Culture and Innovation – Israel and the World Scene

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Close your eyes for a minute.

How do you want young Jewish people to imagine Israel? 

  • Do you want them to see a weak and vulnerable state, frequently in distress? 
  • Do you want them to view Israelis as often divided and bickering over politics?
  • Do you want them to see Israel as a country fraught with complications? 
  • Do you want them to identify with the State of Israel exclusively or primarily with the Israeli-Palestinan conflict?
  • Do you want them to associate Israel with a history of wars?
  • Do you want them to think of Israel as a “David” who is always swinging above his weight class or as a “Goliath” who is always expected to defeat his enemies? Or perhaps neither? 
  • Do you want them to view Israel as an abstraction, a theory, a concept, or a myth — or as a real place with people who are often like me and you? 

Of course it is important to make sure young people know the ins and outs of the wars in Israel, the complexity of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the various political perspectives of the Israeli government. 

But, it’s also true that how we all perceive Israel – and certainly how young people perceive Israel – is within our locus of control. And, I hope we can all agree that reducing Israel to political abstractions or a country fraught with war is not only unwise, it is also inaccurate.

Today’s Weekly is not about wars, politics, or the debate on the legality of settlements. 

It’s about the big things happening in Israel experienced by Israelis – the culture, the innovation, the arts, entertainment, and sports.

Read on and let’s make sure that when all of us open our eyes, we all see Israel for what it truly is: a healthy society, replete with energy, a country whose citizens export their accomplishments for the benefit of the world, and a country whose citizens welcome the culture and accomplishments of their fellow world citizens.

Best,

Noam

What Happened?

In recent weeks and months, Israel has welcomed international cultural icons and contributed to global culture and innovation. Israelis have enjoyed hosting major celebrities and sharing their own with the world. This week we dive into these big events and accomplishments in various fields, and unpack why they matter. 

Sports – Israelis love a good soccer match, so there was palpable excitement when soccer (futbol) superstar Lionel Messi and his team played a friendly against Uruguay in Tel Aviv last month. Israelis are making a name for themselves in the international sports scene, too: 17-year-old Alon Leviev won a gold medal in the junior category at the Ju-jitsu World Championship in Abu Dhabi; Israeli basketball player Deni Avdija is a top NBA draft prospect for 2020. 

Music – Back in August, Jennifer Lopez and her baseball star husband Alex Rodriguez visited Israel to perform and vacation. JLo’s concert in Park Hayarkon in Tel Aviv was a huge hit and excited Israelis throughout the country. Meanwhile, Israeli Eurovision star Netta Barzilai continues to perform at sold-out concerts in Europe. Her song “Toy” is the all-time number one most viewed Eurovision song on YouTube!

Entertainment – Controversial comedian Louis CK “had Israeli audiences rolling in the aisles” when he performed in Tel Aviv two weeks ago; his two shows sold out within minutes. Although he stirred controversy and there were protests outside the show, he is an entertainer who was pressured not to perform in Israel yet chose to do so. During the summer, star of the wildly popular Spanish Netflix show Money Heist Jaime Lorente visited Israel amidst much fanfare. In America and other parts of the world, world-class Israeli mentalist Lior Suchard has been wowing audiences across the country, performing on popular talk shows like The Late Show with James Corbin and Live Kelly and Ryan. Israeli TV shows have become increasingly popular in the international scene, including Netflix hits Fauda and The Spy, and the HBO original Our Boys. Inside Israel, reality show Ninja Yisrael has been a huge success, breaking TV rating records.

Innovation – TIME magazine just released its list of the top 100 inventions of 2019, and 9 of them are Israeli products. At the end of 2018, Israel boasted 6,673 high-tech companies and startups. Israel isn’t called the Start Up Nation for nothing! Israeli entrepreneur Inbal Arieli credits the Israeli norm of balagan, or chaos, as promoting “creativity and independence” that contribute to innovation and out-of-the-box thinking that has led Israel to be a world leader in cutting-edge developments. 

Why Does This Matter?

Israel’s purpose – Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl imagined that when the Jewish people had a country of their own, it would make them a nation like any other; the “Jewish problem” would be solved and anti-Semitism would be a thing of the past. Other early Zionist thinkers, such as Ze’ev Jabotinsky, did not believe that a Jewish State would eradicate anti-Semitism, but it would protect the Jewish people from anti-Semitism. Many sought in a Jewish State more than just a regular country, but an exceptional one, one that is an or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. Ahad Ha’am imagined the land of Israel to be a sort of spiritual and cultural fountainhead of Judaism. David Ben-Gurion encouraged a culture of innovation, declaring, “To maintain the status quo will not do. We have set up a dynamic State, bent upon creation and reform, building and expansion.” In some ways, Israel is both ordinary and unique, both enthusiastic about and welcoming to outside culture, as well as driven to innovate and contribute to the world. 

