Israel Should Be a Start-up Nation - for Civilization and Values

Judaism was the original start-up for some of the world’s most profound civilizational insights. As Israel's Independence Day nears, we should be innovating not only in the realm of high-tech - but also in ideas and ethics.

Danny Schiff
Danny Schiff
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Danny Schiff
Danny Schiff

At 65 years of age, Israel has become synonymous with the term “Start-up Nation.” This is no accident. Wherever Israel is presented, we choose to place our high-tech accomplishments first – at world expos, in all manner of publications, and when important guests come calling.

During U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit last month, not only was he treated to displays of Israeli ingenuity ranging from robotic rescue snakes to motorized legs, but the welcome gift that he received was a triumph of Israeli nanotech: a gold-coated silicon chip etched with the Declarations of Independence of both Israel and the United States – "a unique example of what the start-up nation has achieved,” in the words of one report.

Time and again, we seek to leave no doubt: To land in Tel Aviv is to enter start-up nation territory, that of a country aiming to better the world through innovation.

There are indeed many reasons to be proud of our start-up achievements. Given that so many significant products of the 21st-century digital revolution either have an Israeli connection or are wholly 'blue and white,' Israel’s preeminent status in high-tech is well deserved.

And yet, while it is important to continue being a leader in the technology revolution, is it really high-tech for which we should primarily be known? Is our fondest national ambition that our children grow up to be productive entrepreneurs on the digital frontier?

There was a time, long ago, when we saw ourselves in a very different role. We accepted a mandate to attempt to be a start-up nation of an alternative kind: A start-up nation for civilization itself. Much later, many early Zionists extended that dream, hoping that the envisaged state of Israel would somehow come to be a genuinely exemplary nation. Others translated this vision into an expectation. When U.S. President Harry Truman recognized the nascent state of Israel, he declared, “I believe it has a glorious future before it, not just as another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.”

That, after all, was what the original Jewish start-up notion was all about: Conquering what is rotten in human life and elevating that which is refined and conducive. It was not about creating the best tools and the most sophisticated devices for the world (even though they certainly improve lives). Rather, it was about striving to be an inspirational society.

Our original core goal was that Israel would be known for being a beacon of the finest that civilization has to offer. We aspired to be a world model of the best governance possible, with the lowest corruption, the highest rates of tzedakah, the most civil public discourse imaginable, the least racism, the most exalted standards of public morality, and more.

As Israel Independence Day approaches, one might question whether these earlier aspirations are still seriously a part of our public agenda. In one sector of Israeli society, young people stream into the high-tech pipeline, even as once popular fields like business and law shrink. In another sector, yeshivas are filled with students who aim to strengthen the world of Torah. But who is focused on making Israel a world leader in ideas, ideas which will elevate societal functioning? Why is high-tech exalted, but high conduct – a fundamental Jewish start-up theme – not a priority?

Does the joy in having more NASDAQ-listed companies than any country outside of North America surpass the concern at being in 39th place behind the most virtuous state in the world corruption index, somewhere in between Taiwan and Poland? Thirty-ninth?! Isn’t this an index that, according to our heritage, we ought to lead?

Judaism was the original start-up for some of the world’s most profound civilization innovations. It provided a core set of inventive insights that played a powerful role in transforming humanity and in shaping civilization. Much of what we take for granted in our daily lives – the way we think about vital issues like peace, freedom and justice, our duties to others, and so much more – emerged from Jewish ideas. The Jewish people sought to be the start-up that would offer a host of innovations to spur profound development within human civilization itself, and we began that process with laudable plans to reach for the heights within our own society.

Surely we should ask nothing less of ourselves today.

Our high-tech contributions are remarkable and have a far-reaching impact on the world. But they are hardly our raison d’etre. To be Israel means to look forward to the day when it is our civilizational innovations that others will most want to copy, and that will, first and foremost, constitute the extraordinary breakthroughs at which the world will marvel.

Danny Schiff served as the Community Scholar for the Pittsburgh Jewish community for 16 years before moving to Jerusalem in 2009. He is the founder of a new ideas museum initiative.

Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who declared the establishment of the state in a secret ceremony at 16 Rothschild Blvd. Credit: Fritz Cohen

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