Saurabh Sharma, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in environmental studies at Tel Aviv University, wants to develop eco-friendly solutions to manage municipal waste in his native India.
Peter Jiang, a one-year exchange student at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, hopes to promote Jewish and Israel studies at Chinese universities upon his return to Beijing.
Vietnam’s Linh Ha, a senior at the Eastern Mediterranean International School in Ramat Hasharon, is passionate about sharing Israel’s startup experience with the world. She recently helped write a documentary about Israeli education produced by VTV1, Vietnam’s national TV channel.
The three are among 11 promising young leaders from eight countries enrolled in the Israel-Asia Center’s 2016-17 Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship program — a program now in its sixth year.
“As a Vietnamese studying in Israel, I see a huge lack of information about Israel in Asia in general, and in Vietnam in particular,” said 18-year-old Linh, the program’s youngest fellow ever and clearly one of its most enthusiastic.
“People don’t know really what’s going on there, what makes Israel as a startup nation. I feel it’s my responsibility to fill this gap and to bring more information about this country back home,” she said. “There’s just so much to learn about Israel: the innovation, entrepreneurship, mentality and the chutzpah.”
Linh spoke last month at a Tel Aviv reception marking the conclusion of the 2016-17 fellowship program, attended by about 50 diplomats, dignitaries, business leaders and others, including Mark Sofer, Israel’s former ambassador to India.
“Tonight, we’re completing the sixth year of that program,” said Rebecca Zeffert, founder and executive director of the Israel-Asia Center (IAC). “We’ve put 62 people through the program from 12 different countries — including countries that have no diplomatic ties with Israel such as Indonesia and Malaysia. Our alumni are heading up the Asia operations of Israeli companies and vice versa, establishing Asian accelerators in Israel, working for Israeli embassies in Asia, and setting up Israel-Asia ventures.”
Collectively, she said, these alumni have organized more than 60 delegations of investors and journalists, launched 10 Israel-Asia ventures, coordinated 51 conferences and events, and secured tens of millions of dollars of investment from Asia in Israeli companies.
“When we first founded the Israel-Asia Center, we were thinking about how we could make a real impact,” said Zeffert, who launched the Jerusalem-based nonprofit in 2009. “If Israel is to develop long-term strategic partnerships with countries in Asia, we need to invest in the very people who’d be driving that relationship forward in the years to come — whether in business, government, culture, education or innovation.”
She added: “Many Asian students who choose to come and study in Israel were living in foreign students’ bubbles on campus and didn’t have access to high-level professional networks. They were going back to their home countries, entering senior positions in their fields, but their connections to Israel were being lost.”
To remedy that situation, for the past six years, the IAC has been training a select number of young Asians on an annual basis who show potential to be future leaders in their fields. The eight-month comprehensive program runs in parallel to their existing studies, she said, and includes seminars with government officials, diplomats and business executives as well as skills workshops, field trips, networking events, mentorships and one-on-one consultations.
“This program generates trust, mutual understanding and partnerships for life,” Zeffert said. “These are young people committed to strengthening Israel-Asia relations.”
In his keynote speech, Sofer, who became head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Asia-Pacific Division after his post in India, said Israel took a conscious decision 15 years ago to “pivot toward Asia” — which accounts for 30 percent of Earth’s land mass and 60% of its population.
“It’s clear to all of us that Asia is the present and the future,” he said. “China and India together have 2.8 billion people, but there are other huge countries in Asia,” like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, with hundreds of millions of people. But unlike Europe, which is more or less a monolithic bloc, “when you hit Asia, you hit a complete and utter heterogeneous bloc, and it’s very difficult to find the lowest common denominator.
“Israel urgently needs people who speak Mandarin, Japanese and other Asian languages and Israel has still a long way to go in developing its relations with these countries, said Sofer, who’s been named Israel’s next ambassador to Australia. Israel established diplomatic relations with China and India only in 1992.
“We are still in the process of learning,” he noted. “These relationships are fairly new; 25 years in the history of China or India is a blip.”
Larry Luxner is a Tel Aviv-based journalist.