Regular rhythm of life – Living outside of Israel, it’s easy to picture the country as a place preoccupied by conflict and terror. While that is true for many at different points, regular daily life in Israel is bustling; people are busy with their jobs, families, and interests. It’s stories like these that remind us of the flourishing Israeli cultural scene and people enjoying life. One Yediot opinionist made the point that “Jennifer Lopez did more for Israel’s image than any politician ever could… At a time when Israeli producers struggle to convince top international artists to perform in the country due to BDS pressure, JLo unapologetically made her presence in the Holy Land known to her 100 million social media followers.” Perhaps we would all benefit from some more media focus on Israeli life and people, rather than just politics.

Tel Aviv, ya chabibi, Tel Aviv – Tel Aviv began as a pile of sand over 100 years ago. Who could have imagined that it would transform into a modern hub of technology, tourism, culture, and diversity with a population of 450,000? It is the fifth most visited city in the Middle East and Africa, and TimeOut calls it the “contemporary hub of Israel, the cultural capital, a culinary mecca and a beach bliss.” All of the events mentioned above took place in Tel Aviv. Some might view this as a remarkable achievement of Zionism, while others might ask why the Jewish State should value this. What do you think?

Discussion Questions

  1. When it comes to Israel, why do you think the media seems to solely focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and political climate? Do you think this is true of media coverage of most countries? Why or why not? In addition, what can the Jewish community do to shift the image many have about Israel? How can you use this Weekly in service of that goal?
  2. Israel makes up only 0.1% of the world population yet Israel continues to punch above its weight when it comes to innovation and Nobel prize laureates globally. Nine percent of Time Magazine’s top 100 inventions of 2019 were created in Israel. Why do you think Israel is so successful when it comes to innovation? What lessons can be learned from the startup nation?
  3. Read about Israel’s 9 inventions that made the Time Magazine list. Which invention is your favorite and why?
  4. How has the “fear of no tomorrow” translated into a fearlessness in other fields? What role does chutzpah play in Israel’s business culture, as some suggest?
  5. Theodor Herzl believed that when a Jewish state came into existence and functioned like other countries around the world, anti-Semitism would disappear and the Jewish people would be accepted like all other nations. Although this hasn’t been necessarily proven to be the case due to rising global anti-Semitism and animosity towards Israel, what kind of impact do you think the visits of celebrities do for Israel’s public image? How does it make you feel when you see them there?

Practical Classroom Tips

  1. Watch our video on Israel as the startup nation, as well as our video on Israeli Nobel Prize winners, and utilize our educational resources to delve deeper into the successes and innovations of the young state of Israel with your students.
  2. Have your students get to know an Israeli celebrity by researching them and presenting their findings to the class. It can be a musician, athlete, or icon in any field of their choice. You can start here!
  3. Read the following article about JLo’s visit to Israel and what kind of impact it had on Israel’s public image. Discuss the article with your class. Do they agree with the premise of the article? Why or why not?
  4. Watch the following video about the famous Netflix show Fauda and discuss some of the following questions:
    1. What lesson can be learned from Lior Raz when he discusses the shared stresses of shooting and that “the missiles from Gaza don’t know if you are an Arab-Israeli or Jewish-Israeli?”
    2. Do you think there is a value in shows like Fauda trying to give an honest depiction of “both sides” if they are set primarily from one man’s perspective?

In Other News…

  1. There is no question that the biggest news story coming out of Israel is the indictment against current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Click here to catch yourself up so you can fully understand the situation and how it is affecting Israel’s political climate.
  2. In a possible climate breakthrough, Israeli researchers from the Weizmann Institute have engineered a bacteria that will be able to consume CO₂, helping to remove an overload of global-warming CO₂ from our air.
  3. In a controversial decision, newly appointed Defense Minister Naftali Bennett announced that Israel would no longer release the bodies of deceased terrorists in Israel’s possession. This is seen by many as a negotiating tactic to create deterrence as well as to pressure Hamas to return the Israeli citizens and soldiers KIA currently being held in the Gaza Strip.
  4. A team of medical researchers at the Hebrew University have announced that they have developed a new chemotherapy method that aims to reduce side effects, dramatically reducing the suffering of cancer patients.

Noam Weissman

Dr. Noam Weissman is the Senior Vice President of Education at Jerusalem U. Noam holds a doctorate in educational psychology from USC with a focus on curriculum design. Before joining Jerusalem U, he was the principal of Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where he spent 9 years actively engaging and empowering students to find meaning in their Jewish learning.

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