Business and Markets

Teaching Corporate Social Responsibility in the Middle East

November 6, 2019  • Ideas Worth Teaching

In recent weeks, a major theme has emerged in U.S. and U.K. coverage of business schools: business schools need to change to satisfy student demand for pursuing profits with purpose—and a handful of far-sighted schools are currently ahead of the game. At least in those regions, Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR, has been an established discipline for decades. That’s not the case everywhere.

As Professor Talia Aharoni of Tel-Aviv University explains, this concept is relatively new in Israel. The winner of a 2017 Aspen Institute Ideas Worth Teaching Award for her course ‘Issues in CSR’ at Tel Aviv University, she has articulated the course in distinctly local terms. Ironically, in doing so, she raises a theme that may sound familiar to many Americans: the power of business to promote inclusion in a politically divided society.

Your syllabus emphasizes many texts that would be familiar to CSR scholars around the world. What issues in CSR do you think are of particular interest in the geographical context that you teach (Israel, Middle East)?

As a lecturer on Corporate Responsibility in Israeli Business Schools, I obviously tend to expose my students to the global evolvement of the CSR field and to its current trends relying on the familiar academic research and texts, while comparing and reflecting to the evolvement, the implementation and the unique challenges of CR in the Israeli scene.

The local typology of CR in Israel is evolving from the importing and distribution of the concept from the global scene. Unlike the circumstances that led to the global development of corporate responsibility, the Israeli adaptation was not the result of public criticism or calls for stronger regulation, but rather an act of civic entrepreneurship of importing the external concept and adapting it to the specific cultural, historical, political and geographical characteristics of Israel. These specific local characteristics dictate my pedagogic challenges and formulate the interest of my students.

I have chosen four major issues to demonstrate the specific adaptation of CSR issues:

  1. Social Solidarity & National Patriotism: In a state of continuous security pressure a very polarized political society, divided to right and left and, Israelis give importance to a national solidarity that is above and beyond the growing social gaps and disputes. In these circumstances the CSR approach enables Israeli corporations to demonstrate their national patriotism without having to choose or present a specific political stand. The nationalist expressions relate to the heart of Israeli consensus such as absorption of new immigrants, promoting education, employment inclusion of defined groups such as Orthodox, Israeli Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, people with disabilities.
  2. Defense & Military: Given the continuous situation of a “State in Risk”, Israelis tend to view defense and military industries as a national must and perceive the IDF as the people’s army. This explains the local implementation of corporate responsibility towards the army and security industries. Forms of volunteerism and corporate investment in IDF units, academic studies grant for soldiers, programs of army service to academic studies followed by work emplacement are all considered as models of corporate responsibility. Attempts to raise the dilemmas involved in the participation of defense industries in the Maala Sustainability Index or the inclusion of a criteria ranking companies for supporting army reserve services are being criticized and denied in class.
  3. Human Rights: while respect and protect of human rights are a basic issue in the global CR, they are not being discussed as such in the Israeli corporate responsibility field. In the political and defense regional and national tension that predominate Israel’s public agenda, they are considered an explosive political issue. The Maala Sustainability Ranking does not include a specific Human Rights section.
  4. Social Inclusion: The waves of immigration to Israel and the wide array of diverse ethnic, religious, cultural and social backgrounds that consist of Israeli society are being perceived on one hand as the source of the country’s vitality and economic growth, however, on the other hand, as the reason for its inequalities, social gaps and social tensions. In recent years, Israeli companies give special attention and priority to social inclusion through diversity programs, community investments and partnerships, procurement and impact investing. Particular attention is given to minority groups that are underrepresented in the workforce or in value chains of large companies, such as Israeli Arabs and the Ultra-Orthodox.

Any surprising outcomes or responses from students after taking the course?

My course is an elective one, chosen by students who have a preliminary interest in the subject. They would bring to the class issues and dilemmas that occupy their thoughts in their own business positions. However, once in a while there is a student who will decide to initiate a CR program in his company in addition to her or his position or in extreme cases leave their corporate job and switch to a managerial position with a voluntary organization. One unique example is that of a marketing director of a large Israeli global company, who decided to quit her very desired job to undertake a leadership role in a small non-profit that creates and promotes an inclusive society by creating entrepreneurial community-based ecosystem. Another student enrolled in the course with her business partner in order to improve their innovative start-up developing a management tool for managing and evaluating volunteers.

September marked the second time Israelis went to the polls this year and given the results of the elections it seems that you are facing a third round. International coverage has tended to focus on party politics and regional consequences. Are there either explicit or implicit business & society issues at play in the election?

Unfortunately, the international focus on party politics and regional consequences gives the right reflection of the Israeli election scene. Israel’s public agenda and discourse is predominated by political, security and defense issues and don’t leave much space and attention to civic issues. This is also reflected in corporate agendas. In the first forty years of Israel’s existence, the political parties’ agenda focused on social and economic issues that differentiated them one from the other. Unfortunately, these issues have no trace.

The September election campaigns, were vicious, spreading personal accusations and false information. There was no reference to the burning social or environmental issues. The only civic issue that is being given some attention was the high cost of living and its contribution to the phenomena of the working poor, growing inequalities and social gaps.

This corresponds with a 2017 survey conducted by Maala and GlobeScan, which demonstrated that as economic questions have become more important to the Israeli public in recent years, the high cost of living became what most people consider to be the most disturbing social challenge (Maala and GlobeScan 2017).

* Some reference is based on an article in progress: Corporate Responsibility in Israel: Between Practice and Pedagogy, Tamar Barkay and Talia Aharoni.

Interested in more innovative insights for business education? Browse our complete collection of interviews with outstanding educators, and subscribe to Ideas Worth Teaching!