What the Holy Land Reveals About Bitcoin

Israel's political backdrop gave attendees of Tel Aviv Blockchain Week an opportunity to ponder the duality of today's bitcoin movement.

AccessTimeIconSep 20, 2019 at 6:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 11:28 a.m. UTC

When hundreds of entrepreneurs, investors and technologists descended on Tel Aviv Blockchain Week (TLVBW), few could have expected a better backdrop for exploring the lofty ideals and greedy impulses that drive today’s cryptocurrency industry.

Duality is something Israelis know well.

More than 430 people attended the D&DD Summit on Sept. 10, several dozen came to the Scaling Bitcoin conference on Sept. 11 and 700 attended the first Israeli Ethereal on Sept. 15, just to name a few of the week’s dozen events.

Venues were packed with crypto tourists sipping espressos and pontificating on typical blockchain fodder: token governance, “mainstream” adoption and the immaturity of those other “vaporware” shills.

But while tech-savvy Tel Aviv represented the profit-driven side of the blockchain industry, nearby Jerusalem offered TLVBW visitors the chance to commune with the timeless notions of freedom that lie at the heart of the decentralization movement.

Although cryptocurrency isn’t a panacea, it may still have unique value in this conflict-riddled land paved with ancient stones.


Startup nation

For a country of roughly 8 million people, Israel has a disproportionately large impact on the global crypto market.

International companies like Tezos, Telegram and even Facebook’s Calibra subsidiary all have teams working in Tel Aviv’s high-tech hub. Some of the industry’s biggest token sales also hailed from Israel, including Bancor, Sirin Labs and Orbs. Furthermore, Israel is home to the world’s leading researchers of zero-knowledge proofs, a privacy technology that underlies both Zcash and upcoming ethereum developments.

Youval Rouach, CEO of Israeli bitcoin exchange Bits of Gold, told CoinDesk his startup has 55,000 local users. Nir Hirshman of the Israeli Bitcoin Association (IBA) told CoinDesk there are nearly 50 blockchain startups in Israel, although few target the local market because of a conservative regulatory climate.

The industry remains largely unbanked, for example.

“No bank has agreed to open an account for us [the IBA],” IBA chairman Meni Rosenfeld said. “So we cannot even register members properly.”

Being unbanked is something many Palestinians grapple with as well, including East Jerusalemite Rami Mohammad Ali, a bitcoin miner and trader.

Ali spent his blockchain week traipsing across Tel Aviv to buy bitcoin and bring it back to his Palestinian customers. He told CoinDesk more than 50 customers buy a cumulative total of up to 20 bitcoin a month (roughly $200,000 at current prices, a fortune in poverty-stricken East Jerusalem).

“My customers always leave me with a balance of zero. No matter how much I buy, they always demand more,” he said. “I find the best price to buy in Tel Aviv and the best price to sell in Jerusalem.”

The Palestinian presence was not altogether absent from the TLVBW lineup itself. Nine Palestinians from Ramallah attended Ethereal Tel Aviv, a rare occurrence that required sponsorship from crypto startup Orbs for obtaining the necessary government permits for crossing into Israel.

One such attendee was Hiba Shabin of the Ramallah-based software company Jaffa Net, which has already worked on an ethereum pilot project for certificate sharing among educational institutions and businesses.

“I believe we should have more collaboration,” Shabin told CoinDesk, speaking of how she hopes Israeli tech companies will outsource jobs to highly educated but underemployed developers in Ramallah.

Blockchain technology can truly forge economic ties across borders. But of course, the education-focused nonprofit Tel Aviv Bitcoin Embassy attracted far fewer visitors this week than rooftop parties with venture capitalists.


Ethereal dreams

On the other hand, restrictive banking norms may be part of the reason decentralized finance (DeFi) apps like loans are booming.

Jaffa Net’s Shabin told CoinDesk she’s curious about DeFi because there are many unbanked Palestinians who could use such financial products.

“I need to do research and learn more about DeFi,” she said at Ethereal. “I only heard about it today.”

