Expanding the Israeli prism

Why not focus on the fact that Israel is a developed, valuable modern democracy?The international media continues to refract every Israeli issue through the prism of the Palestinian question but the occasion of Israel’s fifty-ninth birthday last month presented an …

Why not focus on the fact that Israel is a developed, valuable modern democracy?The international media continues to refract every Israeli issue through the prism of the Palestinian question but the occasion of Israel’s fifty-ninth birthday last month presented an opportunity to step back from the ongoing conflict and take stock of its many accomplishments. For since its foundation in 1948 when, to borrow Seamus Heaney’s phrase, 2,000 years of Jewish ‘hope and history finally rhymed,’ Israel has established itself as a highly-developed, modern democratic state and a major player on the international stage.

For example, Israel is today a global force in the field of in science and technology. Given its tiny size and lack of natural resources, it has developed a sophisticated high-tech economy and today ranks first in the world as regards the percentage of scientists and technicians in the workforce.

Boasting the world’s highest ratio of university degrees per population, it produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation and has one of the highest per capita rates of patents filed. Unsurprisingly then, Israel enjoys the highest concentration of high-tech companies outside of Silicon Valley – global giants such as Microsoft, IBM, Intel and Cisco have established major research and development centers there. Voicemail and internet instant messenger technologies were both developed in Israel and Israeli scientists also designed and developed Intel’s Pentium MMX technology and much of Microsoft’s Windows NT operating system.

This technological know-how has been applied to agricultural science with impressive results. Israel’s tri-annual Agritech exhibition, which showcases the latest technological innovations, attracts thousands of farming professionals from over 100 countries. Companies such as Agroproject provide agricultural consultancy services to private enterprises, public sector customers and international aid organizations working in the developing world, most recently in Afghanistan and Angola.

With 60% of its land defined as ‘arid,’ Israel has become the world leader in developing desert farming techniques such as drip irrigation, solar energy harnessing, brackish water fish farming, algae cultivation and desalination and, one hundred years after the first aliya, its deserts continue to bloom ? Israel is the only country with an annual net gain in its number of trees and over 50 million Israeli flowers were sent to Europe last Valentine’s Day.

Scientists travel from all over the world to study at Ben Gurion University’s Albert Katz International School for Desert Studies and the UN has publicly acknowledged its expertise in this field. Israel is also leading the way in water treatment technology and it is expected that, by the end of the decade, Israeli farmers will get half their water supply from recycled wastewater.

Medicine is another field in which Israel has excelled. Israeli scientists have been responsible for many recent advances in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, Hepatitis C and multiple sclerosis and breakthroughs have also been reported in the areas of umbilical stem cell research and ovarian tissue transplantation.

Israeli pharmaceutical companies such as Teva and Abic produce some of the world’s leading therapeutic drugs while the medical device industry is considered the most sophisticated in the world with Israel ranking first in the world in patents per capita. Recent innovations include the world’s first ingestible “camera in a capsule” for the diagnosis of gastrointestinal conditions from Given Imaging; the ClearLight anti-acne device; and InSightec Haifa’s development of the ExAblate 2000 system which provides a non-invasive alternative to the treatment of tumors.

Israel’s medical achievements are now being recognized. For instance, two Israeli scientists won the 2004 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their medical research while the Technion’s Shulamit Levenberg was included in last year’s prestigious Scientific American 50 for her work on the creation of lab-manufactured organs for transplant.

And in November 2006, Dr. Hossam Haick of Nazareth was awarded a grant under the EU’s Marie Curie Excellence program to further his development of an artificial olfactory system that can detect and diagnose cancer in the earliest possible stages.

But Israel’s scientific and technological pre-eminence has not been achieved at the expense of its cultural life. As a melting pot of European, Middle Eastern and African cultural traditions, it has also made a rich contribution to the world of the arts.

Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzhak Perlman and Daniel Barenboim are today legends in the world of classical music while Dan Ettinger, Yaron Gottfried and Asher Fisch are tipped as the faces of the future. Israeli musicians have also had a significant impact on the New York jazz scene and popular artists such as Ivri Lider and Idan Raichel singing in Hebrew, Arabic and Amharic are making their mark abroad.

Israeli authors such as Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and David Grossman are feted throughout the literary world (Israel has the second highest publication of new books per capita in the world) while the poetry of Yehuda Amichai ranks among the greatest of the 20th century. Meanwhile, increased funding under the New Cinema Law 2000 has helped put the Israeli film industry on the international map. There are today ten film schools and seven international film festivals in Israel and movies such as The Syrian Bride, Sweet Mud, The Bubble, Beaufort and West Bank Story have recently won world prizes.

Even though the Palestinian issue looms large within the context of Israel and the world, the international media should occasionally take time to look beyond the conflict and acknowledge six decades of these impressive Israeli achievements.