The Middle East is a tough place for Israelis these days. The daily bill of fare includes the Iranian threat, regime changes in Egypt, rioting and genocide in Syria, and rocket attacks from Gaza. In Lebanon, terror organization Hezbollah is awaiting its cue from Tehran to open a front against Israel.
Despite this problematic situation, Israel is prospering: the Israeli economy is growing, the hi-tech industry is galloping at full pace, Israeli scientists are garnering awards and Israeli art and culture travels abroad and earns accolades and respect. This year an Israeli scientist won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – the sixth Nobel awarded to an Israeli in the past 10 years – and only weeks ago an Israeli film was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film. Indeed, success has become routine.
Israeli success stories have many progenitors, but their common driver is one – the spirit of innovation. How is innovation learned? Can it be learned? Is innovation an acquired or innate trait? And, above all, will a scientist ever be able to clone the DNA of Israeli innovation? And if it is cloned, can it be exported?
Recently, a delegation of European parliament members visited Israel to experience an unmediated encounter with Israeli medical and scientific innovation. While Europe is coping with a deep economic crisis, stagnating indicators of innovation, an aging population, and increased government spending on health care, Israel is indeed a place to learn from.
A study published several months ago by British think tank The Center for European Reform examined the reasons for the failure of innovation in European countries. The researchers’ main conclusion was that innovation requires an attitude of “creative destruction.” In other words, for new ideas to grow, old paradigms must be creatively done away with.
During a visit to the Weizmann Institute of Science, the European parliamentarians met with Prof. Michal Schwartz, a world-renowned specialist in stem cell research, who provided the visitors a live illustration of the concept. Years ago, Prof. Schwartz challenged accepted medical paradigms in the field of stem cell research, while others criticized, ignored and even derided her ideas. But today Prof. Schwarz is a leader in her field, and a source of immense hope for patients suffering from Parkinson’s disease and other forms of paralysis, who look to her to find cures for their conditions.
Researchers from the Weizmann Institute were also those who invented Copaxone, the leading pharmaceutical for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. This is only one example of many. Israel is one of the most productive developers in the fields of bio-medicine and bio-technology, with scores of R&D centers, in which Israelis are redefining the concept of innovation. Leading technology companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Intel have tied their successes to Israeli creativity and innovation, while the bio-medical community in Israel is regularly courted by giant corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and many others.
In an interview Martin Schulz, incoming President of the European Parliament, gave to Haaretz when he took up office a few months ago, he was quoted as saying that the EU will continue to block the upgrading of its relations with Israel as long as the peace process is frozen. “The Parliament’s decision to block the agreements with Israel stems from the lack of progress in the peace process and from our ambition to pressure the Israeli government to alter this situation” said Schulz.
This is the old European paradigm, but a new European paradigm is needed for Europe’s relations with Israel. Just as Europe needs “creative destructiveness” in the field of innovation, it is also necessary to destroy the linkage between upgrading relations with Israel and the peace process. Achieving a just and sustainable peace between Israel and her neighbors is an Israeli interest before it is a European one. Intensification of the economic, scientific, and technological ties between Europe and Israel is a joint Israeli-European interest, and perhaps even a greater one for Europeans than it is for Israelis.
Europe is one of Israel’s most important allies, and historical, cultural, scientific and economic ties are the cornerstone of this complex and rich relationship. For Israelis, Europe is a natural arena for cooperation, due to its geographical and cultural proximity. If Europe remains captive in the old paradigm, Israeli innovation will seek new channels. In a world economy characterized by innovation, standing still means moving backwards, and holding back the upgrading of relations with Europe will lead Israeli innovators to explore other markets.