Reaping the benefits of modern science and technology



Last year, Israel completed 50 years of independence. Its population is a little less than 6 million — half the size of Mumbai city — and it is already regarded as being set to emerge as one of the world’s leading technology powers. Many in the USA consider that there is no other area in the wold that rivals Silicon Valley or the Boston area more than Israel. Intel Corporation designed the Pentium MMK microprocessor in Israel. VocalTec set off a revolution in 1995 with its Internet telephone software. Apart from the U.S. and Canada, Israel has the largest number of listed companies on the technology-driven Nasdaq stock exchange. Israel attracts more American venture capital than any nation except the U.S. itself. In an interview with Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News, the then Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu predicted: "Israel will be one of the two or three great centres of high technology at the close of the 20th century." Israel already has a per capita income which comes close to that of Britain and its economy is larger than that of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon combined. All this is in stark contrast with the state of affairs in nearby tiny Palestine which Gillmor also visited and wrote about. However, what is true of Palestine is also, of course, true of all the Arab nations — countries like Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq etc.

How has this gulf come about? Why has Israel, with only fifty years of existence as a nation, already pulled ahead? Although they have been around much longer, what exactly are the impediments to Arab progress? It is important that we understand the reason for this because long-term peace in the Middle East - and therefore world peace — depends on it. Apart, of course, from the fact that it may provide clues to all developing nations, including India, as to how economic progress is really to be secured.

Of all the reasons mentioned by Gillmor as being responsible for Israel’s achievements — military necessity, strong technical education, talented immigrants, government programmes, the peace process and big money from abroad — one fundamental reason stands out and that is, the veneration of education in Jewish culture.But surely, you will argue, Arab governments and Arab nations also realise the value of education. Which nation can set its face against education these days? But there is a difference. The difference lies in the nature of education itself in the modern world. Most of it is based on and revolves around modern science and technology. Certainly material progress and advancement comes only from adoption of the methods of modern science and technology.


The strong impetus towards education in the Jewish religion and therefore, in Jewish culture, has enabled the Israeli people to overcome all obstacles (and there are obstacles there also, as the recent elections showed) that may exist in the Jewish religion itself to the precepts of modern science and technology. Progress in Israel has not taken place because of the superior qualities of the Jewish religion. This religion, like other religions, is not automatically a breeding ground for cryptographers, creators of data communication software, telecommunication engineers, chip design experts and so on. But to the extent that a religious culture permits its people to adapt itself to the stringent demands of modern education, to that extent will it ensure the economic and therefore, the political and social advance of that nation. My intention is not to detract or take away from the Jewish religion but instead to set in relief the importance of the collection or assemblage of knowledge which today is represented by modern science and technology.

After all, it was not so very long ago that Jews, as a people who were dispersed all over the world, used to be best known as peddlers, hawkers, pawnbrokers and moneylenders. It used to be said that because they lacked land which they could call their own, they never really even took to farming or to agricultural practices. But with the change in the nature of the understanding of the modern world — in other words, change in the body of knowledge itself — and the consequential change in the economic and industrial world ( including change in manufacturing methods and systems), the Jewish people readily gathered more modern skills and took to other vocations. From being mere traders and artisans and financiers, they now became professionals like lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers, researchers, professors, intellectuals etc. Later, they went one step further and in different countries like the USA, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela etc. became manufacturers and large-scale employers in their own right.

After the creation of Israel, faced with the need for producing food for a new and growing nation. Israelis put modern botanical, horticultural and agricultural practices to work in transforming their desert country into a fabled land of milk and honey. All this would not have been possible if their religion had not had the resilience or flexibility which permitted its followers to adapt themselves to modern science and technology.

It is necessary to realise that with the coming of modern times, thee was a momentous change, a fundamental change, in the nature of knowledge itself. During ancient times and right up to the medieval age, knowledge comprised subjects like astrology, speculative astronomy, philosophy, jurisprudence, rhetoric, imaginary history and geography, trial and error medicine, mathematics etc. With the onset of the modern age, the subjects changed to more exact sciences like scientific and mathematical astronomy, physics, chemistry, metallurgy, geology, biology, botany, zoology etc. The sum total of knowledge itself changed in character. With their penchant for learning and scholarship, the Jewish people showed the supreme ability of becoming attached to this corpus of knowledge as it existed at different times in different cultures in different parts of the world. As the locus of knowledge moved, so did they move with it.


