Israel and Science: A Love Story. A special project for Israel’s independence day

גרסה עברית של המאמר מופיעה בפוסט הבא
It took a hundred years of solitude to wean
Israelis away from their idealistic aspiration
of becoming a “people like any other people”
and turn them away from manual labor, back
to a way of life predicated on knowledge
and research

In the year 1924, after completing his studies
in pharmacology, my grandfather Yehiel Sochen,
son of the great Rabbi Abraham Halevi Sochen,
immigrated to the land of Israel. Scion of an
illustrious dynasty of Lithuanian rabbis, the
rebellious youth decided to turn his life in a new
and radical direction – that of manual labor. Like
many members of his generation who immigrated
to the Land of Israel, he turned his back on a way
of life that sanctified learning and intellect, trading
it in for new ideals of simplicity, human solidarity,
partnership and back-breaking physical labor. He
himself never looked back. He never worked as a
pharmacist, never set foot in the research and
development department of a pharmaceutical
company. To his last day, he continued to work
as a simple construction laborer.
In 1934, a stranger knocked on the door of the
modest abode belonging to my grandfather Yehiel
and his wife, Pnina, in Ra’anana. Home alone was
their young son, the 5-year-old Isaac. “Is Mrs.
Sochen in?” inquired the stranger. The boy, who
would eventually become my uncle, emerged
from the entrance and delivered a forceful kick
to the leg of the astonished stranger. "My mother
is not a Mrs.," he said proudly with an adamancy
that would, within a few years, become the
trademark of the so-called War of Independence
generation. "My mother is a worker!"
Seventy years later, my cousin Nir, Isaac’s son,
is a scientist and lecturer in computer sciences at
Tel Aviv University, and the title "worker" no
longer fills the heart of the true-blue Israeli
with pride. Encapsulated in this family vignette
are the attitudes of four generations of Israelis.
After about 100 years of a romance with manual
labor, Israelis have returned to the scholarly
tradition of their forefathers. But now, they are
flooding the world with an astonishing, even
inspiring, torrent of inventions and ideas. As
Alfred Doolittle put it in the Lerner and Loewe
musical My Fair Lady:
The Lord above gave man an arm of iron
So he could do his job and never shirk.
The Lord gave man an arm of iron – but
With a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck,
Someone else'll do the blinkin' work!

So now we, for our part, prefer to sit in air-conditioned
rooms, drink espresso, and dream up inventions to
overtake the world by storm.
This is what Israel looks like today: a huge reservoir
of creative minds seeking an outlet for their curiosity
and their capacity for invention and improvisation
– along with a Talmudic skepticism that does not
take any existing solution for granted and an
almost impudent belief in their power to find more
accurate and more efficient solutions for every
human need. The Israeli track record is impressive:
They’re creating everything from new drugs and
medical instruments, to semiconductor technologies,
to advanced nanomaterials that dramatically improve
the efficiency of machines.
Recent international surveys have positioned
Israel globally in first place in the areas of astrophysics
and the material sciences (including nanotechnology),
in second place worldwide in the computer sciences,
and in the global top ten in mathematics, chemistry,
and certain areas of the life sciences and physics.
Although Israel's population constitutes only 0.1
percent of the world's population, it produces
more than 1.0 percent of scientific publications
worldwide. In the ratio of scientific production to
gross domestic product, Israel is world champion. In
the ratio of population to scientific product, Israel
occupies third place in the world, after Switzerland
and Sweden. An additional index, the number
of patents registered in the United States per population,
positions Israel amongst the world's top ten countries.
How did this come about? How and why was the
circle closed? Why do we find ourselves flying
back to the point where our forefathers, those
pioneers, left their parents in Europe at the start of
the previous century? The simple truth is that this
ending was foretold. The founders of Zionism –
Theodore Herzl and Dr. Chaim Weizmann – viewed
science as a fundamental element of their
proposed Hebrew national revival. In 1882, Herman
C. Schapiro, a professor of mathematics at Heidelberg
University, was already talking of establishing a
university in the Land of Israel. Schapiro contented
himself with establishing the Jewish National Fund.
