Osher Perry probably does not sleep, or if he does he must be one heck of a multi-tasker. Service – to his home country of Israel, and to the people in it – has always been a priority for Perry. After 8 years of service in the Navy, he is now an MBA student at Tel Aviv University’s Soafer International Business school. This year, he organized a program called MBA Cares, which promotes ethical business practices and service amongst his fellow business students. And in his “spare time,” he is part of the Nets of Peace initiative, which looks to build economic opportunity for Palestinians in Gaza through aquaculture. Perry took a few minutes to speak about growing up in Gaza, the year he spent sailing around the world, and why peace must grow from the bottom up.
Tell me about your background with service.
Both of my parents work for the security service, and at Friday night dinner they would often talk about security and the country. So I grew up always feeling a responsibility to serve my country. We lived in a communal village in the Northern part of Gaza strip, and in 2005 my families was one of the families evacuated.
The village emphasized communal life, and from a very young age I was an instructor for youth groups, and I coached and when I was 14, I left for a military academy in Haifa, which combines IDF and preparatory school. I studied geography, then served in the navy for 8 years and eventually became second in command for the Navy’s largest ship. During those years, whenever I had the time, I would volunteer in Haifa – with the elderly or as a mentor for kids.
Why did you start the International MBA program at Tel Aviv University?
When I decided to leave the navy, the decision came from a clear understanding that while I enjoyed the work I was doing, it was not where I saw myself in the long run. I would always be a soldier in a way, but wanted to have a wider influence and to expand my horizons. So I too a boat around the world, and had the privilege of seeing many countries. It opened a whole new world for me. Getting an MBA was something I was thinking about in the service, and when I returned from my trip the decision was clear. I realized that an MBA would give me a set of tools I didn’t have.
You started an interesting program while in school called MBA Cares – what is that?
The purpose of MBA Cares is to raise awareness within the business student community about ethical and environmental business practices. We work with four NGOs that do work in different sectors of the community – one works with disabled people, another with kids, and third with the blind community, and one with people who have financial difficulty.
This year we had 16 students participating, and four working with each NGO to help them develop a certain project or area of their operations. The students bring their knowledge of business to the NGOs and help them build their capacity in that way. And the students get a small exposure to the non-profit sector, which could make an impact on how they view business.
Meanwhile, you are also part of an exciting initiative called Nets of Peace. How did you get involved?
Nets of Peace proposes that establishing fish farms in Gaza can help connect the region to foreign business investment and trade. Nets of Peace started as a project of students from the Columbia Business school in cooperation with the UN. One of my friends told me about it and asked me to join because of my passion to work in the field, my experience with the Gaza area, and the exposure I had to our exploitation of the seas and the environmental impact of over-fishing while I was traveling by boat.
We wanted to develop a project that will help answer both the high unemployment rate and the food shortage in the Gaza strip. Nets of Peace encourages foreign companies to invest in the region to help bring Palestinians to a higher economic state without significant an Israeli involvement.
In the past 50 years of the Israel and Palestinian conflict, it has been Israel’s responsibility to promote Palestinian economic advancement – and we’re not doing such a good job. We spoke to many people and heard examples of Israeli-run projects and businesses that just failed when conflicts like the second intifada and the war with Lebanon broke.
When I was living in Gaza, you would see vans bringing thousands of Palestinian workers to Israel to work. But then we closed the gates and limited their permits to work here. We said, “Okay, here is your land now give us a break.” It’s just not working, and it’s not about land but about the ability to provide for one’s family and do it with pride. That’s what we’re trying to promote. We recognize how deep the conflict goes and think if we bring in resources from countries not directly involved with the conflict, it could be a model that actually brings about change.
And why did you focus on aquaculture over other opportunities?
This is the best business opportunity. Fish farms don’t take much land, the Mediterranean is right there and Palestinians have a legacy of fishing and being seafarers. And the resulting food and jobs are very much needed in Gaza. The three phases of the project include the fish farm, and education and training center that will train Palestinians on entrepreneurship and technology, and a center for the youth.
What does it feel like to work on this project, considering your family’s history in Gaza?
The interesting thing is, the place where we hope the industrial park will go is exactly where my family’s house used to be. But you can choose to look back and dig into the past and be bitter, or you can look forward and say, “Lets work to make things better.” I’m not living there anymore and don’t expect to come back to my old house – so let’s make something else work.
Nets of Peace is part of the prestigious Spirit Initiative, which encourages student-led projects to promote peace in areas of conflict. What does that entail?
We were one of eight groups that made it to the final round and were invited to the UN for a conference. At the conference, groups got to bring their ideas and connect them with resources. We presented Nets for Peace, and the UN brought business and political experts who could share their knowledge and tips, but also challenge us to help overcome difficulties. [Check out the other finalists’ projects here.]
How might Nets of Peace – or something like it – be replicated elsewhere in Israel?
I believe that before we talk about political roadmaps in Israel, we have to talk about economic roadmaps. The reality is, a Palestinian state will eventually be established and they need help. So before we talk borders, people need to be given opportunities to progress.
I can give you one story: recently, Hamas was looking to recruit 1,000 security officers. They had very specific qualifications – you had to be between 18-20, over 165 pounds, have a high school education and things like that. Well, for 1,000 spots, 20,000 people applied. They interviewed some of the candidates, and many said they just wanted the job to provide for their family, or that they wanted to get married but their father said they had to be employed first. They don’t want to work for Hamas, but they don’t have another choice.
So, we can’t be lighthearted about this situation. Our hope is that this project will be one of many to prove that this situation can be managed differently – that we can bring change from the bottom up.