Faith and business are powerful forces for peace

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Aziz Abu Sarah & Scott Cooper | Co-Founders/Co-CEOs, MEJDI Tours, Israel

Case Study Outline

  1. → Aziz and Cooper Video (above)
  2. → Learning Objectives
  3. → Main Category of Action
  4. → Aziz and Cooper’s Story
  5. → Summary of Case
  6. → TED Talk: Aziz Abu Sarah
  7. → Introduction to Israel
  8.      – History and Economy
  9.      – Religious Demographics
  10.      – Conflict and Violence related to Religion
  11. → More About Aziz and Cooper
  12. → Discussion Questions
  13. → Media and Added Resources

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Learning Objectives

Aziz Abu Sarah and Scott Cooper, co-CEOs and Founders of MEJDI Tours, recognize that allowing people to tell their story is a first step in fostering peace and cultural understanding.

The learning objectives for this case study include:

  1. 1. Some types of businesses, like tourism, are ready-made for fostering interfaith understanding, religious freedom and peace.
  2. 2. Business has unique solutions for some situations – such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which seem to present insurmountable challenges for interfaith understanding, religious freedom and peace.
  3. 3. Hard experiences and difficulties can be the inspiration for impactful new businesses.
  4. 4. Customers are interested in business with a social mission that involves them.

Main Category of Action

Core business

Championing interfaith understanding and peace through a company’s core business operations, including internal procedures, human resources hiring practices, training, product/service development, sourcing policies, supply chains, as well as the development of products and services that promote interfaith understanding and peace.


Aziz and Cooper’s Story

Aziz Abu Sarah and Scott Cooper like to joke that they met on JDate, the Jewish-oriented dating service.

They did not. But the joke is typical of these two men who are friends, business partners and, above all, peacemakers.

They met at a peace-building event in New York City in 2009 and quickly realized that even though Abu Sarah is Muslim and from Palestine, and Cooper is Jewish and from Indiana, they shared a vision of how interpersonal relationships across cultures, like theirs, could change the world.

In 2013, Abu Sarah and Cooper started Mejdi Tours, a tour company with a purpose — to expose tourists in age-old conflict areas to what they call “dual narratives” by bringing them together with tour guides from different sides of the conflict. The first tours were to Israel and Palestine, and the company has since expanded to Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Ireland.

“You can create a paradigm shift in peace through tourism by offering access to both communities,” Abu Sarah said from his home in Washington, D.C. “They get exposed to all kinds of issues – art, food, politics, religion. Mejdi bridges the gap between going somewhere and seeing stones laid 2,000 years ago and making connections between 2,000 years ago and today.”

Cooper — with his typical concision, put it like this: “Mejdi connects people across barriers.”

The two men, both 36, are familiar with conflict. When Abu Sarah was a child in Palestine, Israeli officials arrested his 18-year-old brother for throwing stones at them. While in custody, he was beaten and died of his wounds.

Abu Sarah became an angry young man, and he, too, wanted to throw rocks, to strike out. But he chose another path. “I decided it doesn’t matter what happens to me,” he said. “What really matters is how I deal with it. So I decided to dedicate my life to bringing down the walls that separate people.”

Cooper visited Abu Sarah’s family and the experience changed him. “I sat in Aziz’s house in the same bedroom he shared with his brother and I saw what his brother’s death did to him,” he said. “I have seen what he did with that tragedy, using it as mission to connect people. Prophets do things like that.”

Abu Sarah is a Muslim who has spent time in Bible college, and Cooper considers himself culturally Jewish. But he sees Mejdi Tours as a mission. “It might not be traditional, religious, dogmatic activity, but I see what we are doing as spiritual work,” Cooper said. “When your child hurts, my child hurts.” Then he said something that might be Mejdi’s motto: “We are all in this together.”

But while Mejdi takes tourists to beautiful places, it provides Cooper and Abu Sarah the financial means to travel to places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, where they work on peace building among refugees.

“We see Mejdi as an avenue for us to make those kinds of projects viable,” Abu Sarah said. “We cannot take Mejdi to those places, but we can go there ourselves and be involved.

“Mejdi is a vehicle, not the destination,” Cooper said. “And in my opinion it is too small of a vehicle right now. There is not enough change that is happening, so it is a vehicle we plan to enlarge. We are driven to create social change as our life mission.”


Summary of Case

In many Middle Eastern countries, social and political tensions have spurred violence and unrest along religious and cultural lines.

Each group within this struggle has a different narrative and understanding of what has led to the current cultural landscape and conflict. Aziz Abu Sarah and Scott Cooper, co-CEOs and Founders of MEJDI Tours, recognize that allowing people to tell their story is a first step in fostering peace and cultural understanding.

In Israel, for example, their “Dual Narrative” approach allows Israeli and Palestinian tour guides to offer varying perspectives on culture, religion, and politics at each location.


