The Arab and Muslim world is not interested in democracy — at least not the Western version offered by President Barack Obama and other Western leaders, said President Shimon Peres. That’s a problem for Israel, which, unlike the United States, is surrounded by these democracy-averse Arabs and Muslims.
“There is no chance for political democracy in these countries,” Peres said in a visit to a high-tech venture capital firm on Wednesday. “But if we can’t promote political democracy, we are able to promote the democratization of services, which will help billions of people.”
Peres came to Jerusalem Venture Partners to get a look at how the “democratization of services” works. Peres was brought to JVP, which was founded by Erel Margalit, now a Knesset member for the Labor Party, to hear about the latest in Israeli high-tech and review several start-ups that JVP works with.
The technology that he saw, said Peres, gave him hope that the principles of freedom and free choice will eventually make their way into the consciousness of people all over the Middle East. “There are billions of poor people, people living under oppressive regimes who cannot express themselves,” said Peres. “By democratizing services, you give them an opportunity they didn’t have before, without which they may feel their only choice is to side with terror as a solution to their problems. With technology, they can feel more in control of their lives.” Thus, a “practical democracy,” instead of a theoretical one, will take hold.
Among the companies presenting their technology to Peres was Siano, an Israeli start-up that makes a miniature modem that picks up digital TV signals. Siano CEO Alon Ironi told Peres that the device was especially aimed at young people who were “defying” the industry models of television watching. “Young people today are always on the move and are used to doing everything on devices. They are not interested in being ‘tethered’ to a television set.” Siano’s technology, he said, enabled anyone to watch TV on a phone or tablet, allowing for free TV consumption anywhere, anytime.
“We started doing this in 2005, when there were no tablets or iPhones back then. Erel Margalit was the only person in the world to believe in this vision, and JVP funded us,” Ironi said, paying tribute to his host. “Now we export tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment and technology around the world.” Recently, Ironi said, Argentina had distributed laptops to all high school students in the country — with the caveat that the laptops could be used to receive TV broadcasts. “We were the only ones able to fit the criteria for the tender,” Ironi told a clearly impressed Peres.
Also presenting was a veteran JVP company, CyberArk, today one of the world’s biggest cyberdefense firms. Chen Bitan, head of CyberArk’s Israel offices, presented Peres with a dazzling array of facts about his company: Since it was established in 1999, it has grown to become one of Israel’s biggest cyberdefense companies (second, perhaps, to Checkpoint), with 1,350 customers, including one-third of the Fortune 500 companies and dozens of banks (including Israeli banks). “We help defend them, and make sure they know about potential attacks before they occur,” said Bitan.
CyberArk works by shoring up “privileged accounts,” which he said accounts for most of the security breaches at big companies — but Bitan made sure not to get too technical, as Peres seemed a bit puzzled at some of the concepts. But Bitan did score a point — and a smile — with the president when he compared CyberArk’s work to an area Peres could easily relate to. “We defend a company with cyber-techniques, in the same way a country defends itself physically,” seeking out breaches and closing them up before the cyberenemy is able to take advantage.
Peres seemed most taken with the technology presented by Anyclip, another mature JVP portfolio company — probably because CEO Oran Nauman presented a short film generated by Anyclip’s technology that featured entertaining moments from “presidential” films interspersed with clips of Peres himself. “Everyone watches movies, and everyone has their favorite film moments,” Nauman said. “Our technology extracts these ‘diamonds,’ the video clips that people love, enabling content owners to monetize and benefit from their content.”
By typing in a search term, Anyclip searches movies for appropriate content by extracting and indexing metadata. The search engine allows users to search for any specific moment in any film; the engine can search specific films, or an array of films, for scenes (like “grassy knoll” in “JFK”), actors, favorite lines (searching for “Scarlett” will give you Clark Gable’s famous “Gone With the Wind” line), and so on.
“We look at the video, identify the people and voice, and where it is on the Internet and in the movie,” said Nauman, allowing users to view it, and in some cases manipulate it, depending on the content owners’ conditions. After watching the “presidential” video (which featured clips from dozens of movies that had presidents, from “Nixon” to “Mars Attacks!”), interspersed with clips of Peres from various events, the president had just one comment: “Don’t you have anything that can make me look better?”
As entertaining and innovative as the technology was, it was the second part of the program that really caught Peres’s interest. JVP has for years run programs in schools in poor neighborhoods in Jerusalem, with staff members and volunteers acting as mentors for kids, helping them with schoolwork, tests, social issues, and so on. Students are enrolled in the program when they are in fourth grade, and they continue with it through high school graduation.
“We give them the confidence to believe that they can succeed,” Margalit told Peres. Over the past decade, some 22,000 kids have gone through the program, Margalit said. “If a single private company can do that, I am sure a government can do the same thing in 10 years for 2 million children,” he added.
Peres encouraged JVP to continue with its work, which encompasses both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods in the city. “There are tens of thousands of Arab kids in this city who feel they cannot get ahead. Education is the most important thing,” Peres said. “The exit from ignorance is the exit from poverty. I believe that all children in Israel should begin learning English at age three. This by itself will almost guarantee an escape from poverty,” Peres said, since by the time they get to advanced grades, students will have an important tool they will need to get ahead in the high-tech world.
Something else that Israel should do for kindergarten-aged – and even younger — children from poor families, is to “give them food. “In order to ensure that a child is getting the right food, the government should give free food to children at that age. The money the government gives in child allowances is often used for other purposes than to feed children. By giving food instead we will ensure that the children get what they need.”
Israeli technology, the President said, has the power to make a major difference in the daily lives of billions of people. “The work you are doing with the children matches the work you are doing in the technology area, democratizing services and enabling more people to take advantage of modern life,” Peres said. “They are now selling tablets in China for $50, so for $50 million you can get one in the hands of a million kids, and this will change their lives,” he said.
“I want Israel to lead this revolution,” Peres added. “We are the right people to do it. When they ask me what is the Jews’ biggest contribution to the world is, I tell them that it is we were born to be dissatisfied. Jews are never happy with anything, and always feel they have to fix things. This group at JVP is a great example of this.”