Biblio File: Innovation Nation

Biblio File: Innovation Nation
Israeli mobile technology

Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World
by Avi Jorisch, Gefen, 2018. 284pp. $54.00

As Israel celebrated its 70 years of independence, the nation took stock of its achievements – from democratic milestones to cinematic, political, security and artistic breakthroughs.

So it is very fitting that a new book lays out how Israeli technologies are making a global impact.

Thou Shalt Innovate, How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World, is written by Washington-based Avi Jorisch, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council who specialises in Islamic history and philosophy. He authored four previous books, including one tracing the financing of terror and another on Hezbollah’s official television station, Al-Manar.

The idea for the book on Israeli innovation “started to germinate in 2014,” said Jorisch in a phone interview. Born to a family of Holocaust survivors with close historical, cultural and religious ties to Israel, he was raised in New York City but spent years living and studying in Israel.

Jorisch was in Israel in the summer of 2014 during the Gaza war when Hamas Islamist militants were blasting rockets into Israel. It was then that he witnessed firsthand, as he rushed to a shelter carrying his son, how Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system managed to keep the onslaught at bay by intercepting the missiles.

“For the next seven weeks, the sirens blasted as this scene repeated itself. The fear never went away, but my family, like the rest of Israel, found comfort in the Iron Dome. I marvelled at this invention,” wrote Jorisch.

Soon after that, “almost by chance” he started noticing other Israeli innovations, that, he said, were helping to make “a real difference in fostering a kinder, gentler world.”

He noticed that in traffic accidents, emergency responders riding “ambucycles” – motorbikes refitted as ambulances – were quick to appear; his Jerusalem gardener brought to his attention a drip irrigator that saved water; and a colleague of his with Parkinson’s began undergoing deep brain stimulation with a device designed by an Arab couple from Nazareth to help mitigate his symptoms. Thus Jorisch set off on a mission to find the Israeli technologies that are making a difference.

He was overwhelmed by what he found.

“I did not know the full extent of the impact Israeli tech was having around the world. It did come as a surprise to me,” Jorisch said.

Jorisch selected 15 technologies and their entrepreneurs in fields as varied as drugs, drip irrigation, solar power, defence, agriculture and cybersecurity. “I chose the 15 because they spoke to me in a fundamental way,” he said in the interview. “They stirred me and they inspired me.” And they are making a difference in this world, he said.

At the end of the book, in an appendix, Jorisch lists what he says are Israel’s 50 greatest technological contributions to the world. “I could have very easily kept going to 100, 200, 300,” he said. Finding technologies that were having an impact on the world was not the challenge, he explained; what was challenging was whittling that list down to 15.

Among his 15 innovations are the Check Point Software Technologies firewall that protects enterprises from cybersecurity breaches; Harry Zvi Tabor’s solar water heating system; and Raphael Mechoulam’s discovery of the chemical structure of marijuana, which enabled the creation of medications to treat a variety of conditions.

Also included is the work of Michel Revel, who got the blessing of the Chabad Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to study foreskins, leading to the development of Rebif, a key drug to treat multiple sclerosis; Shlomo Navarro’s Grain Cocoon, a hermetically sealed bag to preserve grains and rice; and Yossi Leshem’s mapping of the billion birds that fly over Israel, to avoid collisions with airplanes. His work is today a global standard to help stop planes from crashing into birds.

Based on interviews with more than 100 people, including, when possible, the innovators themselves, policy makers, engineers, venture capital officials and think tank members, the book tells us the story behind the innovations and the innovators – how the ideas became a reality and how these technologies are being used today globally.

A common thread emerges from these stories: the reader realises that these companies and products were developed through a magical combination of chance, hardheadedness and determination in the face of sceptics, a will to succeed, identification of a need, personal motivation and finding the right partner.

The importance of army service in the evolution of entrepreneurs is another common denominator that surfaces from the tales Jorisch recounts.

The idea of drip irrigation came to Simcha Blass one day in the early 1930s, when he went to visit a friend at his home in Karkur, a town near Haifa. He noticed, as they were sharing a meal outside, that among similar trees in a row, one tree was bigger than others, even though they all were supposedly treated in the same way.

“Intrigued, Blass started looking around,” Jorisch wrote in the book. “What he found surprised him: the topsoil was completely dry, but a dripping faucet in the area had soaked the root system underneath the tall tree. He started digging and found an onion-shaped wet zone that kept the ground moist, with almost no surface evaporation.” Drip irrigation is now used by farmers worldwide to improve their crops.

Another story recounts how a cop on a motorcycle gave Eli Beer a ticket for speaking on his cellphone while stuck in traffic, annoying Beer but giving him the idea of providing first responders with refitted motorcycles to help them weave through traffic to get to emergencies faster than ambulances, triggering the founding of the United Hatzalah emergency service.

Check Point Software’s founder, Gil Shwed, who, after his army service in the elite 8200 intelligence unit, refused to go to college, much to the chagrin of his parents, had the foresight to realise in the 1990s – when the internet was still used mainly by governments and universities – that the web would one day be “something huge.” And when that happened, users would need protection.

“Israel is far more than just producing great startups. It has mature companies that are making the world better,” Jorisch said in the interview. “There is no single narrative that defines the State of Israel. But there is no denying that the country has extraordinary innovators who are bound together not by religion, money and stature, but rather by a desire to save lives and make the world a better place. It is an extraordinary story that needs to be told. It is not a story people focus on; it is certainly not the first thing most people think about when they focus on Israel.”

This push to do good, Jorisch said in the book, is entrenched in Jewish culture. “Whoever saves a live, it is considered as if he saved an entire world,” according to the Mishnah in Sanhedrin, the Jewish oral tradition. And Judaism believes that the purpose of human beings is to make the world a better place. The Jewish prayer of Aleinu, recited three times a day, instructs worshippers to repair the world, among other things, the book explains.

“Israel is the combination of a 3,000-year tradition that basically instructed us, day in and day out, to repair the world and make the world a better place,” Jorisch said. And thus Israel, he said, “is the combination of 3,000 years of history meeting modern day tech. And that is the story I wanted to focus on.”

There is no doubt Thou Shalt Innovate is a feel-good book, full of hope and inspiring stories that likely will make its way to the shelves of many of those who bought the book Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, which records Israel’s economic success and the creation of the nation’s startup ecosystem.

“Israel is a complicated country, but this is the best that it has to offer,” Jorisch said in the interview. The book, he said “is not about technology; it is a book about impact. All of these technologies have already had impact.” And if Israel has already contributed so much to the world, “imagine what the country would look like if it were not mired in war and constantly needing to defend itself and its borders,” Jorisch wrote.

Jorisch continued, “As countries around the world try to elucidate Israel’s innovative ‘secret sauce’ for their own populations and economies, they should look to the essence of Israeli culture for guiding principles. Thou Shalt Innovate is a tale about Israelis who have chosen hope and healing over death and destruction. In a part of the world that has more than its share of darkness, these stories are rays of light.”

© Times of Israel (www.timesofIsrael.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.