By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Bruce Rauner was sold on Israel long before he put on dual governor’s and saleman’s hats to strengthen Illinois’ ties with the Jewish state via a recent visit.
“Israel is an incredible nation,” said Rauner. “I am a strong, strong advocate for Israel. I am a big Israel lover.”
And if the first-term governor hadn’t already seen Israel in a favorable light via chats with wife Diana, who is Jewish, then he got locked in via a trip as a tourist a few years back. He provided a play-by-play of both journeys in a one-on-one interview with Chicago Jewish News at the downtown Standard Club, where he had just appeared at a business luncheon.
“We’re raising our children Jewish,” said Rauner. “I’m a big believer that we should all know where our roots, our heritage, our traditions and our culture (are from). We took a family trip and we fell in love. The people are awesome. The nation is just incredible.”
Two Rauner offspring could not get enough of Israel on their first trip. Daughter Meg (Margaret) lived at Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev desert, studying sustainability. The kibbutz hosts the Center for Creative Ecology. Son Matthew “absolutely loved it” and stayed a month.
Rauner did not have much time for sightseeing in his latest trip. Offering prayers at the Western Wall and enjoying some good meals were his only breaks from the business of building educational and business ties. The end result could be “tens of thousands of jobs” for Illinois, Rauner said, if the resulting negotiations from the trip are successfully concluded.
“Israel is a world leader in education and entrepreneurship – two keys to prosperity,” he said. “I am a big advocate for a strong and expanding friendship between the people of Illinois and the people of Israel. That’s the reason it’s the nation I wanted to go to on behalf of the University of Illinois.”
The trip built out of Rauner’s announcement that the University of Illinois System will launch the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) in Chicago and the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) by creating research partnerships with world-class universities here and abroad.
U. of I. President Tim Killeen joined the Israeli trade mission. Rauner and Killeen were accompanied by Deputy Gov. Leslie Munger and a staff member. Four other U. of I.-Champaign officials were on the trip. U. of I.-Chicago was represented by Mark Rosenblatt, chairman of the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences.
The traveling party visited Technion, Ben Gurion, Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities. Rauner said university officials already are planning a follow-up trip with an invitation to their Israeli counterparts to come to Illinois.
“We signed memoranda of understanding with all four universities to exchange students and faculty, and to work on collaborative, joint-research projects together,” Rauner said. “The Israeli universities are world-class in fundamental and applied research, and are awesome at using the research to spin into creative companies and businesses.
“The U. of I. is also world class. And when you look at the U. and I. alumni network, the companies they’ve started (YouTube, Netscape, Oracle, ITunes and Tesla Motors, among others), it’s an extraordinary list. What we need to learn from the Israelis is how to have (their) companies be in Illinois. We’d like to have Illinois companies invest in Israel. It should be a mutual win-win.”
Rauner cited Harvard, Yale and MIT as prestigious educational institutions who have been job incubators for New England. He also mentioned Stanford and the University of California-Berkeley in a similar situation for California and Silicon Valley. The U. of I. could be joined by the likes of Northwestern and the University of Chicago much closer to home.
“We partner with the greatest universities in Israel, and that network, that collaboration would create booming technology and entrepreneurship in Illinois,” Rauner said.
He also met with several dozen business owners and entrepreneurs. Specifically, Rauner met with three companies he declined to identify which are interested in expanding to the United States.
“I explained the advantages of coming to Illinois, and they’d be very excited to come to Chicago,” he said of ongoing talks to get the companies to visit the city.
“Illinois has every reason to be the best base for business investment in America. We have the best people, the best location, the best airport at O’Hare, the best transportation network, the greatest universities.”
To cut down the travel time between Chicago and Israel, Rauner said he is presently talking with major airlines to re-establish non-stop flights to Tel Aviv. He raised the possibility of a subsidy with a participating airline.
Rauner said “for sure” the developing Israeli education-business connections could generate the tens of thousands of jobs he projected, a crying need for Illinois, which had slower growth coming out of the Great Recession than surrounding Midwest states. Illinois lost 7,900 jobs in September, but gained 3,400 in October with the unemployment rate dipping to 4.9 percent, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security. Nationally, the October unemployment rate was 4.1 percent.
However, boosting the number of traditional “middle class” jobs remains a challenge. Despite statistically good net job growth over the eight years since the recession’s end, burgeoning on-line companies have severely cut into employment without yet creating a commensurate number of jobs replacing those lost.