But in 1924, the Technion was founded in Haifa,
followed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925;
and the Sieff Institute, forerunner of the Weizmann
Institute of Science, was established in Rehovot in
1934. This might be the first case in history in which
a people set up institutions for scientific research prior
to establishing its own state.
During the initial decades of the State of Israel,
its scientists virtually sanctified pure, basic science.
Such words as "applied", "engineer" and "technological"
were almost considered dirty words. A well-known
saying claimed that "a person searching for technology
in the halls of science is like one seeking love in the
red light district." The only exceptions to this rule
were practical scientific studies designed to solve
pressing problems of survival. Thus, for example,
during World War II, when the Allies suffered a
shortage of drugs, the scientists at the Sieff Institute
developed substitutes for the treatment of malaria
and dysentery. Scientists and engineers at the
Technion worked at developing spare parts for
planes and tanks, and at the Hebrew University,
others manufactured vital components for British
Royal Air Force transmitters. During Israel’s War
of Independence, David Ben-Gurion, the country’s
first Prime Minister and supreme commander of
the Israeli army, established the Science Corps and
allocated to it what were, for those times, huge
But the major reconciliation between basic science
and the world of technological application began
in the 1950s, when intellect was harnessed on behalf
of manual labor. Thus was progressive, high-tech
agriculture developed, and Israeli farming methods
soon attained a worldwide reputation. In those
same years, the first few fundamental steps were
taken on the path toward transforming Israel into
a high-tech society. In 1954, at the Weizmann
Institute of Science, WEIZAC – Israel’s first
electronic computer and the ninth in the world –
was built.

Just how courageous and visionary the decision
was to construct this computer in Israel can be
gauged by Albert Einstein’s response to those
Americans and Israelis who solicited his advice
on the matter: "I do not believe that such a small
country as Israel really needs the computer.” In
practice, it was WEIZAC and the research activity
that swarmed around it that engendered the
accelerated development of Israel’s software industry,
which, by the 1990s, had garnered a worldwide
reputation. In the same year that WEIZAC
was built –1954 – Nathan Rosen, who had
been Einstein's research partner, established a
physics department at the Technion. This department,
although it focused primarily on basic research in
astrophysics and cosmology, trained many scientists,
some of whom would go on to captain Israel's
companies for advanced electronics, space and
The next step came right after the Six-Day War,
when a government committee headed by
Professor Ephraim Katzir of the Weizmann
Institute (Katzir would later serve as the State of
Israel's fourth president) recommended the appointment
of a chief scientist to be responsible for research and
development in every government ministry. The result:
Two-thirds of the general growth in productivity in
Israel from 1970 to 1997 was derived from research
and development activity. The growth rate of advanced
industry during these years was 16% per annum (in
other branches of the economy it was about 4%). Today
there are over 3,000 advanced industrial plants operating
in Israel, exporting products with a total value of $10 billion
per annum. To this figure can be added a similar volume
of sales by multinational corporations that develop and
sell products hatched in the laboratories of Israeli scientists.

The point here is that all of Israel’s technological
and medical success stories had their start in basic
scientific research, which then led to the development
of applications. For example, the first drug to be
developed in Israel and secure American Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) approval was Copaxone,
used to treat multiple sclerosis. The roots of this drug
are to be found in the research of Professor Ephraim
Katzir, who, back in the 1940s, prepared synthetic
polypeptides – long molecules resembling proteins.
Ten years later, Katzir's student Professor Michael
Sela (who would later serve as president of the
Weizmann Institute) discovered that these polypeptides
could awaken the immune system. Sela, together with
his student Professor Ruth Arnon (who would
become a vice president of the Weizmann Institute
and currently serves as president of the Association
of Academies of Sciences in Asia) and the late Dr.
Dvora Teitelbaum, began to examine possible
applications for his molecules. And it was these
experiments that led, thirty years later, to the
development and approval of the drug Copaxone.