Of the seven centuries of Moorish rule in Spain, three centuries (900-1200AD) have been called the "golden age" of the Jews, not only for their economic achievements but also for their intellectual and cultural development. The Islamic world of this era was itself a source of new ideas in science, poetry and philosophy. Classics of Greek civilisation were written up in Arabic or translated into Arabic. A new system of numbers, originating in India, came to Europe by way of the Arabs and is even today called Arabic numerals. Much of the literature that entered Spain was re-translated into European languages and became part of the heritage of European civilisation. Jews were an important part of this translation process. However, with the fall of Granada in 1493, Moorish rule in Spain came to an end. The wealth and skills of the Jews were now no longer needed and they had become expendable. There began a wholesale expropriation of Jews from Spain in the fifteenth century. They left behind so much wealth that it even helped to finance the voyage of Columbus in 1492 leading to the discovery of the Western Hemisphere.

Spanish Jews now gravitated to wherever the knowledge centres might be : like Amsterdam, becoming at that time one of the greatest ports and cities in the world and Istanbul, capital of the Ottoman Empire, itself the inheritor of the great Arab Muslim civilisation. In the latter place, they contributed knowledge of Western military technology, Western medicine and knowledge of Western languages. Jews were so common in the customs service there that many of the Ottoman receipts were written in Hebrew. However, by the time these Jews arrived and began to settle down, the Muslim world, once distinctly ahead of Europe in science and technology, was already falling behind. Jews in responsible positions began to be replaced by Western educated Greeks and Armenians. It was now Europe which was being increasingly invigorated by the impressive achievements of modern science and technology. At the start of the modern era, most Jews were still living in Islamic countries but with the deteriorating position of these countries many of these Jews began to emigrate to Europe. (Note: These facts have been written about elsewhere as well but the arrangement of the above three or four paragraphs follows that in Thomas Sowell’s excellent "Migrations and Cultures".)

Jews, therefore, now once again became associated with the body of knowledge from which they had become disconnected before. Soon, they had begun to excel in all departments : even in Germany, where literacy was high and acquaintance with science one of the highest in Europe, they predominated in law, medicine, science and philosophy. They were never again to be removed from the knowledge and skills that science and technology brings to any people.

If, therefore, as Gillmor’s article states, Israel’s emphasis on high tech industries was accelerated during this last decade because of the large scale arrival of Russian Jewish immigrants, this then surely was because of the exposure of these people to the techniques, practices and thinking of modern science and technology in the erstwhile Communist Soviet Union and not purely because of their Jewish background.


Palestine is only a small fragment of the widespread Muslim world. The Muslim religion has not yet come to terms with the compelling forces of modern science and technology. The Muslim states still remain, therefore, in the words of Bassam Tiwi, as examples of "pre-industrial cultures in a scientific technological age." This is one of the great ironies of history. As is well known, Arab Muslim civilisation during the period 800-1200 AD itself came agonisingly close to the birth of modern science. It acted as intermediary or middleman between Greek/Hindu/Persian science on the one hand and the Renaissance and the beginnings of modern science in Europe on the other. Algebra, arithmetic (algorism), chemistry (alchemy) and geometry all began in the Middle East. Arab science boasted of advances in agriculture, medicine, astronomy, natural history, education and so on. Unfortunately, when they came to the crossroads — the point at which any society is called upon to choose between observations of reality and the dictates of the scriptures — the Arab nations took the wrong turning. Syed Hoosein Nasr has characterised this as a "failure of nerve" on the part of the Muslim world. This is the true reason for the economic and technology gap between Israel, a land of only 6 million people and Palestine and in fact, the rest of the Arab world, nearly 170 million people. Unless the Muslim world even now grasps the nettle and accepts the teachings of history, this gap will not only not narrow down but will continue to grow.