and a proportional increase in the amount of violence.”

While other organizations, including the United Nations, already have tried microfinance in the region, Berkett claims Jozoor is the only project to target young males, the Palestinian demographic group most often involved in terrorism.

Buoying the Palestinian economy will boost support for the peace process, he says.

Indeed, increasing people’s standard of living may lead to more support for the peace process, according to Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow in terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

However, he added, “if you assume that simply by improving people’s standard of living you will decrease suicide bombing, you’re wrong.”

“Support for the peace process and continued suicide bombings are no longer mutually exclusive,” he says, referring to Palestinian polls that show simultaneous support for both.

In addition, theories positing a linkage between poverty and terrorism have been discredited, Levitt says.

“The drive to commit acts of terror is much more a factor of radicalization of society at the educational, social and political level than it is a factor of personal desperation or poor economic status,” Levitt says — citing, for example, the 19 hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks, men who were neither poor nor desperate.

In any case, Jozoor has drawn together three idealistic young men, each hoping that a brighter future can overcome a troubled history.

For Uri Pomerantz, 21, an Israeli-born American about to graduate from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and computer science, it was the murder of his great aunt.

Sarah Hamburger, 80, was standing at a Jerusalem bus stop on Jan. 22, 2002, on her way to meet her sister — Uri’s grandmother — when Hamas terrorists opened fire.

For Pomerantz, the attack was “kind of like this call that something needs to be done,” he says.

Then there’s Berkett, a 22-year-old graduating from Columbia University this month with a bachelor’s in English.

The grandson of Holocaust survivors and fervid American patriots, Berkett is imbued with the American dream of conquering one’s goals — and the knowledge that the dream of a secure Jewish state helped his grandmother survive Auschwitz.

“Half of that dream has come true,” Berkett says. “We have a Jewish homeland, but it’s not a secure Jewish homeland.”

“As Jews, we need to show Palestinians that they have the power to build a better future,” he says.

Jozoor was spearheaded by Berkett, who has a penchant for entrepreneurship.

While serving as class president as a freshman, Berkett started a company to teach teenagers about banking by having a bank issue them debit cards.

He also founded Toward Reconciliation, an organization at Columbia University to promote regional problem- solving, with the current focus on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.

The program, a competition for students to submit non-political problem-solving ideas, is slated to be implemented across the Ivy League next year.

While studying abroad in Spain last fall, Berkett came up with the concept for Jozoor, emailing his idea to friends around the world.

In California, Pomerantz had a similar idea. A friend who received Berkett’s email put the two in touch.

The two decided to submit their plan to the National Social Venture Competition — which is where Jabi comes in.

Sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia Business School and the Goldman Sachs Foundation, the prestigious contest awards cash prizes and recognition for social-oriented business plans. But it required one of the applicants to be a business student.

A mass email from Berkett led to a circuitous connection with Jabi.

Several dilemmas ensued — such as how to define the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem on their business plan and Web site. In the end, they identified the West Bank and Gaza Strip as “Palestinian territories/Palestine” and did not attach a state to Jerusalem to avoid turning off potential supporters.

Jozoor became a finalist in the prestigious competition, winning $1,000 and pushing the trio to continue their efforts.

But problems remain.

“It’s not always a cake walk,” Pomerantz says of negotiating with Jabi over political details. Instead, they focus on the common goal of investing in Palestinians.

Despite his family’s loss to Palestinian terror, Pomerantz says he wants to “try to make a new beginning.”

The recent spate of terror attacks in Israel — 12 Israelis killed last week in just over 48 hours — “means a solution needs to come that much quicker,” he says.

“I feel that the majority of people on both sides just want a normal life, which is what drives me,” he says — despite his own misgivings or the fact that his Israeli family thinks he “must be on some kind of drugs.”

“It’s that leap of faith you have to make, you know?”

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