As a mischievous teenager, I was berated by my grandmother for showing too much chutzpah. I believe she was using the original meaning of the word — insolence. She’d be amused to think that it’s now a word we use to shower praise on someone with the confidence and desire to get things done by strength of will and inventive interpretation of the rules.
Today, chutzpah is not the unacceptable face of human nature, but one of its essential qualities, especially in business. With it, deals get done, jobs are secured, partnerships brokered, fortunes made.
Perhaps, then it is no surprise that the true home of digital chutzpah is in an area where gleaming towers have been built in a geographically perilous part of the world, where youthful immigrants have been given unrivalled creative freedoms, and where billions of dollars are pumped into fledgling businesses and placed into the bank accounts of entrepreneurs barely out of university. No, not California: Israel.
No wonder that David Cameron, fresh from being insolently mocked by Angela Merkel and Berlin’s digital leaders for having snail-like broadband connections, leapt on a plane to seek inspiration in Tel Aviv. Both cities are the models upon which our burgeoning digital industry must be based. But it’s the Middle East that’s far more interesting.
Silicon Wadi (it’s a pun; wadi is the Arab word for valley) is home to titans including Intel, IBM, Google, Philips, Microsoft, Motorola and fabulously successful start-ups such as Matomy, Roomer, Waze and Kaltura. It is, in fact, the world’s second most important digital hub and, at only 6,000 square kilometres, is only half the size of the original Silicon Valley. There are more than 700 start-ups in this area alone and, last year, almost $1 billion was invested in companies there.
The financial strength of government and innovative tax breaks are undoubtedly the lessons to be learned from Germany. The unique lessons behind Israel’s success, however, are harder to define, though much more potent.
Immigration is key, of course. Israel is a very young nation, built on successive waves of new immigrants desperate to prove themselves, build a business, repay their faith in a government and system that gave them a chance.
This is especially true of its youth – many feel unburdened by the past and cannot hide their desire to turn their gaze from history towards a gleaming future that must be grabbed with both hands.
Entwined with this is a sense of community. It is ironic that such a core attribute is to be found as far away from Silicon Wadi as it is possible to get.
Kibbutzim teach Israelis (and plenty of pampered north Londoners fortunate enough to spend three months clearing out cattle silos and picking avocados) the qualities of togetherness, openness, assistance, essential to successful start-ups across the planet.
As are a maturity and fortitude that, unfortunately, go hand-in-hand with pain, loss and war. While our children contemplate gap years, those in Israel are compelled to spend years in uniform protecting each other. The subsequent pursuit of fulfilment and success must have a different energy, perspective and vitality after such an experience.
And, crucially, there is chutzpah. Both kinds. Asking why instead of simply accepting. Trying to prove others wrong. Taking risks. Prodding the establishment. Being awkward. Accepting a challenge instead of shying away from it. And having the charisma, determination and guts to get away with it.
The Prime Minister has shown enough of that to re-invigorate Conservatism. Perhaps his trip to Israel will show him how to channel that chutzpah into re-invigorating our economy.