Manufactured and marketed by the Israeli firm Teva
Corporation, Copaxone is currently
sold worldwide and has a sales volume approaching
$1 billion per annum. This discovery effectively
advanced Teva from a manufacturer of generic drugs
to an ethical pharmaceuticals company, transforming
it into an international pharmaceutical giant.
In those same years, just a two-minute walk from
the laboratory of Sela and Arnon on the Weizmann
campus, a separate research team headed by
Professor Michel Revel was at work. Revel’s
story is especially relevant because it illustrates
the difference between institutions for basic
research and high-tech companies (and the
importance of investing in both). So, right next
to the birthplace of Copaxone, a second research
group was focusing on developing biotechnological
methods for manufacturing interferons –
natural chemical messengers that stimulate the
immune system. At first, researchers believed
that interferons could be used to combat cancer,
and this became the basis of an agreement between
the Weizmann Institute and the European
pharmaceutical company, Serono, to create the
biotechnological company Interpharm for developing
various applications based on the discoveries of
Professor Michel Revel and other Weizmann Institute
of Science scientists. But, as is often the case in
scientific-medical research, the interferons did not
fulfill their initial promise of fighting cancer. Instead,
they surprised the researchers by offering a solution
to a different problem. It turns out that one type of
interferon, beta interferon, eases the symptoms of
multiple sclerosis. Rebif – the drug developed on
this basis by Interpharm – is sold today worldwide
for more than $500, million per annum.
The lesson of this story is that basic research
can lead to unimagined places. No pharmaceutical,
high-tech or biotech company would have permitted
two teams to work side-by-side, in parallel, on
finding a solution to the very same problem –
using methods that differed so completely from
each other. On the level of rational economic
planning, there is no logic to developing two
products that might compete with each other in
a relatively limited market. But in practice, this
is precisely what is occurring today: Rebif does
indeed compete with Copaxone. In defiance of
the economic concept of "project management,"
however, both have reaped profits; there are no
losers. This is perhaps the main secret behind
the success story of science and advanced
industry in Israel: the parallel and independent
existence of a number of tracks searching for
solutions to similar problems. Heightened
individualism, intellectual independence and
sweeping skepticism all play a role. When one
searches again and again, in various places and
in various ways, one eventually discovers.
“Seek and ye shall find — believe in it,” states
the Talmudic dictum.
This is precisely the path that led Professors
Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of
the Technion to discover the ubiquitin system
for the degradation of proteins in the cell – a
discovery that brought them the Nobel Prize
for Chemistry in 2004 (together with the American
Professor Irving Rose). A number of Israeli
companies are currently attempting to apply their
discoveries to developing cancer-fighting drugs.
This path also led Professor Ada Yonath of the
Weizmann Institute to persevere for three decades,
disregarding the negative prospects and expert
evaluations, in her ambitious search for the
three-dimensional spatial structure of ribosome.
This research, which won Professor Yonath the
Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, has led to an
understanding of the working mechanisms of
various antibiotic drugs, which, in turn, may
lead to the development of advanced drugs
against bacteria resistant to current antibiotics.
Another scientist, Professor Joseph Itzkowitz
of the Technion, was one of the first in the
world to succeed in growing human stem
cells in cell cultures – that is, outside the body.
These cultured cells might one day be used to
replace damaged cells in the body or to cure
degenerative diseases. Professor Yair Reisner,
Chairman of the Weizmann Institute’s Immunology
Department, discovered "time windows" for
transplanting stem cells from one living species
to another. Thus, for example, he succeeded in
growing a functional human kidney in a mouse.
The long-range goal of these studies is to
develop methods for using pig stem cells to
help overcome the severe shortage of human
organs for transplant. Here, we find evidence
for the considerable shortcuts that have been
developed to move such discoveries from the
scientific research laboratory to the pharmaceutical
and biotechnology companies. It took Copaxone
30 years to cover the distance from the beginnings
of the basic research to the final application; in
Reisner’s case, a biotechnological company
dedicated to developing applications based on his
transplant methods was established the same year
he published his original findings.
