Insijam’s ‘Arabist’ founder helps Jews and Arabs do business

Yosef Mahfoud Levi (Credit: Yosi Levi)

Insijam founder Yosef Mahfoud Levi believes Israelis can sell cyber-security services, food technology and advanced agriculture to the 422 million consumers of the Arab world.

Because of bureaucracy, an Israeli company will find it easier to do business in Rabat than Nablus, Levi told The Jerusalem Post. Present on both sides, such bureaucracies prevent Israelis and Palestinians from working together and turning a profit.
After attempting, and failing, to sell his products in the Gulf states, a British cosmetic manufacturer contacted Insijam (Harmony) for help.

“I knew a Palestinian businesswoman in the West Bank in that market and offered her samples,” Levi explains. A joint meeting was eventually held in Tel Aviv and today the products are sold in several Arab markets.

Insijam offers a unique blend of educational workshops, a social network and impact economy values.’

“I believe that every Jewish person living here should know Arabic,” Levi says. “I teach in Givat Haviva, which is great because this is where I learned standard Arabic myself.” Levi also teaches in Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Arabic.

Born to a Yemenite family, Levi grew up speaking Arabic in that dialect. Unlike European languages, where people use the same language to speak and write, Arabs speak in a dialect and write in standard or “pure” Arabic (al-fusha). Levi already spoke Arabic, but he needed to expand his writing skills and lose the “oddness” of his speech.
“Like many Jewish people who arrived here from the Arab world I look Arab,” he says. “So you can imagine how confusing it is for an Arab-Israeli to see someone similar to himself speaking Yemenite. When I first met people, I had to explain why I spoke ‘strangely.’”

Levi spent hours speaking with Arab-Israelis from the North and then developed an interest in the dialect used by Bedouin in the South.

“Bedouins are, to some extent, the ‘purest’ of the Arab speakers,” he says. This is because Arabic, as the name informs us, came out of Arabia to eventually reach Egypt, North Africa and even Spain. The Bedouin of the South hail from that region.”

Levi believes in the power of language. “When you speak in a language a man understands, you reach his head,” he quotes Nelson Mandela, who spoke Xhosa. “When you speak his language, you reach his heart.”

LEVI TOOK Arabic studies at Tel Aviv University and realized he wants to be an Arabist, not an Orientalist. While many Orientalists speak excellent Arabic, they offer insight into Arab politics and economy. Arabists, on the other hand, offer insights into culture, language and society. This is why he added C.L.S. to the company name.

“When I was in England, I met a Saudi who dealt in fashion,” Levi says. “He complimented me for speaking such fine Arabic and wanted to know if there are any elements in Israeli fashion he could buy.” Intrigued, Levi arranged a connection to Israeli companies and a deal was struck. He realized his unique set of skills is perfectly suited for such a mission.

“Some Israeli products enjoy a lot of prestige in the Arab world, like cybersecurity,” he explained. “Everybody wants that and nobody minds that it’s from Israel. But there is also a lot of interest in Israeli agriculture and the food industry.

“Language is the key to everything,” he points out. “An Israeli might come to a meeting unshaven and in shorts because that is our culture. To an Arab businessman this will seem very unprofessional, no matter how good the pitch is.”
Another example is body language. “Israelis usually shake hands,” he says. “In Arab culture there is an expectation that there will be greater physical contact, such as hugging and kissing – especially if a deal is struck. We teach Israelis how to behave and what to do.” Levi also teaches Israeli culture to Arab businessmen.

He offers the example of a business meeting between an American and a Palestinian who hosted them in his home. The Palestinian walked outside with them to their car after the meeting. The American realized he forgot his phone and asked to retrieve it. The result was the host insisted to bring the phone to the guest and the guest insisted to bring the phone himself so as not to impose on the host.

Levi believes in impact economy values, offering presents to hospitalized children during Muslim, Jewish and Christian holidays to spread a message of hope and openness.

“Knowing the culture of the other person,” he says, “is the best way to find a path into his or her heart.”

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