The Brooklyn-based venture studio ConsenSys announced at Ethereal the launch of its Codefi product suite for enterprises, especially the financial sector. Could the DeFi movement span the gap between the unbanked and the banks themselves? That appears to be the common belief.

Earlier that week, during Scaling Bitcoin, ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin told CoinDesk his goal is to build a “more open, permissionless, decentralized system.”

Even if bitcoiners see a digital form of “hard money” as the primary tool for achieving this, and other crypto communities like Tezos prefer a token governance model, most groups at TLVBW shared that common goal.

“I don’t want to be a leader,” Tezos co-founder Arthur Breitman told CoinDesk, adding his aim was to create a broader movement full of independent contributors to a “decentralized platform for financial applications.”

Where I fit in

Despite my skepticism, I’m not one to judge conference attendees attracted to cryptocurrency. After all, I’m one of them. I’ve chanted the lines from “The Bitcoin Standard” by Saifedean Ammous, repented for saving in fiat and even put a small amount of faith into this software.

It’s been more than a decade since I stumbled home through the winding Jerusalem alleyways, disillusioned by the American political system and hopeful that we could build a more fair and open society in a young country like Israel. I once drank the socialist Kibbutz-for-tourists Kool-Aid and participated in cross-cultural programs promoting “peace,” before I saw how the apparatus was monetizing sanitized idealism to protect the status quo. The revolution you’re promised is rarely the revolution you get.

Now here I am again, in the Holy Land, nursing the foolish dream of another mystical purpose. This time it’s finding the truth about “bitcoin adoption.”

The Bitcoin Core developers that gathered at Scaling Bitcoin in Tel Aviv University have collaboratively built an asset already used by thousands of people like Ali, the Palestinian bitcoin trader. Buterin funded and helped develop DeFi systems like Uniswap, which currently has $17.8 million of crypto locked within it, according to DeFi Pulse.

Yet even Buterin said in Tel Aviv he’s not sure how to measure arrival in that “open” promised land. The vast majority of current usage is basically gambling and wealth accumulation by people who already have full access to banks. Instead, Buterin described success as a feeling that his platform was used for “meaningful things,” a goal the community is creeping towards even if it has yet to secure a sustainable equilibrium.

In reality, we don’t know if cryptocurrency can provide a reliable safety net beyond the norms of financial censorship.


Holy Land hopium

Blockchain week was too intense, so I ran away to Jerusalem for a drink with a Palestinian friend I hadn’t seen in years.

We sat in a dark bar made of graffiti-covered stones, where the air is thick with hash smoke and oud music. To my surprise, this friend from my pre-bitcoin life told me he works for a crypto company in Tel Aviv and is bearish on bitcoin. From his perspective, regulations rule his financial life and that is unlikely to change.

Like many Palestinians, his family’s modest wealth is spread across jurisdictions with conflicting compliance standards. Proof of ownership isn’t a guarantee his family will be able to access their bank accounts or real estate. He’s not optimistic about his right to internet access garnering more respect from the authorities that provide such digital infrastructure. This would make bitcoin tricky, albeit not impossible, for his family to trust as a long-term store of value. Will using bitcoin require sophisticated computer skills?

Given the wide range of contexts that censorship can take, it’s impossible to say whether today’s brief glimpse of  “open access” via cryptocurrency will go the way of MySpace, offering a fleeting moment of cultural significance before devolving into a punchline.

On the way back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, surrounded by old ghosts on the road at midnight, I realized I haven’t escaped a form of Jerusalem syndrome, a psychiatric condition where tourists suffer a breakdown in the Holy Land and suddenly believe they are a supernatural being with a divine mission.

So I turned to Rosenfeld, the IBA chairman and veteran bitcoiner, to ask him if we’ve all simply caught a high-tech version of Jerusalem syndrome, evangelizing blockchain technology like zealots.

“Bitcoin sheds light on the disadvantages of the traditional financial system and offers some alternatives,” he said, adding:

“It’s not the solution for all things.”

Bitcoin Core contributor Jeremy Rubin speaks at Scaling Bitcoin Tel Aviv, photo by Leigh Cuen for CoinDesk


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