Rauner cited industrial history for the lesson plan of the internet onslaught – and the benefit of Israeli-originated jobs for Illinois.
“I remind folks it’s a deep concern,” he said. “Technology or new innovation and change causes massive disruption. It destroys old jobs and old businesses, and creates new ones. The core issue is where our economy is going is around intellectual capital, more brain power and intellectual capital-based jobs, and less based on purely physical presence.
“Israel’s economy is based upon intellectual capital. That’s why they’re thriving. That’s why they’re growing so fast. That’s what we need to do in Illinois. It requires massive investment and improvement in our education system so everyone can participate in this economy to the fullest potential.
“When cars were introduced (a century-plus ago), think about all the blacksmiths, buggy-whip makers and carriage makers who got pushed out of business. Massive unemployment. Then look what the auto industry did (in job creation). The internet is sort of causing a similar kind of disruption of brick-and-mortar retail.
“It’s both a blessing and a curse. We’ve got to help those displaced by innovation and technology get the training and the education to get jobs in the new economy.”
Rauner said the Israelis got a jump on that process.
“In Tel Aviv there are construction cranes as far as the eye can see in all directions,” he said. “It’s extraordinary. A booming tech sector creates other jobs: waiters, cabbies, hotel managers. Two, three, four other jobs get supported by every new job in the tech sector. There will be a huge opportunity if we can compete at the level like Israel does in the tech sector. Illinois is behind where we need to be in the tech sector.
“It’s long-term and it puts us at a dramatically faster growth rate (given successful negotiations). Some of the benefit can be very immediate. It’s going to build and compound over time.”
Rauner also met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for one hour, 20 minutes about economic development. “That was a pretty long, good conversation,” he said, hopefully projecting a near-future trip to Illinois by Netanyahu.
He also “hit it off” with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, whom he described as a “venture capitalist.” Barkat is in talks with Rauner’s staff to visit Illinois.
Israel Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan also met with Rauner, who wants Illinois state police to exchange visits with their Israeli counterparts to further the battle against international terrorism. Security issues were covered in a helicopter tour that took Rauner from Tel Aviv to Israel’s border and over Jerusalem.
At some point, Rauner had to take meal breaks. To listen to his culinary scouting report, perhaps some Israeli-style restaurants can take the place of the vanishing Ashkenaz-style deli scene if Israeli tech pops up in a big way in Chicago and beyond.
“We ate really well,” he said. “The food in Israel is world-class. I went to a lot of great restaurants. The fruit, vegetables were extraordinary. Hummus and couscous. The fresh, healthy kind of style, the Mediterranean style, was fantastic.”
Rauner’s most solemn moment was his visit to the Western Wall. He has attended High Holiday services with Diana Rauner, and has even fasted on Yom Kippur. At the Wall, he boosted his spiritual quotient.
“The rabbi of the Wall prayed together with me,” he said. “It’s really indescribable. It’s a very intense, emotional, personal feeling being at such a sacred location and a special historical site. It was an honor to pray (joining in with several rabbis). We had a very meaningful exchange.”
Overall, Rauner’s lasting impression is one of a country that still has some socialistic societal shreds, but is embracing entrepreneurial methods rapidly.
Going forward, Rauner feels he will have a pipeline to both Netanyahu’s office and the Israel Consulate of the Midwest in Chicago in a “top of priority” issue for his administration. He and Munger, along with a state business development official, will handle Israeli relations personally.
Rauner’s only other foreign trip was to East Asia. Japan has had long business ties to Illinois, but he envisions “Israel overtaking everything” in foreign business relations in upcoming years.
“The only one who is comparable in potential growth is China,” he said. “But China doesn’t have yet the educational component that is so essential like Israel has.
“There is no nation that I know of that has the combination of intellectual capital, education and entrepreneurship like Israel.”
And for someone not born and raised Jewish, Rauner was able to understand all the cultural and religious concepts without having to learn from Square One.
“It’s a personal passion,” he said. “I was born near Wrigley Field and grew up in Deerfield. My friends were all Jewish, and they helped me learn Jewish traditions. I helped them celebrate many Jewish holidays. I’ve learned and followed Israel since the 1960s when I was a student. It’s always been one of the great democracies in the world in one of the most hostile regions that needs democracy.
“I’ve always been an advocate for Israel. Call me a Zionist, absolutely. Israel’s success is the world’s success.”