Yosef Mahfoud Levi

Yosef Levi’s family made aliyah to Israel from Yemen, and he believes all Israeli Jews should learn Arabic to improve understanding, strengthen ties and boost business with their neighbors.

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel

Yosef Mahfoud Levi grew up in an Arabic-speaking Jewish household in Israel, one of hundreds of thousands of families that made aliyah from Arab countries.

Loving the language, Levi graduated from the Arabic Studies program at Tel Aviv University. His specialty is not just the Arabic language, but also giving Israelis insights into the culture, language and social aspects of Arab society while sharing Israeli and Jewish culture with Arab colleagues.

Language is the key to communications, Levi says.

“Every Jewish person living here should know Arabic,” Levi told The Jerusalem Post. “Knowing the culture of the other person is the best way to find a path to his or her heart.”

His company Insijam, which means harmony in Arabic, helps Israeli firms sell everything from cyber-security services to food technology and advanced agriculture, targeting almost half a billion consumers in the Arab world.

Levi offers his services not just to Jews and Arabs in the outside world, but also to Israelis and Palestinians who want to work together to do business in the region.

He recently matched a British cosmetics manufacturer who turned to him for help in selling to the Gulf, holding a meeting in Tel Aviv to match the UK firm up with a Palestinian businesswoman, and the two now sell their products in several Arab markets.

Levi’s family comes from Yemen, and he had to overcome the heavy accent he inherited from his parents. In the process he became an expert in dialects and now also teaches Arabic at Bar Ilan University. On the commercial side, Insijam helps companies bridge the gaps between different Arabic cultures, in addition to helping companies from outside the Arab world tap into the region. Insijam also helps Arab companies  sell in Israel.

“When you speak in a language a man understands, you reach his head, but when you speak his language, you reach his heart,” Levi said, quoting late South African leader Nelson Mandela.

It’s not just the words, but also the body language, and Levi teaches Israelis what is expected when greeting Arab partners or clients, which often means not just a handshake but kissing several times on each cheek. He also instructs Arab businessmen in Israeli culture.

“Language is the key to everything,” Levi said. “An Israeli might come to a meeting unshaven and in shorts because that is our culture. To an Arab businessman this will seem very unprofessional, no matter how good the pitch is.”

“Knowing the culture of the other person,” he says, “is the best way to find a path into his or her heart.”