There was something very enlightening about a recent visit by a delegation of Israeli journalists to Norway. It was not just the pure financial aspect, the fact that Norway is a rich country. It was also not just the fact that the Norwegians are very warm and welcoming, much like Israelis, despite the differences in our climates. It was also not just the breathtaking Scandinavian views.
The thing that stood out most for us during our short visit was the modesty and discipline with which public officials ran the country’s financial mechanisms.
“My job is to serve the public; I am not a politician” — we heard this said over and over, every time we met the heads of the Norwegian ministries.
The halls of the ministries were clean and there were no wheelers and dealers, like the ones that so characterize the halls of Israel’s ministries. “To serve the public” is something we haven’t heard an Israeli public official say in years. After one week in Norway, we saw how things could and should be.
Just don’t pay a woman’s way on a first date
Several weeks ago, Norway hosted its annual entrepreneurship conference, inviting entrepreneurs and journalists from all over the world. The Norwegians work very diligently on their public relations, wishing to share Norwegian potential with the world.
It is rather surprising to hear key officials in the Oslo municipality remind people time and again that “Oslo is not a hell-hole” and that “no, Oslo is not in Sweden.” For us Israelis, to hear anyone refer to Oslo as a hell-hole sounds completely off base. But if you ask American or Chinese journalists, they will tell you that they don’t know how such a small country, with a population of just over 5 million people, managed to become such a financial empire in Europe.
Before we begin, a few statistics: Norway’s current wealth stands at $1 trillion. The Norwegians allow themselves to withdraw the interest on the wealth they accrue, at a rate of 4% annually. In the past, this meant small amounts, but when local oil production began taking off and oil prices skyrocketed, the country’s wealth increased accordingly and has reached astronomical amounts. This means that Norway now has an extra $40 billion per year — half of Israel’s entire annual budget — to do with as they please. Just for comparison sake, Israel’s population is 50% higher than that of Norway (and it spends 10 times more than Norway on defense).
But those are just numbers, and numbers, as we know, don’t really tell the whole story. What do they do with this budgetary surplus? Take, for example, family life: Every young couple in Norway is entitled to paid maternity (or paternity) leave of one year, during which the mother’s or father’s jobs are guaranteed to be held for them (the mother and father can divide the year up between them as they see fit).
The state makes sure that each child gets a caretaker beyond the parents for the entire first year, and, if necessary, the municipality of Oslo will also assign a caretaker to the child in the event that the state-assigned caretaker fails to show. Without charge, of course. And wait, it doesn’t end there: In the event that the mother works in high-tech, or any other kind of job that requires traveling, the state will pay for airfare for her family to accompany her on business trips. “Otherwise, how could any woman have both a career and a family?” our hosts wonder with earnest curiosity. The truth is that every Israeli woman reading this article has probably asked herself the same question for years.
Here is another little example: Norway provides free health care and limitless sick days as long as there is medical justification. That’s how things are in the fourth-richest country in the world in terms of income per capita.
So on paper, Norway seems like a dream come true. But the Norwegians are disciplined and modest, so obviously they are quick to adapt to changes in the world around them. The drop in oil prices has caused a sharp decline in the industry and in investments in the country. About 10% of the workforce, 22,000 workers, have been laid off, and fearing that this number will continue to rise or even double, the Norwegians are already preparing for such an eventuality. Tax revenues have diminished and for the first time in years, the country expects a budget deficit at the end of the year (before the surplus interest revenue is withdrawn).
“The party is over,” the Norwegians explain to us. Of course, they still drink their little cappuccinos at the equivalent of 20 shekels (or $5) per cup. In Israeli terms that sounds exorbitant, but the Norwegians actually want to learn from us how to create new industries that do not revolve around oil.
In other words, the Norwegians need high-tech, and if there is one country in the world where everything good boils down to high-tech, it is Israel, where no one can agree on a framework agreement for the development of one field of natural gas.
To that end, the Norwegians invited Israeli entrepreneur Orit Hashay, one of Israel’s most promising women in high-tech in the last decade, to speak to the Norwegians. Hashay owns the Internet startup Brayola and is about to complete a total takeover of the online bra industry.
At age 37, she possesses the kind of high-tech know-how that the Norwegians want so much. She insists: “High-tech is a man’s world, even more than other things, and if you’re a woman you need to know that but not to dwell on it too much. It’s just the way it is. A woman has to work double and her path will be twice as difficult.”
The Norwegian women were surprised to hear this, because in Norway there is true equality. A man who pays on a first date is considered a chauvinist in Norway. The American women, on the other hand, are shocked to learn that Hashay has a small child and still manages to fly to New York once a month and run a successful business. That doesn’t jive with Uncle Sam’s version of “soccer moms.”
