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John Tory: Israel punches above its weight in tech

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Toronto Mayor John Tory MICHAEL RAJZMAN PHOTO

Earlier this month, Toronto Mayor John Tory joined his counterpart from Montreal, Denis Coderre, on a business technology mission to Israel. Tory was accompanied on the week-long mission by city councillors and nearly 50 Toronto business and technology delegates. Tory spoke with The CJN prior to his departure.

What are the reasons behind the mission?

Israel is not the biggest country in terms of size, GDP, but it’s right at the top of the list when it comes to innovation. It has had huge success when it comes to innovation in life sciences, technology and so on, so for me to have the opportunity to lead a delegation of people who both want to learn from what the Israeli economy has done, to learn from Israeli companies, to encourage those firms to do business in Toronto and to give our companies a chance to do business with them, this is a huge opportunity.

Was this your initiative?

It was my initiative. I said I wanted to go to Israel for that strictly business purpose. It has evolved from there, to where we are taking a big business delegation. I might have gone with a smaller delegation just to learn, but in this case, it’s fleshed out, so we’re taking a total of 50 people from every different aspect of life here – from incubators, technology firms, fin tech [financial tech], the board of trade, financial services and so on. We’re also going with a group of community leaders. We’ll spend some of our time learning what they’re doing with cities and visit some of the different important sites one would expect I would see as the mayor of Toronto, some of which I’ve seen before.

You’ve been to Israel before?

I have. I was there about six or seven years ago, as a private citizen.

Is this all being done in conjunction with Mayor Coderre?

Yes. That’s an interesting sidebar to this, which is that he was always planning to go to Israel, totally independent of me. And he is going to a mayor’s conference, which I am not going to attend. I’m going to do more business and less of the mayor’s conference. But he is going, so we did talk.

We picked a date for my visit. That allowed us to combine some of our two groups together to see some of the  firms and government leaders, which is efficient from everybody’s standpoint.

READ: DENIS CODERRE: STRENGHTENING TIES WITH ISRAEL

in tech and cyber security are the focus of this trip. Why those sectors in particular?

Fin tech is an area where we have developed quite an expertise, as they have in Israel. Cyber security is often related to that. There are issues related to the digitization of banking, and we have huge numbers of firms here, as they do in Israel, who are experts at that. We can learn from each other, perhaps encourage them to invest here and perhaps sell some of our services there.

Then there is the issue of cyber security. Israel is probably seen as the leading nation in the world when it comes to cyber security, and so again, we’re going to see what opportunities we can have to do business between our fin tech companies and fin tech organizations in Israel, and also to see which of those organizations based in Israel would like to invest here and open offices here as a North American gateway.

Do you expect contracts will be signed as a result of this trip, or is this more of a get-to-know-you mission?

It’s a bit of both. I’ve been very clear since I became mayor and when I started to take these trips that the notion you can go on a 10-day or one-week long trip and have 43 contracts signed is not being realistic. I say the proper time to judge these trips is one year later, and I’m quite happy to have an accounting with The CJN or anybody else a year from now and say, “All right, here’s the list of all the people we saw and here are decisions that have been made to invest or do business.”

A lot of what we’re going to do is take these relatively small, startup fin-tech firms in Toronto and introduce them to people in Israel. I don’t expect there will be many contracts signed in the time we’re there.

Why Israel? There are other jurisdictions known for their high tech.

Well, if you look at the leading jurisdictions in the world, we’ve been to them, and this one would be in the top 5.

I think by anybody’s reckoning, the top 5 now includes Toronto, Silicon Valley, it includes China, Hong Kong, and it very much includes Israel.

Israel is punching way above its weight relative to all the countries I’ve mentioned. Israel is a relatively small country, but on a pound for pound basis, has achieved a lot when it comes to being a home for innovation and very smart people who are doing a lot in terms of contributing to change taking place in the world. So I think people would acknowledge it’s a place to go.

If you add the community element in this, which is a substantial relationship between our city and the Jewish community in our city, which is large and influential, and the State of Israel, it provides you with two very valid reasons to go, but the business reason is the one principally motivating this trip.

As you know, some people want to boycott Israel. Have you received any pushback about this trip?

I’m sure there will be some, but I, over time, have not only not paid much attention to that. I have explicitly rejected that criticism, which I believe is unfair.

There are many issues that are taking place in a very complicated world that is the Middle East. I point repeatedly to the fact that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It’s the only country that respects human rights in a way that would be consistent with what we do, including things like gay rights. And it is a free-enterprise country.

I think there are many compelling reasons to go to Israel, and I’m not going to be pushed off. I don’t accept the underlying reasons why people claim they have these boycotts. I don’t accept a lot of the terminology applied to Israel, so I’m very comfortable as the mayor of Toronto going to Israel, which is a democratic, free-enterprise country, and doing business with it.

READ: MAYORS’ MISSION TO ISRAEL CALLED A HUGE ACCOMPLISHMENT

What about doing business with companies with a presence in the West Bank?

I make no secret of the fact, and I may be subject to some criticism perhaps from the Jewish community, about going to Ramallah in the West Bank. I think I have an obligation as the mayor of Toronto to do the right thing, which is to go and listen to some of the political concerns of leaders in the West Bank, the Palestinian leaders. Also, we are spending some time, consistent with the principle and purpose of this mission, meeting with Palestinian-led, or West Bank-located, firms to see if we can do business with them. 


This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.