TED Talk: Aziz Abu Sarah

MEJDI co-founder and 2014 TED Fellow, Aziz Abu Sarah, gave this TED talk in March 2014. Aziz is a Palestinian activist with an unusual approach to peace-keeping: Be a tourist. The TED Fellow shows how simple interactions with people in different cultures can erode decades of hate.

“Imagine with me if the one billion people who travel internationally every year travel like this, not being taken in the bus from one side to another, from one hotel to another, taking pictures from the windows of their buses of people and cultures, but,” Aziz Abu Sarah says, “actually connecting with people.”


Introduction to Israel

History* and Economy**

Following World War II, Britain withdrew from its mandate of Palestine, and the UN proposed partitioning the area into Arab and Jewish states, an arrangement rejected by the Arabs. Nonetheless, an Israeli state was declared in 1948, and Israel subsequently defeated the Arab armies in a series of wars that did not end deep tensions between the two sides. (The territories Israel has occupied since the 1967 war are not included in this Israel country profile.) On 25 April 1982, Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula pursuant to the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty.

In keeping with the framework established at the Madrid Conference in October 1991, Israel conducted bilateral negotiations with Palestinian representatives and Syria to achieve a permanent settlement with each. Israel and Palestinian officials on 13 September 1993 signed a Declaration of Principles (also known as the “Oslo Accords”), enshrining the idea of a two-state solution to their conflict and guiding an interim period of Palestinian self-rule. The parties achieved six additional significant interim agreements between 1994 and 1999 aimed at creating the conditions for a two-state solution, but most were never fully realized. Outstanding territorial and other disputes with Jordan were resolved in the 26 October 1994 Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty.

Progress toward a final status agreement with the Palestinians was undermined by Israeli-Palestinian violence between 2001 and February 2005. Israel in 2005 unilaterally disengaged from the Gaza Strip, evacuating settlers and its military while retaining control over most points of entry into the Gaza Strip. The election of HAMAS to head the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 temporarily froze relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel engaged in a 34-day conflict with Hizballah in Lebanon from July-August 2006 and a 23-day conflict with HAMAS in the Gaza Strip from December 2008-January 2009. In November 2012, Israel engaged in a seven-day conflict with HAMAS in the Gaza Strip. Direct talks with the Palestinians most recently launched in July 2013 but were suspended in April 2014. The talks represented the fourth concerted effort to resolve final status issues between the sides since they were first discussed at Camp David in 2000. Three months later HAMAS and other militant groups launched rockets into Israel, which led to a 51-day conflict between Israel and militants in Gaza.

Israel has a technologically advanced free market economy. Cut diamonds, high-technology equipment, and pharmaceuticals are among its leading exports. Its major imports include crude oil, grains, raw materials, and military equipment. Israel usually posts sizable trade deficits, which are covered by tourism and other service exports, as well as significant foreign investment inflows.

Between 2004 and 2013, growth averaged nearly 5% per year, led by exports. The global financial crisis of 2008-09 spurred a brief recession in Israel, but the country entered the crisis with solid fundamentals, following years of prudent fiscal policy and a resilient banking sector. Israel’s economy also weathered the 2011 Arab Spring because strong trade ties outside the Middle East have insulated the economy from spillover effects.

Slowing domestic and international demand and decreased investment resulting from Israel’s uncertain security situation reduced GDP growth to an average of roughly 2.6% per year during 2014-15. Natural gas fields discovered off Israel’s coast since 2009 have brightened Israel’s energy security outlook. The Tamar and Leviathan fields were some of the world’s largest offshore natural gas finds in the last decade. Political and regulatory issues have delayed the development of the massive Leviathan field, but production from Tamar provided a 0.8% boost to Israel’s GDP in 2013 and a 0.3% boost in 2014. One of the most carbon intense OECD countries, Israel generates about 57% of its power from coal and only 2.6% from renewable sources.

Income inequality and high housing and commodity prices continue to be a concern for many Israelis. Israel’s income inequality and poverty rates are among the highest of OECD countries, and there is a broad perception among the public that a small number of “tycoons” have a cartel-like grip over the major parts of the economy. Government officials have called for reforms to boost the housing supply and to increase competition in the banking sector to address these public grievances. Despite calls for reforms, the restricted housing supply continues to impact the well-being of younger Israelis seeking to purchase homes. Tariffs and non-tariff barriers, coupled with guaranteed prices and customs tariffs for farmers have kept food prices high through 2015.

In the long term, Israel faces structural issues, including low labor participation rates for its fastest growing social segments – the ultraorthodox and Arab-Israeli communities. Also, Israel’s progressive, globally competitive, knowledge-based technology sector employs only about 8% of the workforce, with the rest mostly employed in manufacturing and services – sectors which face downward wage pressures from global competition. Expenditures on educational institutions remain low compared to most other OECD countries with similar GDP per capita.

