Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

National Viability & Vitality (7): Israel as a Learning & Adapting Society

In this essay, I will analyze the extent to which Israel constitutes a “Learning & Adapting Society,” the last of the seven central elements underlying national flourishing that I have analyzed these past weeks (see this for the introductory list:

Political culture can last a long time – even millennia, in the case of the Jewish People. For 2000 years, Jews have had to adapt to fast-changing environments, most not very positive from their perspective. True, not all of Jewish history was “lachrymose” (as Prof. Salo Baron famously noted in his monumental, multi-volume Social and Religious History of the Jews), but it certainly was laid out more in thorns than roses. How and why did they manage to survive and even flourish? In a word: education. With the Second Temple’s destruction in 68 CE, the rabbis turned away from Temple sacrifice to religious education (and prayer) as Judaism’s core value. However, literacy is transferable; even if the original goal was to read and write for religious learning and prayer, such literacy (almost universal among Jewish males) enabled them to work in “high-level” professions: education, medicine, trade & commerce, etc. These were virtual skills to be taken anywhere when exile or escape necessitated moving elsewhere. In short, for many hundreds of years Jews honed their ability to be analytical, improvisational, intellectual, original, dialectical, and creative – all in all, to think “out-of-the-box.”

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that when establishing their own country the Zionists put these cognitive talents to good use. From the standpoint of the early 20th century, what they managed to do over the next century was almost unprecedented (compare where Israel stands today economically, technologically, even socially, to every other country gaining independence in the 20th century; only Singapore compares).

Such adaptation did not end with the establishment of the state in 1948. True (as noted in my previous two essays: The Activist State; Effective Institutions), its forward progress was somewhat stunted by the increasingly sclerotic Socialist establishment but given the challenges facing the newborn country (massive immigration and serious national security threats), almost all energy had to first go towards ameliorating those existential challenges. Once government changed hands and a peace treaty was signed with Israel’s biggest enemy (Egypt), the Jewish political culture of adaptive learning was able to fully express itself.

Israel’s nickname is “The Startup Nation” – rightly so. The number of revolutionary inventions emerging from the high-tech sector is astonishing, even more so when considering the breadth of its fields of endeavor: biotech, agritech, fintech, gentech, computer software & cryptography, artificial intelligence, robotics, and above all: military equipment e.g., Iron Dome and now in final development, Iron Beam (anti-missile laser technology).

Most of these advances have two sources: higher education and national security. Israel’s universities are world class (especially the top four: Weizmann Institute of Science, Technion, Hebrew U., and Tel Aviv U.) – almost unheard of for a country barely past its Platinum (70th) Jubilee year, but not all that surprising for a country based on a hoary culture of learning, learning, learning. Its national security advances could be viewed as very unusual given the lack of Jewish military experience over the past two millennia; however, necessity is the mother of invention – and Israel has (unfortunately) had to ramp up its military learning curve as a matter of national life and death.

However, “learning” and “adaptation” do not necessarily go hand in hand. One important Israeli sector is proof of that: the haredim have a very deep learning culture, but they couple that with an anti-adaptation mentality, preferring the “tried and true” over coming to grips with the modern world. This constitutes somewhat of a drag on the Israeli economy, not to mention the source of much social friction vis-a-vis the rest of Israel’s Jewish society.

The Arab sector (about 20% of the country’s population) is also much more conservative, with a political, religious, and educational culture that was primarily based on “authority” as a result of its agricultural and desert nomad origins. Here, however, there has been significant forward movement as Israel’s Arabs begin to acculturate to more modern norms of educational attainment and social advancement. True, some adaptive areas have seen serious conservative “pushback” (Arab feminism being the prime example), but the general thrust is toward greater cognitive modernization.

Looking towards the future, especially from the perspective of the seven main features covered in this series of essays (a final one next week), this “Learning & Adaptation” element is arguably Israel’s strongest. There is little reason to think that its intellectual dynamism will die down in the foreseeable future. Indeed, just a month ago, Israeli high school students won three gold medals, eight silver, and seven bronze in the annual World Science (physics, math, biology, and chemistry) Olympiad – a clear indication that the country has lost none of its cognitive firepower. In our world of tremendous, accelerating change, there isn’t a better national resource than learning how to adapt – and adapting how to learn.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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