Opinion: They said it couldn’t be done

They said it couldn’t be done; that the rebirth of an ancient nation would be like growing fish in the desert. But, 64 years later, Israel has accomplished both. Just ask Dotan Bar-Noy, CEO of Israel’s Grow Fish Anywhere Advanced Systems, which develops innovative water technologies for arid fish farming that can help feed millions around the world. 

With a population of only 7.8 million, less than that of Los Angeles County, Israel is breaking ground in so many areas, and the world is finally taking notice. Israel is exporting wine to France, durum wheat for pasta to Italy and water technologies to nations with an abundance of water. 

In the last six months, Israel won its 10th Nobel Prize; Apple inaugurated its first-ever research and development center outside California, in Haifa; Intel announced a $3 billion upgrade to its southern Israeli research and development center producing its most innovative chip; information systems company EMC announced a new cloud technology development center in the Negev; and IBM, Google and Microsoft launched Israeli high-tech incubators. Meanwhile, Cornell University partnered with the Technion, winning an international bid to build a world-class science and engineering campus in New York City.

This year, Israelis also made strides in unlikely places. With Israel’s 10th Academy Award nomination and 11 television formats in development for the United States, Israel is becoming a permanent fixture in Hollywood. “Homeland,” the Israeli-inspired Golden Globe-winning drama, will be filming several episodes in Israel. Madonna is launching her global tour in Tel Aviv this summer, while Waves, an Israeli company creating audio technologies, has become a music industry standard. 

What’s more, Roberto Cavalli launched the first-ever Tel Aviv Fashion Week; Tel Aviv was voted one of the top three world destinations and most gay-friendly city; Tel Aviv Museum of Art won Travel & Leisure’s Best Museum Award for its new Herta and Paul Amir Building; and Israel’s Recanati Winery won the highest prize at the Oscars of the wine world. 

It should be no surprise, then, that tourism to Israel is shattering records, approaching 4 million visitors a year.

Maybe these tourists know something that world headlines aren’t revealing. 

Maybe it’s worth taking a fresh look at Israel. 

It’s not just about accolades; it’s about real solutions to real problems, such as the environment, world hunger and humanitarian issues. Israel has become a world leader in responding to these challenges. 

Eco-innovation may be the new buzzword, but Israel has vast experience with solar and alternative energy, waste treatment and recycling innovations. It’s not just the Better Place electric car. Israel is a super-power in all things water-related, a pioneer in drip irrigation while recycling 10 times more water than most countries. Is that important? Just ask any water expert here in Southern California, a region facing severe water challenges.

And last week, the United States and Israel signed another agreement to cooperate on food security in Africa. 

Organizations such as IsraAID, Israel Flying Aid, Magen David Adom and Save a Child’s Heart are all components of Israel’s “global first responders.” These are volunteers constantly on call, providing assistance in some of the most difficult disasters around the world. Israeli doctors and relief workers were among the first on the ground after earthquakes struck Haiti, Turkey and Japan. And, they are still there.

Closer to home, there has been a strengthening of academic ties and more scientific exchanges, as USC President C.L. Max Nikias and UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake both led high-level delegations to Israel, with faculty and deans. Both signed a host of agreements with several Israeli universities.

You may be skeptical about all this good news, and argue Israel faces multiple security and societal challenges, and you would be right. There are certainly very serious challenges: continued rocket fire from Gaza aimed at our southern cities, the unraveling of the entire Middle East, the rise of extremist Islam, political stalemate with the Palestinians, uncertainty in Syria, and the growing threat of a nuclear-armed Iran with severe implications for the region and the world.

Internally, social, economic and religious challenges are difficult to resolve. But Israel’s civil society is vibrant and makes its voice heard. These debates are very real and should be embraced as part of a robust and diverse democracy.

Regional conflict does not hinder our drive, alter our identity or define our purpose. The spirit of Israel is broader than that. But with the conversation about Israel being almost exclusively focused on the narrow confines of conflict and crises, it comes as no surprise that other aspects of Israel are unknown.

This year, let’s commit ourselves to a broader conversation, not one solely limited to the “gevalt” narrative.

Don’t just take my word for it. Go to Israel and see for yourself. If you want to learn more, “like” my Facebook page at facebook.com/CGDavidSiegel, and stay informed about Israel.

Here’s to 64 years of our Jewish homeland. Yom HaAtzmaut Sameach!

David Siegel is Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles.