50 MILLION Flags Keynote Address by Daniel Birnbaum


Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies Graduation Ceremony
July 5, 2016/29 Sivan 5776

About 6 years ago, my son Nitzan came up to me excitedly saying, “Abba, we’re starting a rock band!” I saw the gleam in his eye. The dream. The passion to become the next Red Hot Chili Peppers, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, whatever – the zeal was there.

Then, one after another, they started knocking on the door of our home in Tel Mond –  the guitarist with his amplifier, the bass player, a singer, and, as I recall, some kind of wind instrument. They all, with Nitzan on his drums, began to play. They were in the basement, and I was one storey up. I heard them play, and believe me, they were awful. It was painful to the ear, and although I left them to it, I felt some fatherly responsibility to intervene. I do not know much about music, but I went down the stairs and said, “Guys, guys, come here a minute.” They gathered round, and I said, “To make great music, you need three things.”

Believe me, I had no idea what I was going to say next.

“First – you need individual ability.” And they all nodded vigorously. “Each one has to be the best, the very best, that he can be on his instrument.” They continued to nod; they understood. “Next,” and now the words were flowing, “you have to have group ability. You need to listen to one another, to give space to one another, to play in harmony, not to just make noise.” This, too, they understood. Then I got stuck. One should be careful when stating that a number of things are to follow when one hasn’t planned what to say. But I had said ‘three things,’ and as I thought of what to say next, they came closer, their eyes open wide in anticipation. “Attitude,” was the word that came out of my mouth. One of them asked, “What’s ‘adidude?’” How do you explain the meaning of ‘attitude’ to an eleven-year old boy?

I answered, “It’s wearing a baseball cap backwards. An unbuttoned shirt. A big chain. It’s ‘yo, yo!’” Upon which they started to yell to one another, “yo, yo!” and ran to their instruments to play. And they were still awful. I left the basement.

Last week, my friends, that drummer boy, Nitzan, graduated from the Jazz track of the Thelma Yellin School of the Arts, with a four- year scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston. He gave up the scholarship to serve in the army, but at his graduation ceremony, he said to me, “Abba, you remember when we were playing in the basement?” I said “Yes, do you?” He replied, “Yes – individual ability, group ability and attitude. Abba – that’s the formula. It’s how I live. You were right.”

Attitude, my friends, is everywhere – in every place, individual, organization, school, company, business, industry. I am proud that at SodaStream we have attitude. I will tell you about some of the things we have done that are beyond the confines of our concern. After all, we are in the drinks business. We supply beverages and we add bubbles to water. That is what we do.

But, about eight years ago, we happened to start employing Palestinians in our plant in Mishor Adumim. Believe me, I was not motivated by Zionism, coexistence or peace, or any such ideal. We simply needed more hands, and Israelis do not always like to work in industry.

The company grew, and we found ourselves employing 500 Palestinians along with 500 Jewish Israelis and another 200 Arab Israelis. That’s 1,200 people, working shoulder to shoulder. Did they kill each other? No. At first, each kept to themselves more or less, in the dining room and on the production line. But over time, people started to become close to one another. There were Palestinian bosses over Jewish workers, and then we started sharing in one another’s holidays. On Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, I found myself carried on the shoulders of dancing Palestinians (and they can dance!). They came to light Chanukah candles with us each year. They stood respectfully when the sirens sounded on Yom Hashoah and Memorial Day. That’s how it was. Some of our kids got to know each other at social events, and became friends on Facebook. Nothing political. Just people. Coexistence.

Then we found ourselves representing Israeli opposition to the boycott and de-legitimization. We opened our plant to regulators, journalists and celebrities. We were visited by people like Alan Dershowitz, Scarlett Johansson, who adopted us and we her, and George Mitchell, the U.S. senator who made peace in Ireland but was not so successful here. But when he saw what was going on in our factory, he said, “SodaStream is doing more for peace than any politicians I know.” Thus we served as a sort of buffer against the de-legitimization of Israel, because we created a different, human reality, proof in the pudding of the possibility of coexistence. This was a great help in Israel’s fight against the boycott.

I appeared before the U.S. Congress last year, to promote legislation that was passed at the federal level, to block the boycott economically, and recently, some states in the U.S. have passed laws against the boycott. The last to do so, just in recent weeks, was New York State, which legislated a policy of not investing in activities associated with the boycott. Then we sued BDS in the French Supreme Court, and won. This was the only suit brought against BDS, at our expense. We also appeared at the U.N. last month. All this, by the way, is not part of my job description. Yet, no one thanked us. To the contrary – I was cast as an enemy of the State of Israel, because I acted as its representative and portrayed a different picture of coexistence, one that is not aligned with the current government’s tone, which perpetuates and fans the flames of the crisis. It is possible to do otherwise  and that is our attitude at SodaStream.

