What Israel Can Teach China
Image Credit: Anatoli Axelrod

What Israel Can Teach China


That’s something I’ve argued before, and in September 2010, I created Peking University High School International Division as a laboratory to see if and how creativity can be taught in China.

Last week, twenty students and I traveled to Israel for six days to study what makes Israel “a start-up nation,” as Dan Senor and Saul Singer call it in their New York Times bestseller.  With a diverse population of eight million, Israel lacks water, oil, and land, is encircled by hostile neighbors, and is a terrorist target. (Not to mention the international condemnations it gets for its treatment of the Palestinians.)  

Yet, despite all this, it has become arguably the world’s most dynamic economy.  It has 4,000 start-up companies, attracts almost one-third of the world’s venture capital, and more Israeli companies are listed on the NASDAQ exchange than companies from Europe.  Start-Up Nation tells us that Israel is so innovative because of its culture of “tenacity, of insatiable questioning of authority, of determined informality, combine with a unique attitude toward failure, teamwork, mission, risk, and cross-disciplinary creativity.” 

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And that’s what we experienced as we traveled from the sun-soaked stone city of Jerusalem to the rolling hills of Haifa to the Mediterranean coast of Tel Aviv.

In Jerusalem, we learned that Judaism has survived several millennia of persecution because it dares to innovate.  Walking around the ruins of the Second Temple, our guide, himself a former rabbi from California, explained to us how Judaism was once a stagnant and hierarchical religion based on animal sacrifice.  After the Romans burned down the Second Temple, Judaism’s heart and soul, in the year 70 in retaliation against Jewish revolt, Jews no longer had a place to make their sacrifice to God.  Faced with the possible extinction of their religion, Judaism responded by re-inventing itself into the modern rabbinical tradition, one based on interpretation and on prayer. 

“Each generation now has the right to re-define Judaism for itself,” our guide told us. 

And this tradition has helped Israel today to re-imagine its most pressing problems into its most lucrative opportunities. 

Take, for instance, Israel’s water problem.  Nature provides barely enough water for Israel, and that’s why in 1993 the Technion, Israel’s institute of technology and de facto laboratory, created the Water Research Institute.  The Institute brings together the university’s top engineers, chemists, biologists, and physicists, who collaborate together to solve Israel’s water problem.

Right now, the Water Research Institute is building a new “water-wise” building, which aims to meet 80 percent of its water needs by harvesting rainwater on its roof, and recycling “gray” water from showers and sinks.  It’s also helping the Israeli government desalinate the Sea of Galilee in an eco-friendly and energy-efficient way.

These are technologies and management systems that once developed can be profitably exported to countries that have severe water shortages.  (For example, China.)  If China is the world’s sweatshop then Israel is the world’s laboratory.          

China needs to learn to become a laboratory if it is to survive the environmental pollution, financial mismanagement, and social inequity that derive from being the world’s sweatshop.  So how can our Chinese students become the creative talent that China needs?  And what makes Israel so innovative?  

Israel’s answer is, as always, short and simple:  Ask questions

These two words in fact represent the cultural chasm that divides Israel and China.  As Start-Up Nation mentions, Israel lacks hierarchy and formality so that when we visited a public high school in Tel Aviv, we saw teachers interrupt the principal, and learned that Israelis consider “shyness” a learning disability.  When I asked an Israeli 14-year-old girl how much homework she does at night, she responded with “Why are you asking me this question?”

Israel is a radically different world for my students, many of whom have already been on school trips to the United States and Botswana.  In these two countries, our students discovered it was encouraged to ask questions, and to stand out.  In Israel, they were told it was rude not to ask questions, and if you don’t stand out then you’re a loser.  

To ask questions is not simply to raise your hand and open your mouth, which are difficult enough for many a Chinese student.  It entails a radical re-ordering of how you relate to yourself, and to the world around you – it requires a flattening of the world, the centering of the world around yourself, and ultimately a willingness to overturn the world if need be.  That’s what makes Israel such an innovative culture, yet also why so many other cultures find Israelis difficult to deal with. 

If China is to be creative, it simply can’t declare it a national priority, or just send Chinese students overseas. It needs to re-imagine its society from one that is hierarchal and stagnant to one that is free and open, just as Judaism did two thousand years ago.   

While it was hard for our students to speak out, to challenge authority, and to ask questions, they in fact did learn to do so.  And they discovered they like it. 

While we were at the Technion, our students peppered a Technion biology professor with so many questions that he couldn’t finish his presentation on genetically modified foods even after he stayed half an hour longer than he had planned.  Instead of walking away angry, he did so impressed, like a true Israeli. 

If Chinese must ask a question they often ask “why.”  For example, why visit Israel?  If China is to be truly creative, it needs to learn from the Israelis, and start asking “why not?”          

To learn more about our trips to Israel and Botswana please visit our student blog at blog.sina.com.cn/ourvoices2011.

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