Some helpful background on the conflict in Israel and Palestine: Author John Green teaches a crash course on conflict in Israel and Palestine. This conflict is often cast as a long-term beef going back thousands of years, and rooted in a clash between religions. Well, John shows that’s not quite true. What is true is that the conflict is immensely complicated, and just about everyone in the world has an opinion about it. John triess to get the facts across in under 13 minutes.

Religious Demographics

According to Pew research (see chart), Jewish adherents account for three-in-four (75.6%) of Israel’s population, while nearly one-in-five (18.6%) of the population is Muslim. About 3% of Israel’s population are unaffiliated, with 2% being Christian. Buddhists, Hindus and folk religions each respectively represent less than 1% of the population.

 

According to Pew Research data, out of a population of 7,420,000 in 2010, 5,610,000 Israelis identified as Jews, with an expected growth to 7 million in 2030. Muslims represented 1,380,000 adherents in 2010, with an expected growth to 2,120,000 in 2030, while those who identify as unaffiliated for the same years, were 230,000, expected to grow to 300,000. The median age for Jews and Christians is 32, while that for Muslims is 21. The Muslim population has the highest fertility rate at 3.4, with the Jewish community at 2.8 and Christians at 2.

Conflict and Violence Related to Religion

“Israel is a parliamentary democracy with a stable domestic environment. Nonetheless, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is unresolved, and the risk of politically motivated violence and terrorism continues. The threat of rocket fire from Gaza reached a crescendo in the summer of 2014. Hamas and other jihadist groups in Gaza launched 4,600 rockets at Israeli territory. The Iron Dome defense system intercepted virtually all of these that were aimed at populated areas, but there were frequent alarms requiring persons to move to shelter. Following a rocket landing in the area of Ben Gurion Airport, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration issued a Notice to Airmen warning and a number of international air carriers, including three U.S. carriers, cancelled flights over a 36-hour period. Heightened tensions with Iran due to concerns over Tehran’s nuclear program and its support for terrorism also present the potential for regional conflict. Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria are closed, but instability in Syria and threats from the Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon also present some risk of violent incidents or conflict. Israel signed peace treaties with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994).”**

As shown in the Pew Research chart below, the global median score for social hostilities involving religion is 2.4 on a 10-point scale, where 10 is high. Israel’s rating is 9.0, meaning it has very high social hostilities involving religion. The global median score for governmental restrictions on religious freedom is 3.1. Israel has high governmental restrictions on religion with a score of 5.6.


More About the Aziz and Cooper

Tourism is a major global business that Aziz Abu Sarah and Scott Cooper are tapping into to bring interfaith understanding in locations where the lack of understanding can be a trigger for conflict. Aziz Abu Sarah is an entrepreneur, speaker, peace builder and author. He is a National

Aziz Abu Sarah is an entrepreneur, speaker, peace builder and author. He is a National Geographic Explorer and a TED Fellow. In 2009, Aziz co-founded MEJDI Tours, a cultural exploration vehicle for an ever-changing travel market. In 2014, he gave a TED Talk about his vision for redefining tourism. Aziz has spoken at countless of international organizations and universities, including The United Nations, Nexus, TED, BMW, and European Parliament. Aziz is the recipient of the Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East from the Institute of International Education, the European Parliament’s Silver Rose Award, and the Eisenhower Medallion. The Royal Strategic Centre in Jordan named him one of the 500 most influential Muslims in the World for 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. He won the Intercultural innovation award from the UN Alliance of Civilizations and the BMW Group. UNSG Ban Ki Moon also recognized him for his work in peace building.

Scott Cooper is a successful business owner, social entrepreneur, and business strategist, who spent a decade in the private sector as a banker and financial representative for JP Morgan Chase, before joining George Mason University’s (GMU) Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution as its co-executive director in 2009. Under Scott’s direction, the center’s budget grew 100-fold, and operated programs in Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. The MEJDI co-founder and CEO established GMU’s first business and conflict resolution program, and spearheaded an innovative study abroad program that takes students throughout the Middle East and beyond. He previously worked at the United States Institute of Peace on a project focused on evaluating peace-building programs in conflict zones, and has advised numerous NGOs on sustainable models for organizational growth. Scott holds a degree in political science from Arizona State University and a Master of Science degree in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University.

Discussion Questions

  1. 1. What other types of businesses, besides tourism, are ready-made for fostering interfaith understanding, religious freedom and peace?
  2. 2. In what other places or situations do or might businesses have unique solutions for seemingly insurmountable challenges for interfaith understanding, religious freedom and peace?
  3. 3. What other examples are there of hard experiences and difficulties providing the inspiration for impactful new businesses?
  4. 4. Are customers really interested in businesses with a social mission that involves them?

Media and Added Resources


This case study was prepared by Melissa Grim, J.D., M.T.S., a senior research fellow with the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation, and Brian Grim, Ph.D., president of the foundation. It is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton Religion Trust.