Finding Israel’s New Heroes In The Lab
Tue, 08/17/2010
Special To The Jewish Week

I am searching for a few good heroes, specifically Jewish heroes. This search has taken on new urgency recently, after Israel’s interception of the Gaza-bound boats unleashed a new flotilla of Israel bashing. The search is also driven by concern with growing rifts within the American Jewish community, a community no longer united in its view of Israel as always admirable in its public policy and conduct. Many communal leaders still long for the days of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, Golda Meir and Abba Eban. New heroes are desperately needed to fire up our collective faith in Israel, its people and its future.

They need not be politicians or military heroes. Indeed, I found some excellent candidates on my most recent trip to Israel. Though not household names, they are, through their scientific advances, changing the world. One of them is Professor Shulamit Levenberg at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. This young mother has won a dozen prestigious international prizes, including being named one of 50 “Science Leaders” around the world, along with former Vice President Al Gore, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Apple’s Steve Jobs. Her work focuses on tissue engineering: growing new organs to replace damaged ones. Her achievement, along with another young Technion colleague, Professor Lior Gepstein, involves engineering a beating heart muscle through the use of stem cells, and it is a giant leap toward replacement heart tissue.

Other young scientists equally deserving of heroic stature easily come to mind. Professor Marcelle Machluf watched her mother destroy her own health cleaning houses so she could guarantee her daughter a superior education after they arrived in Israel from Morocco. Professor Machluf, determined to become a scientist so she could fight illnesses like those plaguing her mother, has become a world leader in using gene therapy to fight cancer and in tissue engineering.

Equally admirable scientists populate Israel’s other universities. Professor Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her work deciphering the structure of ribosomes, which have important implications for antibiotics. Another renowned Weizmann researcher discovered that changes in the activity of a single gene in the brain not only cause mice to exhibit anxious behavior, but also lead to metabolic changes that cause them to develop symptoms associated with type 2 diabetes. Robot researcher Amir Shapiro of Ben Gurion University of the Negev builds snakelike robots that can twist like screws, and robots that scale walls by releasing tiny amounts of glue, much as a snail leaves a trail of mucus. And a new drug developed at Hebrew University treats symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Other scientists there developed for the U.S. military’s elite Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency the first countermeasure against a family of lethal toxins.

And while they haven’t yet had the time to accomplish what their teachers have, many of Israel’s university students are also made of the stuff of heroes, sitting in a tank or a fighter plane one day and in a demanding classroom the next.

Each of Israel’s great universities boasts dozens of heroes. These men and women have turned Israel from an exporter of oranges into an exporter of leading-edge technology, recognized globally as a scientific and technological powerhouse. They are driving Israel’s brainpower-centered economy and securing the country against multiple threats.

They are also helping improve lives worldwide with drugs that combat Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and several types of cancer; plants that grow in deserts and tolerate saline water; leading technologies for the Internet; the most advanced water technologies, “green” buildings, and promising alternative energies; and anti-terror technologies that can save untold numbers of lives.

Even those who criticize Israel on every front are forced to admire its scientific achievements and recognize Israel’s contributions to the well being of people everywhere. That’s why academic boycotts against Israeli universities have repeatedly failed.

Israeli scientists’ devotion and sacrifice goes beyond the norm. They could do their research and teaching at any of the world’s leading academic and research centers, benefiting from much more abundant funding and competitive compensation. The fact that they choose to forgo these advantages and work harder and longer for less personal benefit so they can do it in Israel adds to their stature.

We should take great pride in the extraordinary achievements of Israel’s scientists, against difficult odds. Let’s make them our heroes for the 21st century American Jewish community, and let them energize our common goals.

Melvyn H. Bloom is executive vice president of the New York-based American Technion Society.