7 Decades of Innovation in Israel: Science and Technology Partnerships

Scientist wearing gloves, a mask, and protective glasses examining a computer chip

On my most recent visit to Israel – in preparation for this summer’s URJ Sci-Tech Israel program – I noticed the presence of U.S. companies. Throughout Israel’s “Silicon Wadi,” the counterpart to our Silicon Valley, are research and development facilities for Google, Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and others, intermixed with a vast array of Israeli start-ups, including Mobile-Eye, Orcam, StoreDot, and others.

The foundations for many of these research collaborations were establish during Israel’s third decade from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. Motorola, the first U.S. corporation to set up a research and development unit in Israel, was followed others. In 1972, IBM opened its doors to three researchers in Israel, soon followed by Intel in 1974. At the time, IBM’s investment was less in Israel than in Professor Josef Raviv, one of its top scientists, who wanted to return to his home country. Little could the company have imagined that Raviv’s three-person team would grow to be the largest IBM research lab outside the U.S., with more 500 employees throughout Israel who are conducting some of IBM’s most cutting edge research. Similarly, Intel, now the largest tech employer in Israel with 10,000 employees, began with a R&D facility of just five employees.

Before Israel became the “start-up nation” it is today, IBM and Intel were motivated to expand to this tiny Middle East country because of talented Israeli researchers working in the U.S. As part of their relationship with Israel, these companies demonstrate their commitment to community relations and corporate responsibility by collaborating with schools and local organizations to promote STEM education and fund local projects. Similarly, executives from Facebook, Google, and Microsoft devote resources in Israel because, according to Google developer partner advocate Don Dodge, “there’s an amazing source of talent here.” Israelis have the chutzpah (audacity) to believe their ideas are the best and act on them, they move fast, break things, and try new things.

Also during Israel’s third decade, in 1972, the United States and Israel established the Binational Science Foundation (BSF). Run by an independent board of directors comprising both Israelis and Americans, BSF promotes scientific collaboration between the two countries, and has awarded nearly $600 million to more than 5,000 research projects in areas of applied sciences. Such collaboration provides opportunities for the brightest minds in each country, including 46 Nobel Prize laureates, to work together on groundbreaking discoveries that have led to the synthesis of drugs to treat disease, protections against insecticide and chemical warfare poisoning, and efforts to find habitable planets and life beyond our solar system.

Science, technology, and innovation in Israel also serve as tools for diplomacy, often without much of the politics that can interfere with success. For example, the Arava Institute in Israel’s Negev Desert, brings together Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis, and students from around the world to learn about and discover solutions to pressing environmental challenges.

The high-tech facets of Israeli society have much to teach our URJ Sci-Tech Israel participants. Students regularly learn from Reform Jewish entrepreneurs about how they include Jewish values in their ventures from research to corporate management and product development. And, just as the science and tech community extends beyond labs and institutions, beyond oceans and borders to unite people throughout the world, our students can learn from this community about how we can expand our own kehillah (community) beyond the physical buildings and walls to embrace others.

This post is one in a series of seven designed to inform and inspire readers about scientific and technological advances in modern Israel in each of the decades since its founding in 1948. Visit the 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy website to read the other posts as they become available.

Sci-Tech Israel, the newest program in the Union for Reform Judaism’s suite of Israel experiences, offers opportunities for Jewish teens to explore Israel through a lens of science, technology, and innovation. Visit nftyisrael.org to learn more about teen travel to Israel.