Monday, May 19, 2008

Kudos to Israel

Every Friday morning I patrol with the Tourist Police unit of the Civil Guard in Netanya. We're not a very formidable group, most of the members are elderly and we merely patrol, we don't have the right to arrest. We are really extra pairs of eyes and also we are there to deter crime and terrorism, not that we could do much, but experience shows that terrorists avoid uniforms, not knowing whether we have guns or not.
Last Friday morning we walked along the cliff top and then went out on the bridge that connects to the elevator down to the beach. The weather was perfect, the waves were rushing white onto the beach as far as the eye could see in both directions, north to the power station at Caesarea and south to the Reading Power Station at Tel Aviv. It was a wonderful sight, and we said spontaneously, "isn't it wonderful to be here in Israel on the 60th Anniversary." In all the tributes to Israel that have been written and proclaimed in the past week, nothing compares with the feeling of actually being here, of being part of it.
Two main points have been emphasized, first Israel's accomplishments in science and technology. Certainly it is true, that with such a tiny population of 7.5 million, Israel has more start-up companies than the EU (450 million) and Japan (130 million). This is an incredible fact, and speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit of the Jews and the readiness to take risks (which the Japanese and the Germans are reluctant to do). Israel is second only to the US in the world in this respect.
But not all is fine in the scientific and educational establishments in Israel. First with regard to science, Israel invests only ca. 2-3% in scientific infrastructure, while most western countries spend more than twice that much. When I was Chief Scientist at Sheba Medical Center, this was one of the main problems, not enough funds to support research and salaries. Also, when scientist or medical immigrants come to work in Israel, they receive support for one year from the Jewish Agency (Sochnut) but once that is over they are usually fired by the Hospitals, Medical Schools and Universities, which they are not supposed to do. If they are kept for a year the organization is supposed to then take over paying their salary, but they don't want to do that, so they fire and then hire a new immigrant. This is a scam that leaves a lot of technically qualified people with no jobs, and many in my experience return to their home countries.
High school education in Israel has been going downhill for years. Class sizes have become bigger, and teachers don't want to teach because the salaries and conditions are lousy and the children are all but uncontrollable. There is increasing violence in the schools and teachers have been attacked. A recent strike improved working conditions, but the standard of education has slipped badly and Israel is no longer in the first tier of school systems worldwide.
The second point that is often emphasized is how small Israel is, but that is somewhat misleading, since Israel is around the middle in the world for both size of country and population. For example, Denmark, Ireland, Qatar and New Zealand all have smaller populations than Israel. When comparing Israel, it is often compared to the US or the UK, and both comparisons are inappropriate given the huge differences in size. The annual increase in GDP per capita in Israel has been hovering around 6-7% per year compared to ca. 3% for the US and UK (but 10% for China). Also, Israel has a much larger defense budget (ca. 20%) compared to ca. 3-5% for most western countries. So if one compares Israel to medium sized countries it comes off even better. And Israel has the best Army in the world (at least we hope so).


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