Does A Thriving Israel Still Need Our Support?
Tue, 06/04/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Melvyn H. Bloom
Melvyn H. Bloom

Israel has been much in the news lately, and a good portion of the coverage over the past months has been good. That in itself is news.

A recent Bloomberg survey showed that the Israeli shekel is currently among the strongest of 31 major currencies, a result of the booming economy. Also in May, after decades of Israel importing every drop of fuel, natural gas began to flow from the Mediterranean.

By 2015, Israel expects to be fully energy independent, and possibly even an energy exporter. And there’s more good news: Israel is well on the way to water independence, thanks in large part to desalination, which supplies up to 40 percent of the country’s demand for water, and reuse of water two to three times for agriculture and industry, which supplies another 40 percent.

All this good news may push the issue of the country’s $3 billion in annual aid from the United States once again onto the agenda, especially as the impact of the sequestration cuts is more widely felt. Likewise, some in the American Jewish community may begin to think that with Israel successful on so many fronts, our aid is no longer needed, or at least not needed on the same level.

I will leave the U.S. budget wars to politicians and pundits. Instead, I will write, as writers are always instructed, about what I know. And what I know is that Israel continues to need our support as much as ever.

In Israel’s early days, the money the American Jewish community donated was used for purchasing land, establishing communities and building public institutions. Later, the efforts shifted to social causes and education. Positive change has been rapid, and many of us have lived through each of these phases. But some of these needs continue into the 21st century. The gap between rich and poor in Israel is one of the highest of all developed countries, and no amount of natural gas is likely to change that. Nor is it likely to provide the enormous resources needed by the nation’s chief source of fuel for its economic engine: its excellent universities, especially those focused on science, technology and entrepreneurship.

The education and research at the universities comprise Israel’s “hard drive.” This is where talented students become scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs. Most also work at technology-based companies as they study economics, entrepreneurship and management. Soon after graduation, a large number launch and manage companies that succeed on the international stage.

As a result, Israel has more companies on Nasdaq than any country outside the U.S. except China. It is the world’s second most productive technology pioneer. In proportion to its population, it has the largest number of startup companies in the world. Even in absolute terms, it has the largest number of startup companies in the world after the U.S. It is ranked second in the world for venture capital funds, again right behind the U.S. Last year’s selection of the Technion as Cornell University’s partner in establishing the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute on Roosevelt Island has alerted the world to Israel’s primacy in turning scientists and engineers into innovators and the spark plugs for industrial development and growth. 

Israelis understand that these achievements are not just an enormous economic boon; they are also a public relations boon that helps show Israel in a new and positive light. That’s why President Obama’s itinerary during his recent visit was strikingly different from the one he followed when he was there as a presidential candidate, different from those of his predecessors and different from most presidents’ visits to other countries. He was treated to examples of technological innovation such as an external “skeleton” that gets paraplegics out of their wheelchairs and walking, met high school students who won a prestigious international robotics competition held in the U.S., and inspected a mobile missile-defense battery that has protected Israel’s population from enemy rockets. He was shown a country that has staked its future on innovation in technology, science and medicine, generating breakthroughs that help people around the world live better, safer lives.

But as Uzi Landau, Israel’s energy minister cautions, “We have to be very careful not to think that with natural gas there is no more need to continue in the same direction of the past: to focus on education, focus on research and development and to do whatever we can to solidify the social fabric of our society.”

This can only happen at the universities, which have always responded to the country’s needs. (For example, as soon as the gas fields off the coast were discovered, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology launched a master’s program in Energy Engineering with specialization in natural gas and petroleum engineering.)

And it can only happen with our support. Tuition at Israel’s public universities is very low by international standards. Government subsidies, which are regularly cut, hardly make up the difference. Even if tuition were substantially higher, it could not cover the cost of “big science,” which continues to grow.

It’s our responsibility — and our privilege, together with Israel’s friends at home and around the world, to continue and enhance our partnership with Israel’s universities. It’s our responsibility to provide the resources, encouragement and emotional support they need to maintain Israel’s position at the forefront of the global economy. It’s our responsibility to help maintain the flame that burns ever brighter in a dark corner of the globe.

Melvyn Bloom is executive vice president of the American Technion Society.

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