Editor's Notes: Fighting Iran and highlighting tikkun olam

How does a former sanctions and terrorism specialist at the United States Treasury and Defense Department end up writing a book about Israeli innovation? The answer makes for an interesting story.

March 1, 2018 21:00
A dairy farm in Israel uses innovative milking technologies to boost productivity.

A dairy farm in Israel uses innovative milking technologies to boost productivity. One example of how Israel is helping the world.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

How does a former sanctions and terrorism specialist at the United States Treasury and Defense Department end up writing a book about Israeli innovation? The answer makes for an interesting story.

Born and raised in New York City, Avi Jorisch was drawn from an early age to the Middle East. He completed a bachelor’s degree at Binghamton University in upstate New York, and then came to Jerusalem to study at the Hebrew University in the late 1990s.

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From there he branched out and began to explore the Arab world, eventually making his way to Cairo, where he studied Arabic and Islamic Philosophy at the American University and then at al-Azhar, the preeminent institution of Sunni Islamic learning.

Fluent in Arabic, Jorisch used this period of his life to walk the streets of Cairo and stroll through the Palestinian cities in the West Bank. He visited mosques and studied the Koran, and he saw how a religion can be used to preach violence and hatred.

When he returned to the US in the summer of 2001, his life was about to change. In September, the World Trade Center came crashing down, and Jorisch decided to do his part and join America’s war on terror. His focus: tracking and stopping the flow of money used by terrorist groups and Iran to fuel their illicit anti-West activities.

He had a special interest in Al-Manar, the Hezbollah-owned TV station based in Beirut. Jorisch traveled there and met with Hezbollah operatives to try to understand how the Shi’ite Lebanese guerrilla group was using media to inspire hatred of the West and terrorism against Israel.

The research turned into a book, but also into a public campaign Jorisch led to block Al-Manar from satellite providers. He succeeded. Fourteen satellite providers blocked the station, and 20 companies – including Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Procter & Gamble – stopped sponsoring it.

In 2010, Jorisch played a key role in exposing Iran’s international banking activities – in Japan, Germany, the Netherlands and France – and in getting the US Congress to pass comprehensive sanctions against the Islamic Republic as part of the global effort to stop its nuclear program.

The summer of 2014, though, sidetracked him. He came to Israel with his family that July planning to spend the summer, and immediately after arriving, people told him he was crazy for coming: Three Jewish teenagers had been abducted and murdered in the West Bank, and the Gaza front was heating up. Within a few days the Gaza war broke out, and rockets were fired almost everywhere – into Beersheba, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

One night, as Jorisch was huddling in a bomb shelter in Jerusalem with his family, he heard the explosions of what seemed to be the Iron Dome intercepting rockets fired from Gaza.

As he learned more about the missile defense system, he became fascinated. Not just by the technology of a missile being able to hit another missile in midair and at supersonic speeds, but more important, how it was saving lives on both sides of the war. As he looked around, he began to pay attention to more technologies Israelis were developing, all of which seemed to have the same motivation: To improve the world.

That summer in Israel gave birth to Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World, Jorisch’s new book that hits stands this weekend and tackles Israel’s innovation ecosystem from a new angle. While Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle branded the country, and Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World described how the Jewish state turned the desert into a fountain of water, Jorisch goes a bit deeper. He looks at the impact Israel’s tikkun olam innovation is having on the world.

In gripping narratives, Jorisch tells the stories of Israel’s innovation in agriculture, medicine, water, defense and more. He profiles the innovators, the inventors, and the people who came up with the creative ideas and set them in motion. It is a collective story, as Jorisch writes, of how Israeli innovation is making life better for billions of people around the world.

One example was of United Hatzalah, an Israel-based medical network that has transformed emergency care. The organization created two innovations: an app that uses crowd-sourcing to bring the five closest volunteers to the scene of an emergency, and the ambucycle that can defy traffic even in densely populated cities.

Another story was about drip irrigation, and how low-cost agriculture technology is helping to feed billions of people around the world.

All the stories, Jorisch told me this week, create a single identity for Israel for which it does not get enough credit.

“There is no single narrative that defines the State of Israel, but there is also no denying that there are amazing innovators there who are working to make the world better,” he said. “Israel has been trying to elevate the mundane for 3,000 years, and using tech is essentially leveraging to make the world a better place.”

Thou Shalt Innovate is a book worth reading. Too often, we are hyper-focused on the negative – the conflict, the corruption, and the religious wars. It’s okay to take a break once in a while and remind ourselves of the greater purpose Israel serves.

SPEAKING OF innovation: It would be nice to see some of it when it comes to the Gaza Strip and Israel’s handling of the growing humanitarian crisis in the Palestinian territory. Unfortunately, though, the story of Gaza is full of missed opportunities.

When Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in the summer of 2005, it pulled out its military bases and demolished its settlements, but never fully disengaged. Instead, it stayed connected to Gaza through the electricity and water it provides, and the truckloads of goods it lets inside daily. This is not a country that has disengaged.

The reasons vary. On the one hand, the world still blames Israel for a lot of what happens in the Gaza Strip. Yes, Hamas is a terrorist organization and is in control of Gaza. But as long as Israel controls the coast and the land borders – except with Egypt – it is, according to many people around the world, responsible.

The second problem is that Egypt doesn’t want anything to do with Gaza. While Israel provides the vast majority of Gaza’s needs, it should really fall on Egypt if only for the simple reason that it is illogical for a country (Israel) which is attacked by Gaza to feed its attackers.

The problem is that Egypt keeps shut the Rafah crossing from Sinai, and doesn’t want to be in charge of the Palestinians. Israel, on the other hand, doesn’t want to upset Egypt. So where does that leave us? With another classic insane Middle Eastern reality.

Gaza is on the verge of collapse. The water quality is deteriorating, the sewage is overflowing, food is scarce, and electricity is practically nonexistent. The average Gazan is suffering.

Let me be clear: This is not Israel’s fault. Hamas is a brutal terrorist organization that has decided to use its money to kill Jews instead of providing for its own people. It bears sole responsibility for what is happening inside the territory it controls.

Nevertheless, Israel has an interest in changing the trajectory. In 2009, Israel fought Operation Cast Lead against Hamas; in 2012 it fought Operation Pillar of Defense; and in 2014 it fought what has become known as the Gaza war, or as the IDF likes to call it, Protective Edge.

Every three years or so there is another war with Hamas. Practically speaking, this means that we are already overdue.

But it might not need to be this way. There are steps that can be taken to try to prevent another conflict, and at the same time improve the quality of life for the average Gazan.

There is Transportation Minister Israel Katz’s artificial island plan that hasn’t moved anywhere in years, as well as plans by various NGOs to create jobs and joint ventures for the Palestinians who live there. One plan being promoted by Yesh Atid MK Haim Jelin, a resident of Kibbutz Nahal Oz near Gaza, is to reestablish the textile industry in Gaza in partnership with a large Spanish conglomerate.

The problem with all of these initiatives is that they are not politically popular. Many on the Right would not support gestures or concessions of this kind to the Gaza Strip at a time that there is rocket fire into Israel. Implementing any of these plans could come at a political price for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, so why bother?

The reason is to save lives.

Innovation does not need to be limited to technology. It’s time it is also applied to the way Israel confronts the challenges along its borders.

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