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August 29, 2019 5:10 am

Chutzpah: How Israel Became a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

avatar by Steve Wenick


A man enters the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, Jan. 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Baz Ratner.

“It’s impossible,” is not an expression heard in Israel, or one written in Inbal Arieli’s new book, Chutzpah: Why Israel Is a Hub of Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, enjoys the highest density of start-ups per capita in the world. What is it about this tiny, resourceful, and creative country that explains its astounding success in technology, medicine, and the military? According to Arieli, it unpredictably starts in pre-school, with students playing with junk.

In clear and interesting detail, Arieli explains the unorthodox approach to child rearing in Israel — an approach which is shunned in most Western countries. For example, in the West, when children are given a new shiny toy, it’s not long before they turn it into junk.

But in Israel, pre-school children are given discarded household items — junk — which they are given the freedom to transform into whatever they can conjure up in their imagination.

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In addition to playing with junk, a second factor for innovation emerges in what Arieli refers to as balagan — chaos. Ironically, she claims, from chaos comes order.

Granted, playing with junk in a chaotic environment is a recipe for potentially hazardous outcomes. Yet not only do Israeli children engage in what we in the West call “playing with fire” — but they exult in it. Take Lag B’Omer, which is celebrated in part by Israeli children building bonfires. Obviously, there is substantial risk in engaging in such an activity, but for Israeli children, it is just one of the ways they learn early in life how to deal safely with the dangerous environment within which they live. That activity encourages risk taking, which is an essential element in fostering successful entrepreneurship.

Arieli asserts that although it is counter-intuitive, measuring success through students’ failures serves as a stepping stone to learning and growth. The “everyone-gets-a-trophy” craze, which has infected Western thinking, confuses participation with excellence. Failure is inevitable for those willing to step out of their comfort zone and take risks. For the Israelis, there is no shame in failure; it is not taken personally. In the Israeli mindset, when things go awry, their response is, I didn’t fail — my project did.

That type of thinking, along with grit, determination, and a can-do attitude, has resulted in the development of the PillCam for endoscopies; Cpoaxone for the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis; ReWalk, a bionic system that enables paraplegics to stand upright and walk; the USB Flash Drive; the Pentium MMX chip; WAZE, a GPS system; and countless more.

Finally, Arieli notes that essential to Israeli culture is a sense of optimism. There is a common expression in Israel, Yiheye Beseder, which means, “it’ll be OK.” Chemi Peres, son of former prime minister Shimon Peres, said that his father used to say, “he never heard of a pessimist who discovered a new star.” What becomes clear in Arieli’s excellent rendering is that Israelis believe the stars have been placed in the sky to be discovered.

Steve Wenick is a freelance writer focusing on topics relating to Israel and Judaism.

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