Editor’s Note: Full names or company names have not been used.
The seaside town of Jaffa, Israel, just south of Tel Aviv, was once a regional hub of shoe manufacturing. In the past several decades, however, Jaffa’s footwear sector has become just another casualty of China’s industrial machine. While the local shoemaking supply chain has all but disappeared, a young couple of artisan shoe and sandal designers have had to get creative with production to meet the growing demand for their products.
Shlomy [last name withheld], a 32-year old Israeli, and Lindy [last name withheld], his 28-year-old girlfriend and business partner, tried working with suppliers elsewhere in Israel, but found them to be “too Israeli,” Shlomy says. Instead of following detailed design specs and producing en masse exactly what was ordered, the manufacturers would make innumerable suggestions for improvements, exhausting the couple and slowing down production. The end product would be subpar, and the production costs excessive.
I first got to know Shlomy at a mutual friend’s wedding in Israel, and our conversation quickly shifted to his business after I inquired about the unique, handcrafted shoes he was wearing. Shlomy and Lindy regaled me with stories about how they built the company, and how they take orders from individual customers in the U.S., handcraft as many shoes as they can and tote huge, string-bound bundles of shoeboxes to Israelis turn to Palestinians to help scale a sandal business.
Shlomy also told me about bigger orders they were getting from American brands in addition to the one-off orders from individuals. It turned out they were white-labeling premium sandals for an LA-based brand owned by a friend of mine. I asked how their tiny staff could possibly fulfill larger orders placed by this company in LA. Shlomy smiled and responded, “Outsourcing!” Outsourcing from where? I rattled off the usual suspects: China, Thailand, Bangladesh. But he shook his head at each guess. “We work with a small factory in Hebron that is run by a family there,” he finally responded. Hebron?! At first, I was embarrassed by my own palpable surprise. Was this type of collaboration normal? I surveyed opinions from a dozen or so Israelis throughout the rest of the night and found their responses to be fairly consistent: 1. This type of collaboration is not very common; 2. Hebron is generally perceived as a place to avoid; and 3. They wanted to know more about how it actually worked. There is a big red sign at the entrance to the central core of Hebron, known as “Area A,” communicating very clearly that it is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter. It just so happens that the family-run Palestinian shoe factory is right in the middle of Area A.
“So you must travel there a lot?” I asked Shlomy, naively, trying to reconcile how an Israeli could travel to Hebron for this type of collaboration. “Of course not — it’s illegal for me to go there,” he said.
Like most Israelis, Shlomy has never been to Hebron, a bustling city of 300,000 that is 30 minutes from Jerusalem. While it is patrolled by the Israeli Defense Forces, most of Hebron has its own police force, judicial system and other institutions of governance that operate wholly outside the purview of Israel. To discourage Israelis from entering (and thus from getting into any kind of trouble), the IDF incarcerates Israeli citizens caught inside Hebron without approval. After the frustration involved in working with the Israeli shoe manufacturers, Shlomy and Lindy turned to an enterprising middleman who promised lower rates and better quality from a secret supplier. The couple worked through this middleman for several years, but ultimately resolved to track down the family- run factory so they could work with it directly. The family turned out to be based in Hebron.
Once Shlomy and Lindy made direct contact, they were able to rapidly iterate on design revisions, improve accuracy and lower costs. They have been communicating through Skype on an almost daily basis, usually in an amalgamation of English, Hebrew and Arabic. Sometimes, when they have to discuss a nuanced detail about the placement of a rivet or finish of a particular type of leather, Shlomy and Lindy will pull someone off the Jaffa streets to hop on their Skype connection and translate into perfect, clear Arabic.
But despite communicating over the Internet all the time, the two parties had never met in person. When I asked if they would like to go to Hebron to meet the family and see the factory in person, Shlomy and Lindy said they’d be thrilled to — if we could somehow arrange it. We went through some backchannels to request the IDF’s A permission to cross into Hebron, then waited several weeks for processing, and ultimately received a document granting us one pass through a particular military checkpoint. We got the group together, and after a few hours driving down bumpy roads, plus a scare with a pop-up military checkpoint in the middle of a thoroughfare, we found ourselves cruising through the gorgeous countryside full of lush vineyards around Hebron.
When we arrived at the factory, the whole family greeted us for a joyful first encounter with Lindy and Shlomy, and proceeded to ply us with tea and snacks. They proudly took us on a complete tour and showed us how they manufacture a pair of sandals from beginning to end, with about a dozen individual steps each carried out by a different family member. The old American machinery was well-worn but well-maintained, and Shlomy salivated at the sight of them. These were the means necessary to scale up the production of his unique designs. We were later summoned to the fourth floor of the building into an empty apartment under construction. It was the latest addition to an expanding high-rise of nine or 10 apartments all housing the descendants of the factory’s patriarch.
It is almost a monument to the family’s prosperity. When the next generation starts families of their own, more floors are added. Instead of roofs, the tops of buildings all around were concrete pillars and open rebar pointing toward the sky, awaiting the next layer. Our hosts served us a massive traditional meal on a makeshift table surrounded by small plastic chairs. Not unlike the archetypal Jewish grandmother, our Palestinian hosts forcefully piled lamb and rice onto our plates before we could even begin to answer her question of “Would you care for any more?” In a beautifully gaudy, golden sitting room in the apartment across the hall, we drank more coffee and ate fresh fruit as we informally interviewed our hosts. Our half-Arab, half-Jewish Israeli friend conducted the discussion in Arabic, producing some insights that would otherwise not come to light. When asked if he thought that business could be a foundation for peace, one of our hosts thought for a while and responded with the following idea: Any kind of commercial transaction opens a window between the parties
through which they can catch a glimpse of the other’s intentions; the more they transact, the wider the window opens. So yes, through business, you develop trust and understanding, which provides that pathway to peace.
We were honored to be able to explore the social value created when two parties transact directly, repeatedly, over time, over a wall, and against convention. It’s something beautiful, something difficult to describe. Simply put, it’s peace happening.
At the time of writing, David Shlachter and his wife Orlee Rabin were living in Israel where Schlachter worked on an electric car infrastructure project from 2010 to 2012. He and his wife currently reside in Mill Valley, Calif.