Avigdor Willenz breaks his silence

AuthorAssaf Gilead
Published date17 April 2023
Publication titleGlobes (Rishon LeZion, Israel)
Willenz, mentor to generations of chip engineers who are now leading Silicon Valley executives, was in search of respite from Israel's hustle and bustle when he came to this isolated village. No shops, bank, or post office. For a little civilization, he walks about 20 minutes along a flowing river to the nearby town. By bike it only takes a few minutes. Five rounds of Israeli elections, the passage of a series of controversial laws, and the deterioration of Israeli political discourse, led him, he says, to head for the Alps in order to retire peacefully. But even here, sitting before a burning hearth or walking the snowy paths, Israel gives him no rest

This is the man who brought giant technology multinationals such as Amazon, Marvell Technology and Carl Zeiss to the Galilee, rescued Tel Hai College from collapse, was one of the first residents in the northern community settlement of Kamon, and then lived in a modest house on Kibbutz Hanita. On one hand, exasperated, he announced he would make no more new investments in Israel, and would look overseas instead. On the other hand, two and a quarter years after moving to Switzerland, Willenz is tired of staying silent. He considered recusing himself from the Israeli public sphere, but given that his children and grandchildren live in the Israeli reality, following the recent government actions he agreed to be interviewed. Thus far, during his visits to Israel, Willenz has participated in five demonstrations, the last of which was the spontaneous march onto the Ayalon highway following the announcement of Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant's dismissal (since withdrawn).

Swiss observer

"The longer you're here (in Switzerland), the more you can see, close up, how systems can function well when they operate correctly," he tells "Globes" in his first interview since leaving Israel. "The Swiss government has only seven ministers, each minister holding a number of portfolios. The prime minister changes in rotation every year - and he is first among equals and most Swiss people don't even know who he is. There is no question of ego here. Decisions are decentralized and - apart from foreign and security issues and federal matters - are made by the cantons. Matters are conducted matter-of-factly for the benefit of the citizens." Willenz believes that the Swiss canton system may be the cure for the ills of Israel's divided society, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

His first impression was formed many years ago when he visited his older brother, a former Mossad agent, who worked on bringing Moroccan Jews to Israel in the early days of the state, and who has been living in Switzerland for over 50 years. Willenz recounts that he received three traffic tickets on his way from the airport. "I learned an important lesson: this is a country based on a system of rules that are clear to all, so much so that you can have confidence that no one will bother you. This doesn't exist in Israel, which is why they try to optimize you. "

For Willenz, Switzerland is a country that respects its citizens. It is expensive, he admits, "But not much more expensive than Israel, and above all, a country that provides a dignified existence for all its inhabitants," he says. "The decision to emigrate to Switzerland was a process I contemplated for years, when you see what kind of country is developing before you, and where your tax money is going.

"The issues in Israel's election campaigns are, to me, an absurd spectacle that has nothing to do with the proper conduct of a country, and divert attention from the truly important issues. Education, welfare, security, the economy, employment, and cost of living - all are overshadowed by fears and lies that crop up every morning. Instead of reducing national stress, they amplify it for political and personal gain, and don't facilitate any substantive discourse. This mental stress and ongoing victimization have a deep cost for the society's mental wellbeing."

Willenz lays out the list of ideas he has tried to cultivate in Israel down the years, some without success. He has been an active opponent of the occupation for many years, and was one of the most prominent donors to NGOs Breaking the Silence, B'Tselem, Adalah- The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, and Rabbis for Human Rights. He is a passionate environmental activist and is a major donor to the Open Landscape Institute, founded by the Society for the Protection of Nature, which deals with the preservation of open spaces in Israel, and also sat on the board of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. Willenz took an active part in attempts at dialogue between Jews and Arabs and in creating bridges, partly through his support of the Tikva Foundation, and the establishment of the Darca network of schools in the periphery, (he departed following a dispute with the Rashi Foundation). He is also a major contributor to the New Israel Fund, which promotes many of the causes important to him. At the same time, he did not hesitate to support centrist political candidates: he supported Yair Lapid for a period of time, and helped Yifat Shasha-Biton enter politics in her race for the Kiryat Shmona municipality, before she moved into national politics.

Now, it appears as if his life's work in Israel stands on a precipice. "The ongoing occupation, and control over another people, the Nation-State Law that makes Israeli Arabs second class citizens, quality of life in terms of concern for the underprivileged...

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