Just a few days before leaving on a business trip to Israel, I happened to watch Chris Matthews on “Hardball”. There was this hard-charging, no-nonsense cynic almost dewy-eyed congratulating “this gutsy little country” for its 60th birthday. What caught his sharp eye and his sense of symbolism was a young woman soldier sitting near him in the movie theater and resting her Uzi on the next seat. “Where else in the world can you see something like that,” he asked in wonderment. I realized at that moment how jaded I was; having been born and raised in that country, I saw many similar sights and just took it for granted. But now that my consciousness has been raised, I couldn’t help noticing the phenomenon that is Israel.
We are traveling south for a dinner party with a friend. Now consider this: He is a Yemenite TV director whose father, the family patriarch, walked from Yemen, across the Arabian Desert, to the Promised Land. I am full of admiration—how could he do it, I ask? “I just loaded the donkey and started walking,” he answers matter-of-factly. Extraordinary.
They live near a small town called Yavne, about 20 miles south of Tel Aviv. This was the very place where the Jewish High Court, called the Sanhedrin, settled after the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD by the Romans. And what is Yavne today? This is one of the agricultural settlements established by Jewish pioneers, arriving by rickety boats from Europe and on foot from Yemen, at the end of the 19th century.
The descendants of these farmers are still there, tending their orange groves. But lo: On the outskirts of town is the campus of Ormat, a company pioneering the harnessing of geothermal energy as well as co-generation, which is a process of capturing the waste heat generated by industrial processes, and utilizing it for alternative energy production. Here is one of the most modern green industries, using extremely sophisticated technology and operating in hundreds of places around the world. Not far, in a town called Rehovot, is a host of biotechnology companies, perfecting products from nerve regeneration for spinal cord injury, to tissue engineering for organ replacement, to new cancer treatments. All this under the watchful, and I am sure approving, eyes of the ancient Jewish sages of 2,000 years ago.
Interesting interview on TV. Sergei Brin, the co-founder of Google, is in Israel to announce his company’s investments in Israeli technology companies. His first investment? Ormat, the alternative energy company we came across yesterday. But he doesn’t intend to stop there. Israel, he maintains, is an international powerhouse of talent in computer science, in software development, in biotechnology, as well as green energy. Which reminded me that instant messaging was invented by young Israelis fresh out of their army service (a company called ICQ, later acquired by AOL), that drip irrigation was invented by a couple of Kibbutzim (full disclosure: I was a member of one of them), that water desalination by reverse osmosis, the preferred technology, was invented by an Israeli engineer (the Zarhi process), that the most effective drug for treatment of MS (Copaxon) was invented at the famed Weitzmann Institute in Rehovot, and so on, and so on.
I was again marveling at how jaded one can get living there; I had known these facts, but never stopped to think how extraordinary it was that a small country of 7 million people, barely 60 years old and still fighting for its physical existence, could affect so profoundly the lives of close to 4 billion people. Which reminds me of Isaiah II, who prophesied 2,500 years ago that following the ingathering of the exiles from Babylon Israel will become “Light unto the Nations”.