The story of higher education in Israel is a story about one of the jewels in the crown of the Zionist movement. Annual Israeli incomes averaged just $6,000 during the 1950s and $10,000 during the 1960s (based on GDP per capita in 2005 prices) - about half of American incomes at the time, and roughly a fifth and a third, respectively, of Israel's current per capita income. Despite its meager resources and the relentless attacks on its physical existence, Israel's combination of vision, determination and tremendous sacrifices provided the country with seven state-of-the-art research universities within two and a half decades of its birth.
How good did these institutions become? In the field of economics, for example, European countries were ranked based on the average number of pages each faculty member published in the top eight economic research journals over three decades, from 1971 through 2000. In the accompanying table, England, with its London School of Economics, Oxford and Cambridge Universities - serves as the base country. Below it are Sweden, the country that bestows Nobel Prizes, with just half the number of published pages as the English; the Netherlands, with less than a third; Italy, with less than a quarter; and Finland - with a primary and secondary school system that is the envy of the western world - with a research yield that is less than a fifth of the English.
In first place, above the English, were Israel's economists. For three decades, beginning slightly more than two decades after the country's birth, Israeli economists published not 10% more and not 20% more, but seven times the English research output in the top academic journals.
In general, in field from chemistry and physics through economics and computer science, two, three and sometimes up to five Israeli universities have been consistently ranked among the top 150 in the world (on the basis of citations in scientific journals) over the past decade. The country's academic excellence is evident not only in the recent Nobel Prizes that its scholars received, but also in the exceptional number of Israelis who have been invited to study and teach on a permanent basis at leading universities around the world.
First-class research universities have an important role to play in every country. This is particularly true when the economy in question has a labor force no larger than a single western metropolitan area - and is situated on a sandbar in the middle of a very turbulent ocean. This perspective makes it possible to understand the magnitude of the miracle that occurred. Israel's universities nourished the environment that enabled the invention and development of unique products and processes that allowed us to survive - and even prosper in some fields - in the merciless competition of the global economy, and enabled Israel to break through the frontiers of human knowledge time and again to continuously upgrade and fortify the defensive shield that assures our existence, against all threats and odds.