The cultural differences are very much at play here. Israeli businesspeople living in Norway report that though Norwegians are very hospitable, when it comes to business they are much more suspicious and far less open. Add to that the fact that the Norwegian power in the global market is limited because of the high currency exchange rate, and of course the high taxes deter investors.
Raphael Schutz, one of the highest-ranking Israeli Foreign Ministry officials, currently serves as the Israeli ambassador to Norway. His appointment — sending such a key diplomat to such a small country — certainly raised some eyebrows.
“Of course, the ultimate objective is to cultivate business relations with the Norwegians, but initially we need to make sure that there are regular flights between Israel and Norway, for example,” he said.
“Secondly, mainstream Norwegian media has an anti-Israel bias so we engage in constant public diplomacy.
“Recently, a cartoon was published here comparing us [Israel] to apartheid and to Nazi rule. But afterward they apologized. I am in contact with the media every day here on issues having to do with Israel’s image in Norway. Most Norwegians obviously feed off the media, but on the diplomatic level things are very different than they are portrayed in the media. They want to engage as much as possible with us in the business arena.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Morten Hoglund explains: “We are trying to create an environment where businesses can grow internationally, in the international arena. We need to diversify our economy. We know that the Israelis are world leaders in the field of startup companies.
“When we visited Silicon Valley last year, the comparison to Israel was unavoidable. We have a lot to learn from you, how you became so successful. We want to touch on the worlds of education and research so we can connect technology to them. That is something that we do in our relations with the whole world.
“This government aims to implement policies that create dialogue with businesses and help them develop networks around the world. In addition, we can take advantage of our technology sector to solve other issues like refugees, education, etc. For example, the problem of educating the children of Syrian refugees around the world. We have generated competition for technological solutions in this particular field.
“We are very aware of the situation around us. In terms of cost of living, Oslo and Norway have become more competitive over the last year because of the falling oil prices. Oslo has fallen on the most expensive cities index from second place to 11th.”
When we point out the cultural differences between us, he admits that indeed, the differences are not trivial: “Norwegian societies are not hierarchical, they are almost democratic. The gap between employee and employer is very small, which gives everyone the opportunity to voice an opinion. We view it as a major advantage. But we have other problems now as we face the world when it comes to cultural differences,” he says.
“Promoting yourself or your business isn’t considered the norm among Norwegians. You need to be given that push when you are Norwegian. We use external help to learn how to do that. I’ve met a lot of startup entrepreneurs, especially in California. They don’t like modesty. They are nothing like my generation. We have to learn, all of us, to think differently. I’ll give you an example: We’ve invented a lot of things, like the cellphone, but we didn’t capitalize on it. Ericsson and Nokia had the drive to commercialize it and make money. We lack that.”
Before we part ways, he smiles at us and says, “We need to change, huh?”
Angry Birds as an allegory
Financially speaking, perhaps the Norwegians need to change if they want to adapt to where the world is headed. But for American and Israeli entrepreneurs, the notion that the Norwegian work day ends at 3:30 p.m. and staying until 4 p.m. counts as overtime seems almost sinful.
But the Norwegians, for their part, argue that this is the only way to escape the modern slavery that characterizes the Western world. The Norwegians know that they need to make a cultural shift, but it may not work because the government won’t want to risk making changes that are too far-reaching, such as putting an end to the reckless practice of offering limitless sick days.
They are constantly comparing themselves to their neighbors in every regard. They see that in addition to the phone industry, their neighbors have also left them far behind when it comes to mobile applications. Like the game Angry Birds, which the Finns invented and which has generated millions in profits.
To Israelis, the idea that the Israeli approach can change the Norwegians, dust them off and instill them with drive to conquer new worlds, sounds a bit strange. But apparently the grass is always greener on the other side.
Norwegian exports to Israel currently stand at a total of 691 million kronor ($79.5 million) per year. Fish make up the bulk of the exports, of 642 million kronor (about $73.9 million) per year. Israeli exports to Norway include mainly machinery, chemical products and food, coming in at 876 million kronor ($101 million) per year, not counting indirect exports. But again, those are just numbers.
Alongside the impressive high-tech center on Oslo’s promenade, the locals are now building a cultural hub including a large art museum and a national library. The works of Edvard Munch, the most famous Norwegian painter, and his colleague, sculptor Gustav Vigeland, will finally find a permanent home where visitors to Oslo can view them.
The fjord overlooking the city as winter sets in gives the sense of being in the middle of a fairy tale in a faraway land. The locals say that the winter will bring extreme cold, the children will hug their troll dolls tightly, and darkness will flood the country and its capital.
The winter may be the one big problem in this fairy tale land. The coming darkness stands to affect everyone, all of whom love Tel Aviv and its sun-drenched beaches. They all want to visit Tel Aviv at least once more in their lifetimes.
Still, on the flight back home to our Mediterranean climate, there was a feeling that we had just been to the most enlightened place on earth, regardless of the fact that it will only see two hours of sunlight a day in the coming months.