Book review: Israel’s secret - Chutzpah!

In her new book Chutzpah, Inbal Arieli certainly seizes the initiative in masterful fashion.

Chutzpah (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There is a wonderful exchange in Alice in Wonderland, when Lewis Carroll has Humpty Dumpty declare: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
Alice is decidedly uncertain about this assertion.
“The question,” she says, “is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question,” responds Humpty Dumpty, “is which is to be master – that’s all.”
In her new book Chutzpah, Inbal Arieli certainly seizes the initiative in masterful fashion. Her purpose is to explain why, in the words of her subtitle, “Israel is a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship,” and she ascribes this to the well-known Israeli characteristic of chutzpah. A certain difficulty arises when one compares the definition of the term in the Oxford English Dictionary with the one she offers her readers.
The OED defines “chutzpah” as “shameless audacity, cheek.” Arieli maintains that it means “a determined approach to life, which might seem to some as rude and opinionated, or to others, seen in a more positive light, as preferring directness to political correctness for the sake of achieving one’s goals.”
That is a great deal to pack into the word “chutzpah.” Arieli does so in order to be able to assert that “with the right amount of chutzpah, anything is possible.” From this basic premise, she constructs her theory that chutzpah explains why Israel has become known as the “Start-Up Nation,” and why it is such a cradle of innovation and cutting-edge technology. She then proceeds to analyze how the Israeli way of life, and particularly the Israeli way of raising children, fosters the various elements of her concept of chutzpah. Finally, she goes further and suggests that by learning from the typical Israeli child-rearing process, business people can develop the skills of innovation and successful entrepreneurship.
Arieli divides a typical Israeli child’s upbringing into five stages: discovery, validation, efficiency, scale and sustainability, and finally renewal. Drawing upon her own extensive experience in the flourishing Israeli hi-tech sector, she describes how the development of a successful business parallels this process.
Described as one of the 100 most influential people in Israeli hi-tech, Arieli lectures worldwide to business and government leaders on Israeli innovation and its start-up ecosystem. In Chutzpah, she expands on one of her most popular lectures, “The Roots of Entrepreneurship,” in which she analyzes how Israeli culture breeds in its youngsters from very early on the essential elements of innovation and a positive response to challenge.
Analyzing Israeli family life, Arieli highlights a number of factors that make it unique. She finds in Israel a culture that not only favors challenges and risk taking, but rewards creative thinking. This cultural environment, she believes, provides born-and-bred Israelis with the strength of character and inner conviction to think “outside the box,” foster innovation and find unorthodox solutions to problems.
There is one other aspect of Israeli life identified by Arieli, instantly recognizable and highly frustrating to many not born in the country. This factor, she argues, contributes significantly to the chutzpah that underpins the country’s economic success. She is referring to balagan, a word borrowed from Russian that, she says, “has taken on a quintessentially Israeli meaning.” She describes it as a messy situation in which things have no preordained meaning, a state where people act spontaneously.
She dwells at some length on balagan, which she describes as an Israeli way of life – and in this, surely, she is not wrong, as anyone can testify who has tried to pin down an Israeli to a meeting at a prearranged time or place. But where non-Israelis see rules and order as positive aspects of living, Arieli believes balagan encourages the development of skills necessary for dealing with the unpredictability of life.
In uncovering and analyzing the unique Israeli approach to life in general, and child-rearing in particular, Arieli identifies those particular aspects that have led Israel to produce a totally disproportionate number of scientists, tech innovators, and Nobel Prize winners in relation to its size, and to boast the world’s highest research and development expenditure proportionate to GDP. Having done so, she proceeds to describe how she believes applying these characteristics in the business environment can encourage and foster innovation and creative thinking – the essential elements of successful entrepreneurship.
The argument behind Chutzpah is the result of considerable research by Arieli, a graduate in law and economics who also holds an MBA in entrepreneurship and strategy. The book contains an extensive bibliography, as well as detailed references to her sources. For example, her section on balagan draws on Albert Einstein’s “When to Say Yes to a Messy Desk,” Penelope Green’s “Saying Yes to Mess,” Abrahamson and Freedman’s A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, and Denegri-Knott and Parsons on “Disordering Things.” Every section of the book is similarly referenced with widely accessed source material.
A study of Chutzpah leads to a clear conclusion: the book itself exemplifies the very sort of innovative thinking described by the author as the root of Israeli success in hi-tech. In providing her answer to the question “How does Israel do it?” Arieli proves her own thesis.