The flavor of Israel

'If we want to maintain our momentum we must invest in technological, scientific education that trains the specialists required for our industries to grow and move forward.

A man studies in a university library. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A man studies in a university library.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Popular TV cooking programs often try to put a finger on what “the flavor of Israel” is exactly. I also sometimes try to figure out the elusive secret ingredient of “Israeliness,” and explain it in meetings around the world, particularly when the phrase “start-up nation” comes up. How did a certain people manage, after several thousand years in exile, to return to live in a “challenging” region and despite, all the difficulties facing them, become an international success story and an inspiration, even an object of envy, for well-established nations that are larger and richer.
Is it because Israelis are smarter? Has reality taught us to “think on the run”? Is the ability to improvise perhaps our winning card? Or did Israel’s “chaos” cause us to break conventions and think outside the box, differently from other engineers around the world.
Although I haven’t found the perfect answer, I know that the pleasant reality we have enjoyed recently is going away, slipping through our fingers.
We can still wear the badge of “start-up nation” with justifiable pride, but it seems many forget the fruits we are picking are from seeds sown two or three decades ago through government investment policy, encouragement of hi-tech companies, investment in academia, the Russian-speaking immigration and a focus on education.
The problem is that since then we have not bothered to plant enough new seeds, neither watering nor nurturing them as we should, so that we could continue to pick fruits in the decade ahead.
The facts speak for themselves. In the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) Index, Israel is ranked 40th out of 64 nations participating in math and science tests. The state comptroller pointed out that our skills in mathematics are suffering from many years of neglect. According to Ministry of Education figures, the number of students taking five units (the highest level) in their matriculation exams plummeted from 12,885 in 2007 to 8,869 in 2012. This figure is really scary.
Let us glance for a moment into the future and use the math we learned at school: graduates from 2007 spent three years in the army and then four years at university, including the Technion. They are the ones knocking on the doors of hi-tech companies today. From the numbers previously quoted we can expect lower numbers of students completing five units of math matriculation and a decline in the number of graduates reaching the high-tech industry.
Already today, the industry is forced to forgo projects because of the difficulty in hiring engineers and suitable technological personnel. And if the number of math graduates continues to fall, the hi-tech industry is doomed to see a performance decline because of insufficient high-quality personnel.
This raises a disturbing question – will all the investment so far go down the drain? Perhaps the problem starts in the way that most people here view the hi-tech industry.
When I took my first steps in the field, this was an industry with hardware and software people trying to solve challenges, transforming bits of silicon and printed circuit boards into reality. Today, when we talk about hi-tech we mostly think of making an “exit,” or in other words, “how to make a handsome profit and move on to the next round.” When the model people follow is the start-up entrepreneur who makes a fortune, not the engineer who does interesting and challenging work every morning, then we are headed in the wrong direction.
I have nothing against exits. I take my hat off to those who bring a revolutionary concept into reality and make a handsome profit on the way. This is perfectly valid, and its contribution to Israel’s reputation is important. But if we want to maintain our momentum – not sink – we have to invest in technological and scientific education that trains the specialists required for our industries to grow and move forward – namely, the best engineers and scientists in the world.
At Intel and other hi-tech companies in Israel, we believe investment in education is an investment in the future of the State of Israel. We cannot and we wouldn’t want to take the role of the Ministry of Education, but we certainly will invest time and resources in cooperation with the Ministry of Education to assist in areas where we excel. Our aim is to reverse the current trend of weakening scientific study that has become so pervasive in recent years, and support the learning of math, science and technology so young Israelis will be on par with engineers everywhere in the world. With the help of that elusive secret ingredient Israelis will cross the finish line first.
Shmuel (Mooly) Eden is senior vice president and general manager of Perceptual Computing and president of Intel Israel. He is responsible for overseeing all Intel Israel operations and strategy. This op-ed was originally published in Globes in Hebrew.