Last year Dan Senor and Saul Singer published Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle. It's a great read, and doesn't require more than a few hours of pleasurable effort. The starting point for the book is that Israel is a world-class center of innovation, second only to Silicon Valley. There's more technological innovation happening here than on entire continents elsewhere, and the political and military turmoil of the past decade has never dented this. The authors set out to explain this.
First, they state their case, which turns out to be even more compelling than often recognized, since they look not only at the very long list of successful or wildly successful Israeli start-up companies, but also at the centrality of Israeli innovators to the development efforts of some of the world's largest technology companies - Intel, say, or Microsoft. The also show how it's not only high-technology, it's lots of other things, too, such as drip irrigation - not to mention the once famous and now defunct kibbutz movement, which was magnificent in its time, before the world moved on.
They compare Israel's economy to other economies, by way of attempting to identify what's unique about Israel. Since you ought to read the book I won't go through all its arguments, but the bottom line is that Israelis are anti-hierarchical, even in the army; they have no respect for accepted wisdom and even less for its representatives; they're brazen questioners of everything and everyone; but also they've got motivations to succeed that come from being proud of what they are and what they're doing. The Arab boycott and Charles De Gaulle's abrupt ban on military supplies days before the Six Day War, say the authors, must be given credit for at least part of Israel's prowess, since they shut the easy avenues to success, and forced the Israelis to forge new ones, and then, once they had the culture, to keep on forging them.
They also describe how early Israeli innovation was steered by the government, until that lost steam in the early 1970s; they are honest and clear-eyed about the wasted decades between the early 1970s and the early 1990s.
As I said, it's a fun book, and presents an Israel which is much more interesting - and real - than the one which the world's media obsesses about most days of the year (as does this blog). I do however have one significant quibble.
The technology sector of Israel may well be the economy's main motor, and the cultural characteristics which underpin it are all really there, very much thriving. Not all of Israel participates, however. The army really is a crucially important part of the story - but there are other parts of the army which do the exact opposite of encouraging innovation. Many Israelis really do fit the descriptions presented in the book - but more don't. Or at any rate, many don't: I wouldn't know how to quantify it. There are as many conservative and unimaginative plodders in Israel as anywhere else. Thankfully, they don't hamper the mad scientists and iconoclasts out to turn the world on its head; there are enough of them, however, to make Israel a place of growing inequality and considerable waste.
Finally, two minor comments: some of Israel's homegrown detractors, the folks I regularly dislike on this blog, have the same all-around gumption as their engineer cousins. It really is a cultural thing. Also, as anyone who has ever seriously studied the Talmud will attest, some of this ability comes from there. Spend 2,000 years studying Talmud, and it will be astonishing if you don't obsessively see things from novel perspectives and insanely unlikely vantages.