How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World (TSI Chapter Excerpt)

Chutzpah, obligatory military service, renowned universities and smart big government—these, along with a diverse population and a dearth of natural resources, go far in explaining how a tiny country in the Middle East became a tech powerhouse. But why do many Israeli tech companies, rather than simply enriching people or making our lives more convenient, also wind up making the world a better place?

Israel’s desire to repair the world is part of a host of Jewish values. Since the Middle Ages and possibly before, Jews have recited the aleinu prayer three times a day, which instructs us to repair the world. Pirkei Avot, or Chapters of the Fathers, a collection of ethical teachings compiled by rabbis around the second and third centuries CE, encourage­s people to help others. Israel’s founding fathers, chief among them David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, were inspired by these religious teachings. Today, that idea is taught in schools and is woven into the fabric of Israeli society, affecting everyone from Yemeni Jews who have returned to their ancestral homeland to Christians from Nazareth or Muslims from the Golan Heights.

In the last 70 years, Israel has sent international aid missions around the world, to Africa, Armenia, Argentina, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Rwanda, Turkey and more. The reasons for these missions have varied, with some pragmatic and others idealistic. But the desire for tikkun olam, repairing the world, and bringing more light into the world informs them all. Many of Israel’s founders experienced the horrors of the pogroms and the Holocaust, and as Israeli parliamentarian Isaac Herzog put it, because Jews felt the “world’s silence” during the Holocaust, they “cannot remain indifferent.”

Israelis of all faiths see it as their duty to improve the lives of other people across the globe. The country is not just a “startup nation,” but a place where people of all religions and ethnicities—even as the surrounding region undergoes a seemingly intractable war—strive to make the world a better place for everyone.

Israel has mobilized to solve problems that originally appeared unique to it, and its innovative solutions have proved applicable elsewhere.

This is the story of Israeli innovation and its impact on billions of people around the world. These are but a few examples of how Israel and its citizens act as a force for good.

The Uber of Ambulances

In Jerusalem, an ambulance can take upwards of 20 minutes to arrive at the scene. That’s far too long in a place known for devastating terror attacks. Eli Beer wanted to find a way to speed up the process and make it more efficient. As a child he nearly died in a terror attack, and since then, he’s been interested in emergency care. In 2006, he started a group of volunteer EMTs called United Hatzalah, meaning rescue. In order to be more effective at saving peoples’ lives, he needed expand his volunteer group. To do that, Beer had to solve two problems. First, he needed to construct a highly trained network of people all over the country. Second, he had to create a system to ensure that medics can treat victims almost immediately.

Today, Beer has more than 3,000 volunteers in Israel, including secular and religious Jews and Muslim and Christian Arabs, and Hatzalah has chapters in the United States, Brazil, India and Panama. All its EMTs use a smartphone app that sends a notification to the five volunteers closest to a person in need of help. These EMTs often travel on ambucycles, refitted motorcycles that act as mini-ambulances and are nimble enough to weave through traffic. Each has a trauma kit, an oxygen canister, a blood sugar monitor and a defibrillator. In 2014, Hatzalah answered more than 245,000 calls, and it is saving lives every day in Israel and abroad.

The Talmud says that “whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved an entire world.” And while Haztalah was started in the Orthodox Jewish community, it could not have spread across the country, and the world, without a joint effort that includes secular Jews as well as Christians and Muslims.

A Modern-Day Joseph

About 25 years ago, Professor Shlomo Navarro developed the Grain Cocoon, a large, hermetically sealed bag for rice, grain, spices and legumes, which has the ability to help save millions of people around the globe from malnutrition. Before the cocoon was invented, farmers in the developing world used burlap sacks to store their goods, but these sacks were easily infiltrated by insects that could destroy more than half the harvest. Some farmers used pesticides, which can not only cause sickness and even death, but become ineffective over time.

Reducing post-harvest losses, experts say, will play a critical role in the fight against world hunger. Navarro’s cocoon traps bugs and their eggs inside and deprives them of oxygen, suffocating them to death and making harmful pesticides unnecessary. The cocoon can save more than 99 percent of a farmer’s crops, and since Navarro’s company, GrainPro, introduced it in the early 1990s, it has been used in 100 countries and saved their harvests from insects, rodents and other pests.

Despite the Grain Cocoon’s benefits, pesticides still reign supreme in the developing and the developed world. A major reason is cost. Each cocoon, which stores upwards of five tons of grain, sells for more $1,000, a hefty price for most poor farmers. But as consumers develop greater food-safety awareness, more and more are demanding organic products. In the United States alone, the organic market is expected to continue to grow at an annual rate of 14 percent over the next few years. As demand for organic food grows, the food industry will need to adopt Navarro’s technology.

The Sun King

In the early 1950s, when Israel was a newly independent and struggling country, Dr. Harry Zvi Tabor knew it would need a cheap and reliable energy source. But where to find it? Other Middle Eastern nations had an abundant supply of oil. Israel had none. It didn’t even have coal, let alone a stable supply of water. What it did have, however, was sunlight, and plenty of it. But harnessing the sun to heat water and produce electricity was difficult. For years, scientists had tried and failed to create a device efficient enough for mass use. Tabor, however, believed he had a solution. Using his advanced knowledge of physics and applied engineering, he created a contraption he called the solar collector.

In 1955, Tabor developed special stripping that collected solar energy and connected the stripping to a water collection device. This solar heater yields more hot water and produces more electricity than a turbine. Tabor’s invention is now ubiquitous in Israel and is one of the most recognizable features of rooftops around the world

Over the last half century or so, interest in solar water heating has spread because we are consuming oil, gas and coal at an alarming rate. These fossil fuels emit harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, and policymakers around the world now realize that they must fight climate change. With an increasing number of droughts, storms and heat waves, as well as rising sea levels, melting glaciers and warming oceans, Tabor’s innovation will be in ever-greater demand.

GPS for the Brain

Call it a different type of shock therapy. Since 1987, scientists have used a technique called Deep Brain Stimulation to treat movement and psychiatric disorders with electrical impulses. The challenge, however, has been figuring out exactly where in the brain to place the electrodes.

Imad and Reem Younis, Christian Arabs from Nazareth, like many other entrepreneurs, created their company with no product, no idea and no problem to solve. They simply began with the decision to start. The couple had a solid background in research and development, and as graduates of the Technion, Israel’s premier science and technology university, they also had a strong network of scientists, engineers and professors. But it wasn’t until the two began working with Hagai Bergman, one of the world’s leading neurologists, that they developed their future niche.

Alpha Omega, the largest Arab high-tech company in Israel, was the second company to develop a “GPS for the brain,” but experts say that over the past 23 years, it has created the industry standard. And in the last year, Alpha Omega has produced the first system that does not require human intervention. Remarkably, the company’s founders accomplished all this while overcoming a variety of challenges, from breaking societal norms to being minorities in a predominantly Jewish country.

The couple attributes its success in large part to the company’s very diverse group of engineers: Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews. “When we employ people from different cultures, we can go even farther because each one thinks differently,” Imad says. “And that can create innovation.”