Six months ago I met with a well-known media advisor in the field of finance. His name – I was granted permission to use his name – is Moti Sharf. In our first meeting, he asked me, “Tell me, Daniel, to what extent does SodaStream wish to minimize its Israeli identity in the world?”  I was stunned by the question. I said, “Why do you ask?” He explained that most of the Israeli companies he represents – and there are many – want to do so, because it hurts their business. I told him, “Moti, we are proud to be Israeli, and to label our products ‘Made in Israel,’ because they are proudly made inIsrael. Of the 50 million items we sell each year, most are made in Israel. Each time we sell something, we plant a blue and white flag in someone’s home someplace in the world. Whether in Tokyo or Auckland, Stockholm or London, New York or Rio de Janeiro – our flag is there. And we touch a family’s heart with a positive message – not one of crisis or terror. Our message is about the environment, health, design, technology and satiating thirst.”

At SodaStream, we have 50 million flags – and each one of you has a flag. Is your flag blue and white? Or have we begun to adopt a different banner, a white flag of surrender and apathy? We are a relatively apathetic people. Why do we not cry out when we see injustice before us? How many Esti Weinstein’s will we have? How long will we continue to bicker over which Jews own the Kotel? How much longer will we alienate American Jewry? When will this country grant rights to pluralistic Judaism? We remain quiet.

In this context, we cannot ignore the weekly Portion, Hukkat. Not only because I grew up in Midreshet Sde Boker, on the edge of Nahal Zin, where the story of Hukkat took place; and not because I was privileged as a boy to attend Ben Gurion’s funeral. It is because of what happened at that spot. Israel was in their 40th year of wandering in the desert, about to enter Canaan, and tragedy struck. Miriam, Moses’ sister, dies, and with her passing, the water source – Miriam’s well – dries up. The children of Israel become nervous, and pressure Moses. God says to Moses, “Take your staff and Aaron your brother, gather the people, speak to the rock and water will come forth.” But that is not what happens, as the familiar song goes. Instead, Moses gathers the people, takes his staff, and says: “Listen here, you rebels” – yes, rebels, indicating the seeds of the future of the children of Israel and their leaders in Canaan. Each one of you here is such a leader. “Listen, you rebels, will I draw water for you from this rock?” Do I detect a cynical note in Moses’ words? A lack of faith? A fit? Perhaps he is fed up? “And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff.” How many times? Twice! “And great water poured forth, and the people drank, and their cattle.”

God was annoyed; this is not what he asked of Moses. There are many commentaries on why Moses was punished. Rashi explains that he was punished because he simply struck and did not speak. Ramban states that Moses lost patience with the people. Ibn Ezra says that he neglected to praise God after the miraculous appearance of the water. We are all taught from an early age that Moses was not permitted to enter the Land because he hit the rock. It is written: “And God said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘Because you believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel’ – i.e., you took away my miracle; you didn’t believe in Me – ‘therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’”

Was this punishment too severe? We were all raised on this dilemma, and we always pitied Moses. It just didn’t seem just – after a lifetime of service, not to merit entering the Land. But I wish to raise a different question: Why did Aaron deserve to be punished? What did he do wrong? He did nothing. He was not even asked to speak. Yet he is punished with death, for he dies soon after, at Hor Hahar. He ascends the mountain, gives his clothes to his son, and dies. Why? He did nothing!

But this is precisely why Aaron was punished – for doing nothing. Moses hit the rock not once but twice, and Aaron did nothing to stop him. Why did he not cry out, “Brother, what are you doing?” Why did he not grab his arm? Why did he not speak himself to the rock? He did nothing. He was apathetic. And for his apathy, he was punished.

My friends, are we apathetic? Or are we alert and active? Prof. Doron Bar spoke about criticism being part of our culture, part of Israeli heritage. Do we release our criticism and voice it, to bring about change, as agents of change, as leaders, as a light in the State of Israel and the Jewish people? Or have we become indifferent?

I wish to conclude by fast-forwarding to a recent experience I had in the holy city of Tel Aviv. Three weeks ago, I attended a jazz performance by my son. I am not in any way a jazz aficionado, but I am a fan of my son, so if he is performing, I make every effort to be there. The performance was at a place called Beit Ha’amudim, and those in the know are aware that this is the hangout of jazz players in Israel. World renowned jazz musicians perform there. It accommodates all of 40 people, and I always stand at the back. As I stood, I noticed a blackboard that listed the cocktail of the day or some such item, and then I saw a quote that hit me like a punch to the gut. It was a quote by Miles Davis, famous Afro-American jazz player who died 25 years ago. This is what it said: “Anyone can play the note, the note is 20% – it’s the attitude of the mother______ who plays it, that makes the 80%.” Eighty percent is attitude. And that closed the circle for me that began with the story from 6-7 years ago.

I want to say to each of our graduates: You have acquired new tools for your personal toolbox. You have studied at the leading, the best, Institute of Jewish Studies in the world. You have upgraded your personal abilities. You have acquired group abilities – you have studied together in hevruta, you have honed your sensibilities and learned about things beyond yourselves, in society, the country, the Jewish people and the world. But, my friends, the attitude is up to you. You must decide to take these tools and use them to release from within the courage to be heard, to criticize with respect and in an upbeat tone; in a loud and clear voice, to make a better country, a better society for our children, a better world. Good luck to you all.

(English translation Penina Goldschmidt.)

Daniel Birnbaum is CEO of the Israeli company SodaStream and active member of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies Executive Committee.  

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