Other drugs developed in Israel are a growth
hormone to prevent dwarfism, produced by the
General Biotechnological Company of Nes
Ziona, and the drug Exelon, for the treatment
of Alzheimer’s disease, based on the research
of Professor Marta Rosin-Weinstock at the Hebrew
University of Jerusalem. Total sales of the latter
drug are approaching $420 million.
Medical instruments developed in Israel include,
inter alia, laser-based surgery tools, medical
scanners (tomography systems), nuclear medicine
techniques, and miniature video cameras encased
in an oral pill that can photograph the digestive
tract and identify cancerous tumors. The Israeli
developer of arterial stents, Medinol, made headlines
when it won a victory over the American company
Boston Scientific in a struggle for patent rights. A
method for analyzing data from MRI scans
developed by Weizmann Institute Professor
Hadassa Degani currently enables the very early
rapid and non-intrusive identification of breast cancer.
With this method, doctors can distinguish between
cancerous and benign growths, obviating the need
for a biopsy – a painful, often traumatic and always
expensive procedure.
Inevitably, quite a few of the scientific-technological
applications developed in Israel have been intended
for defense, including aim and control systems
for tanks and artillery, night vision systems and
guided missiles of various types. The R&D for
these innovations is very expensive; and since the
Israeli defense establishment can purchase only
relatively small quantities of any new system, the
developers generally recoup their investments by
offering their products on the world market. Thus
a an export branch has sprung up – one whose
volume, according to various publications, totals
several billion dollars per annum. This is a veteran
industrial branch: In 1961, Israel launched its first
research rocket, Shavit II. Then, in the 1980s and
1990s, Israel sent a number of communications
satellites into orbit. One of the more famous of
the many missiles developed in Israel, the Arrow,
was designed to destroy enemy missiles (such as
the Scuds that Iraq launched against Israel during
the first Gulf War) at a stratospheric altitude of
20 to 40 km. A number of tests recently performed
on these missiles have proved successful.
The Israeli company Scitex was a global pioneer
in developing computerized systems for printing
and graphics. Indigo, which took the lead in this
field, recently merged with Hewlett-Packard, and
the technology they developed now constitutes
a global standard. But the crowning glory of Israel’s
cutting-edge industry is undoubtedly the software
industry. Because it consumes few tangible
resources, this industry’s products have the highest
added value. Everywhere in Israel, groups of
adolescents dream of establishing a high-tech
company, developing a global consumer product
and making a killing “of a few millions." This
fantasy begins to sound less ridiculous when we
recall, for example, the “fantastic four” who
developed the Internet message system ICQ and
then sold their company, Mirabilis, to America
Online for slightly over $400 million. Dozens of
similar stories are circulating at any point in time
in the Israeli rumor mill; discussions on how to
develop a high-tech consumer product can be
overheard in cafes from the ritzy shores of Herzliya
Pituach to the crumbling alleyways of old Jaffa.
Other companies that do not want to go the
acquisition route, preferring to continue manufacturing
and leading in their field, are valued on the
NASDAQ exchange at billions of dollars. Gil Schwed,
developer of the firewall concept to protect
computerized systems and the founder and CEO of
Check Point, is today’s ultimate Israeli hero and role
model for nine out of ten Israeli youth.
By their nature, advanced industries require educated
employees, especially those with advanced degrees
in the sciences. The biotechnology industry alone –
considered the smallest branch of Israel’s high-tech
industry – currently includes 200 factories employing
more than 5000 workers. The overwhelming demand
for workers with a scientific education led to the
establishment of an additional four research universities
on top of the three "founding fathers" – the Weizmann
Institute, the Technion and the Hebrew University.
