Friday, October 09, 2009

Should Israel gloat about having won a Nobel Prize? UPDATE. OUR WINNER HAS A POLITICAL THOUGHT...

The girl from Geula

Thanks to Prof. Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot - who on Wednesday won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry - just about everyone now knows that "ribosomes" are protein factories for cells. Even those of us who can't get our heads around the Periodic Table can appreciate that Yonath's research helps explain why antibiotics work, and contributes to solving the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Science at this level of sophistication is where the brilliance and perseverance of the individual theorist needs the backing of an institution and its benefactors.

Not even Galileo, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi and Albert Einstein could have achieved their respective advances in astronomy, mathematics and physics without a support network. The same holds true for our Nobel laureates in the sciences and economics - Aaron Ciechanover, Avram Hershko, Daniel Kahneman and Robert Aumann - as well as, now, Ada Yonath.

It detracts not a whit from the accomplishments of our winners that their prizes were shared with others. This year, for example, two Americans working independently, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas A. Steitz, share the chemistry prize, Yonath's trailblazing work notwithstanding.

YONATH has a special place in our hearts, of course. She is Jerusalem-born, and as unpretentious as she is luminous. Her father, who ran a grocery store in the capital's Geula neighborhood, died when she was only 10, leaving her mother as the family's sole breadwinner. After IDF service, Yonath attended the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and then went on to study at Weizmann.

Over the years, she told The Jerusalem Post, there were those who considered her line of basic research a fool's errand. But with Weizmann's backing, her hard work came to be widely recognized when she was awarded the Israel Prize in 2002.

Israelis have reason to kvell over Yonath's achievement - and in the eight other Nobels the country has garnered over its mere 60 years. But let's not be swept away by hubris. Jewish tradition teaches that excessive pride is akin to idolatry.

The prizes for science and economics reflect the nation's priorities 30 and 40 years ago. So we are coasting on those investments in our human resources, and on the indispensable financial support of Diaspora Jewry. Yonath would be the first to acknowledge that her work is more dependent on the generosity of New Yorker Helen Kimmelman than on the taxpayers of Israel.

We'd like to think there really is such a thing as "Jewish genius," but if so, it still needs to be tempered by good judgment. Rather than gloating, we Israelis owe a thank you to the Kimmelmans and other major overseas benefactors, who keep Israel's higher education research institutions afloat.

IT'S NOT that we spend less of our GDP on education than other developed countries; it's that we appear inept in spending it wisely. Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz could not bring himself to support the cabinet's budget plan. Regrettably, the government is committed to cutting rather than growing the education budget. Meanwhile, teaching has become a low-prestige vocation dominated by underpaid women.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar recently told the Knesset: "We are very close to the bottom. International [rankings] show that Jordan's school children have passed us, and we are a little ahead of Syria and Tunisia, although more recent statistics might show that they have also surpassed us."

Rather than behaving triumphantly, Israelis ought to be asking themselves: Why has education become less of a national priority?

Let's pray this country continues to be blessed with a nucleus of very high-IQ students. Yet the good of society requires greater investment in the vast pool of average students.

Israelis can learn from the experience of Muslim and Arab civilization, which once kept the beacon of knowledge glowing only to see it dim because of an inability to come to terms with modernity. Looking around Israel today, we can see some of the same obduracy permeating Jewish society.

Large numbers of Israeli children are not even receiving a basic secular education. Which means that the chance of a girl born in Geula this year one day going on to university - much less to a Nobel Prize - is remote indeed.

NB. Since I wrote this on Thursday, Yonath told Israel Army Radio over the weekend that it would be a grand idea to release each and every terrorist in the Israel prison system ... we're talking "engineers" who ordered or planned such outrages as the Pessah massacre in Netanya or the suicide bombing at Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium, on the grounds that -- if we held no prisoners, they would not take any hostages.

Which just goes to prove that you can have an IQ the size of a 747 and the "sehel" -- the common sense -- of a cheap balloon.

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