David Brooks: Israel’s “Astonishing Success”

Israel’s economic miracle just got kosher-certified.

In today’s New York Times, David Brooks devoted his column to the country’s astonishing record of innovation and growth. It’s a story that’s been told widely and often—heck, I wrote my most recent column about it a month ago. 

Brooks began his piece lauding Jewish achievement in general:

Jews are a famously accomplished group. They make up 0.2 percent of the world population, but 54 percent of the world chess champions, 27 percent of the Nobel physics laureates and 31 percent of the medicine laureates.

Jews make up 2 percent of the U.S. population, but 21 percent of the Ivy League student bodies, 26 percent of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37 percent of the Academy Award-winning directors, 38 percent of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, 51 percent of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

Putting aside the obvious—that the rest of us Jews must clearly be underachievers—Brooks goes on to offer some reasons for such excellence:

In his book, “The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement,” Steven L. Pease lists some of the explanations people have given for this record of achievement. The Jewish faith encourages a belief in progress and personal accountability. It is learning-based, not rite-based.

Most Jews gave up or were forced to give up farming in the Middle Ages; their descendants have been living off of their wits ever since. They have often migrated, with a migrant’s ambition and drive. They have congregated around global crossroads and have benefited from the creative tension endemic in such places.

No single explanation can account for the record of Jewish achievement. The odd thing is that Israel has not traditionally been strongest where the Jews in the Diaspora were strongest. Instead of research and commerce, Israelis were forced to devote their energies to fighting and politics.

Then he focuses on Israel, ground zero for new Jewish innovation:

Tel Aviv has become one of the world’s foremost entrepreneurial hot spots. Israel has more high-tech start-ups per capita than any other nation on earth, by far. It leads the world in civilian research-and-development spending per capita. It ranks second behind the U.S. in the number of companies listed on the Nasdaq. Israel, with seven million people, attracts as much venture capital as France and Germany combined.

As Dan Senor and Saul Singer write in “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle,” Israel now has a classic innovation cluster, a place where tech obsessives work in close proximity and feed off each other’s ideas.

Because of the strength of the economy, Israel has weathered the global recession reasonably well. The government did not have to bail out its banks or set off an explosion in short-term spending. Instead, it used the crisis to solidify the economy’s long-term future by investing in research and development and infrastructure, raising some consumption taxes, promising to cut other taxes in the medium to long term. Analysts at Barclays write that Israel is “the strongest recovery story” in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

The Senor book may be Israel’s strongest branding tool since the Six Day War and Noa Tishby. At the General Assembly of United Jewish Communities last year. Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu praised the book at length in his keynote address.

Brooks mentions two caveats about Israel’s growth—that it will increase the disparity between Israel and its neighbors—as if that’s a bad thing—and that entrepreneurs themselves are highly mobile and may fle Israel if Iran makes trouble.  True, but what Brooks is saying is that violent conflict can damage a country’s economy.  That is indeed true.

The deeper danger Israel faces, and that I addressed in my column, is the lack of investment in education.  Every leading Israeli educator I’ve spoken with recently says the same thing: the system that helped educate the current generation of entrepreneurs is broken and underfunded.  From my column:

“What we are harvesting now was planted 30 years ago,” Rivka Carmi, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), told me during a visit to Los Angeles last month. “I’m pessimistic about what will happen 15 years from now, with huge cuts in higher education.”

Israel has decreased the funding to its universities — in BGU’s case by 6 percent — leaving administrators like Carmi scrambling.

In Israel, the state pays for salaries and operating expenses, but development and expansion must come from additional monies raised. And Israelis have not developed a culture of alumni giving.

“If I said we get $20,000 a year from alumni, I’d probably be exaggerating,” Carmi said.

Meanwhile, in this economy, pledges from supporters outside Israel are down 50 percent. Carmi worries that Israel, by not making education funding a bigger priority, will lose its best and brightest.

For her part, Carmi said despite the cuts she won’t touch the scholarships for top students, or funding for research into water, information and solar technologies — areas on which her university’s — and Israel’s — future rests.

“But,” she said, “I’m pessimistic.”

Carmi’s foremost concern may be her students, but Israeli leaders should know that something else is riding on Israel’s high-tech achievement: American Jewish support.

It’s not just about Israel throwing money into the system.  Professor Uriel Reichma,  founder of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya,  Israel’s first truly private university, told me last month that Israel has no choice but to rededicate itself to education.

“In the long run, that will determine our future,” he said. “Our minds are the only resources we have.”

“Government subsidy alone is not the answer,” Reichman said. “It kills initiative.” He said Israel should adopt a “mixed model” to finance higher education — private funding, student loans, research grants — while using government funds and other resources to improve public education at the elementary and high school levels.

The question is whether Israel’s highly dysfunctional political system can take on such a task.  Of course I’d like to be optimistic, but keep in mind that Reichman, the man most qualified to be Minister of Education, was pushed aside in purely political horsetrading.

None of this should take away from Israel’s very real accomplishments.  But the country and its supporters need to be mindful that “astonishing success” begins to a large extent, in the classroom.

To read Brook’s column, click here.