Bar-Ilan University was founded in 1955; Tel Aviv
University in 1956, and Haifa University and Ben-Gurion
University of the Negev in 1972. In addition, Israel’s
Open University was set up in 1973. Last year, no
fewer than 125,000 students were enrolled in these
institutions – 80 times the number of university
students in the early years of the State of Israel –
this despite the fact that the population increased by
only a factor of ten in the same period. Yet even
this did not suffice: The pressure at the university
gates was so immense that scores of local colleges
have been founded around the country, and these
have been authorized to award bachelor’s degrees
in law, engineering, computerized design and
more. About 70,000 students now study at these
General scientific knowledge is a vital tool for
every Israeli citizen; to disseminate this knowledge,
special departments for science teaching were
created in almost every university in Israel, working
to raise the level of scientific education in junior
and senior high schools in Israel. Scientists and
educators cooperate to develop new educational
programs, write updated textbooks (in Hebrew
and Arabic) and create games and educational
software. Special training programs for science
teachers are given priority in these departments.
The young Israeli is stereotypically rebellious;
institutionalized frameworks do not always contribute
optimally to his or her learning experience. To
capture the attention of these children and stimulate
the interest of science-oriented youth, a number of
universities have initiated special units that offer
science workshops, math by mail clubs, a national
mathematics Olympiad, physics tournaments,
software writing competitions, summer camps for
science-loving youth, after-school groups, popular
lectures on scientific subjects, astronomical
observation and more. Tens of thousands of children
and adolescents participate each in year in
these programs.
Ultimately, science and advanced industry are
not merely promising pathways to a better personal
future for Israel’s young people. If used properly,
they can open a channel toward peace in the region.
Trans-border scientific activity such as the SESAME
project (Synchrotron-light for Experimental
Science and Applications in the Middle East) can
bring people of different cultures and nations
together. SESAME is a synchrotron under
construction on Jordanian soil near the Al-Balqa
Applied University outside the city of As Salt
that will be used by scientists from all the countries
in the region: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian
Authority, the Union of Arab Emirates, Turkey,
Iran and Pakistan.

A synchrotron is a giant, ring-shaped tube in
which electrons are accelerated to nearly the
speed of light. In research stations located around
the ring, scientific experiments are performed
using the powerful X-ray radiation emitted
when the electrons accelerate. The synchrotron
is basically a type of particle accelerator, but many
scientists use it as a sort of giant microscope
that enables them to image molecules and atoms.
SESAME will produce five rays suited for
research in nanotechnology, nuclear medicine,
various types of spectroscopy, atomic and
molecular physics, archaeology, environmental
sciences, the development of new drugs, etc.
The idea of building a synchrotron accelerator
to serve Middle Eastern countries, originally
proposed by Professor Hermann Winick of
Stanford University, was promoted by a number
of Israeli scientists including Professor Eliezer
Rabinovici of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem,
and Professors Irit Sagi and Joel Sussman of the
Weizmann Institute’s Structural Biology
Today, even before the accelerator has begun
working, it is already becoming clear that this project
exemplifies international cooperation in science.
The technical director of the project is an Italian,
Dr. Gaetano Vignola. Working closely with him
are Jordanians, Palestinians, Iranians, Moroccans
and Turks. The German president of the SESAME
Council, Professor Herwig Schopper, was recently
replaced by a British scientist, Professor Chris
Llewellyn Smith. Its scientific director is Professor
Khaled Toukan, Jordan’s Minister for Higher
Education and Scientific Research. Professor Irit
Sagi of the Weizmann Institute of Science is a member
of the project's international steering committee,
and scientists from the region's countries, who are
likely to be the main consumers of the facility, visit
with her from time to time and are constantly updated
on the project's progress. A number of regional
scientific workshops have already led to the
development of a multinational network and to the
foundation of an international exchange program
for young scientists and students that exposes students
from the Arab countries to the cutting edge of global
science. Israel's readiness to participate in the project
and invest in it is considered a confidence-building
measure, attesting to its peaceful intentions. Hence,
more than 50 years after the death of Chaim Weizmann,
the first president of both the State of Israel and the
Weizmann Institute of Science, practical measures
are being taken to promote his scientific-political
vision of science's role in bringing peace to our