Which Is the Real Israel: Startup Nation or Jewish Nation?

The startling disconnect between fanaticism, bloodshed and stunning technology exits can't persist forever.

Neuroderm: Because Life goes on.
Ofer Vaknin

It’s hard to imagine we’re talking about the same country.

On the same day we’re fighting what is, in effect, a religious war over a holy site, Israel is also selling the high-tech company NeuroDerm with a promising cure for Parkinson’s disease to Japan’s Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma for $1.1 billion.

It’s not a question which is the real Israel. The question is how the two Israels can live side by side, and, whether one must prevail over the other.

As religious wars go, the one over the Temple Mount  is a small-scale affair, having cost just seven lives in two weeks. But the passions underlying the violence are as powerful as any of the conflicts of the past, and are no more subject to reason and compromise.

Israelis can shrug off the current violence as a case of Muslim irrationality – after all, we’re talking about it placing metal detectors at entrances to the site, not an affront to faith. Butthere are enough fanatical Jews among us with similarly extreme religious agendas that make their own faith paramount and disparage all the others.  

Bring it on / Saving lives

In any case, Israel’s reaction to the violence is being informed in equal measure by security concerns as it is by the preoccupations and prejudices of the extreme right, which would like to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount one day and doesn’t have any problems battling Palestinians to bring it about.  As Miri Regev said three years ago, “If a third intifada is necessary so we can defend and preserve the right of Jews to go up to the Temple Mount, let there be an intifada.”

The contrast with NeuroDerm couldn’t be more stark.

NeuroDerm is a company that is developing next-generation medical care for patients suffering from Parkinson’s and central nervous system disorders by reformulating existing drugs. Deutsche Bank believes that the company’s candidate treatment, ND0612, could become the standard of care for advanced Parkinson's disease. That’s why Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma was willing to pay so much for it.

The Israelis at NeuroDerm are saving lives and making money. Israelis Jews and Muslim Palestinians battling over the Temple Mount are endangering lives and fanning hatred.

It should be a score of 1-0, game over and Startup Nation lifting up a trophy to a better world.

So why aren’t  all Israelis – not just the denizens of Tel Aviv cafes and the army’s 8200 intelligence unit – all lined up behind the Startup Nation vision of technology and science and wealth?

The number of Israelis working at startups or at the 200-or-so multinational research and development centers in Israel is, I’m afraid, smaller than the combined population of religiously-inspired settlers, ultra-orthodox Jews and devotees of kabbalists.

Add in secular nationalists of the Miri Regev variety (or for that matter Benjamin Netanyahu) and the religious: nationalistic and ethnocentric Israel has it all over the other Israel. Why is that?

Warts and all

The answer is that the beauty of NeuroDerm and the world it represents is flawed. The money it generates and many (but by no means all) of the values that go into making an innovative company and all its achievements are seen by many  as sterile.

That applies not only to Israelis: The populist counter-revolution in America and Europe against the elites isn’t just about economics. It's about a feeling of belonging, whether to a country, your religion and/or your ethnic group.

The idea that science and reason leads to humanism and universalism even disparages the quest for identity and community as racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic and so on, unless you belong to a designated oppressed community.

And the fact is that religion, patriotism and religion can easily stray into all those evils, as the violence surrounding the Temple Mount shows.

But progressive ideals can also fall victim to the same kind of hatred, as the Chicago Dyke March demonstrated. An event aimed to give power to a marginalized group – gays of color – found itself throwing out a group of Jews for flying a banner with the Star of David and followed it up with racist rants about “Zio tears.”

The human desire for a community of like-minded people too often means looking for enemies you can hate.

For a while, it seemed that Israel could square the circle between liberalism and religious nationalism.

 Thanks to conservative economic leadership, Israel was spared the economic gyrations of the last decade that shook most of Europe and the United States, and augmented cultural grievances with economic ones.

But it seems there is a group of political and religious figures determined to wage a fight to the finish, determined - if not exactly to erase liberal, democratic, rational Israel - to at least push it as far back as they can.

The problem, of course, is that once you start the pushing, it’s hard to stop and control the resentments and anger that animate the warriors.

There’s no way NeuroDerm and the other winners of Startup Nation will be able to withstand the assault if it doesn’t stop. You can’t wage war against Breaking the Silence, the Supreme Court and the media without causing casualties among the very people who make the high-tech industry possible. They come from the same world.