A Nobel for negligence?
The award of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Prof. Ada Yonath fills us with pride, especially amid data showing that Israel has more Nobel Prizes per capita than anywhere else in the world, according to Prof. Dan Ben-David ("Academic vision and nightmare," October 9). But Ben-David also harshly criticizes the downward slide in higher education, and the impression is that this country's leaders are getting a prize for their negligence.
Numbers can be misleading or irrelevant. About a quarter of all Nobel laureates are Jewish. This is a marvelous achievement; since Jews account for less than one quarter of one percent of the world's population, they have 100 times more than their proportionate share. However, the contribution by Israeli recipients is more than five times smaller than that of other Jews, taking into account that half the world's Jews live in Israel.
Many explanations have been offered for the Jewish people's amazing accomplishments as reflected in the lists of Nobel laureates. Was it the Diaspora, with its persecution, wanderings, fear and hiding that made Jews take up knowledge-based occupations that can be carried from place to place, like medicine, science, law, commerce and rabbinical studies? Did they not make scholarliness a specifically Jewish trait?
But the creation of the Jewish state and the realization of a 2,000-year-old dream has led to a change in direction. The existence of firm ground, the sense of security, and perhaps arrogance, have eroded the foundations of scholarliness. Gradually, with the passing of the state's founders, they have devalued education and scholarship.
The new leadership, and in its wake the nation, has failed to recognize the enormous contribution that education and research, as well as educators and researchers, have made to Israel's success as an economic power and the hub of Jewish culture. These leaders have yet to develop a stance on the position of these values on the nation's and society's value scale.
Instead of resting securely in the national pantheon, these values still depend on the goodwill of the government of the day, subject to every change in the way the wind is blowing and liable to run at any time into intentional campaigns of delegitimization.
The results have not been long in coming: the school students' declining results, the brain drain and the shortage of means for buying new research equipment. In much more difficult times for the state we saw David Ben-Gurion's glowing face when he dedicated the new building for the Technion's chemistry faculty. Today, not even a deputy minister from a marginal party would deign to attend such a ceremony.
We need leaders for whom education and scholarship are real values, not merely pretexts for congratulatory speeches honoring the winners of prestigious prizes, whom they had never heard of until a moment before. The day we hear a leader say his hero is a writer or scientist and not a movie star, we will know that redemption is beginning. We want to go back to the days when "We had a state with narrow roads and broad universities, not one with broad roads and narrow universities," in the words of journalist Sever Plocker. A "poor state with a great vision," as Ben-Gurion put it. That's why the numbers are irrelevant; the values that lead to them are what is important.
It's not a question of money, but of a shift in values, mainly in leadership. Relatively small amounts are involved, much smaller than those that have gone up in smoke in coalition agreements that benefited the few with vested interests and have left a whole nation behind, in other areas as well, such as health and social welfare.
The writer won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2004.