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Head vs heart

Despite being a strong performer in education and science, Israel’s political deadlock continues to stifle international business relations. Jenny Skidalski asks if medical research can heal the international community’s relationship with the Holy Land


Israel is a divisive territory in more ways than one. The country is not only, at times, overtly segregationist in its foreign policy; choosing to erect a wall between itself and Palestine, but is also commonly subject to either ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ international discourse. Nevertheless, despite its continuingly controversial international standing, Israel’s current position as a leader in the field of medical research suggests that a new era of global cooperation – based on mutual, humanist aims rather than in response to a notoriously conflict-ridden regional circumstance – is imminent. Ironically, for a nation so heavily associated with its religion, it is Israel’s science, it seems, that could hold the key to strengthening its partnerships worldwide at this juncture in its national development.

Israel has for a long time enjoyed much economic success as a military and academic power, boasting one of the world’s most successful armies and with its universities consistently featured in the one hundred top universities in the world. Amongst the academic community worldwide, Tel Aviv University, Hebrew University and Technion are renowned for their accomplishments in the domain of physics. However, less publicised is the nation’s exceptional record as an innovator in the field of medical research. Since 2002, Israel has produced no less than five Nobel Prize-winning scientists and currently publishes among the most scientific papers per capita in the world. Furthermore, since 2000, Israel has been the global leader in stem cell research papers per capita also.

Furthermore, as recently as September 21st of this year, Dr Daniel Offen and Professor Eldad Melamed of the Felsenstein Medical Research Centre at Tel Aviv University announced that they are to launch clinical trials on a new technology that is thought to protect the human brain from neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Commenting on why it is within this sector that Israel is the world innovator, Dr Offen noted that “we (Israeli medical scientists) don’t have the same ethical and religious problems here, especially with regards to embryonic research. Not only is stem cell research allowed Halachically (according to Jewish law), but it is considered a mitzvah (a good deed) because it saves lives.”

Leading Israeli scientists now hope that the trans-political nature of scientific innovation will enable the nation to build hitherto elusive and unstable international bridges and thus pave the way for greater intellectual and business interaction with global researchers and industries. It is, in fact, probable that the pioneering work of Israeli medical researchers, such as Dr Daniel Offen of the Felsenstein Medical Research Centre at Tel Aviv University, will prove invaluable to colleagues operating in not only other countries, but also in other industries. After all, the flourish of science in the ‘holy land’ presents a stark contrast to the common international perception of the country as a contentiously religious and morally dubious entity. Israel-led medical breakthroughs could thus pave the way for a world-wide perspectival shift away from Israeli politics and towards research and industry and, concomitantly, allow foreign investors to view the country in a new light; the state can subsequently metamorphose into a nation that is renowned for bringing together humanity under the banner of scientific progression.

Of course, whilst it would be a fallacy to suggest that the international medical community is politically neutral, nevertheless, it stands out amongst other industries in its continuing cooperation with Israel throughout various stages in the Middle Eastern conflict’s history. Despite the fact that 130 UK medical practitioners called for a boycott of the Israel Medical Association in 2007, the British Medical Association has never formally called for the IMA’s expulsion from the World Medical Association and continues to liaise and cooperate with leading Israeli researchers.

Nevertheless, the continuing failure of the ‘peace process’ (whereby the history of the phrase itself, in current usage, seems to highlight the lack of progress in the endeavour to stabilise the region) and the propensity of numerous other sections of the international community to boycott Israeli products and services in reaction to politico-ethical concerns, presents the nation with a seemingly unsolvable economic problem regarding foreign investment and collaboration.

Of course, even the decision to discuss Israel in a context outside of the discursive parameters of the Middle Eastern conflict is a political one. Let me be clear: to shift focus from the state’s foreign policy to its academic and business dimension is not to negate the former category. A friend of mine recently suggested that it is Israel’s status as a global innovator in medical research that has shielded this sector from the international boycotts, which have plagued other business and educational Israeli institutions.

A discussion of something as specialist as Israel’s medical research sector requires a plethora of disclaimers, justifications and clarifications regarding even the most seemingly straightforward references and terms. Not least, the term ‘Israel’. The most recent protests in Egypt, whereby the Israeli embassy was targeted, reveal an especially concerning development with regard to Israel’s diplomatic relations when considered in light of the fact that Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt as far back as 1979. This new, more overtly violent and vocal wave of anti-Israel (and, some may argue, anti-Semitic) sentiment is likely to be a concern for Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as for medical researchers for whom international connections are integral.

For many, the decision to discuss ‘Israel’, rather than ‘Palestine’ is already a political statement, especially when, once again, the latter has applied to the UN for recognition of its statehood. Within a discourse of the Middle East that is so often defined by the binary oppositions of ‘pro’ and ‘anti’, the complex psychology of doing business with Israel becomes ever more apparent. Thus, a shift in international perceptions with regard to Israel’s global role would, furthermore, enable other Israeli academic and business sectors to collaborate and trade with other nations; a development that would surely improve the country’s diplomatic and business relationships in the future.

With growing internal descent over rising living standards, and increasing international pressure for a solution to the current political deadlock, Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration may be hard-pressed to find a lasting remedy for Israel’s business reputation abroad. One thing is for sure; Israel’s medical industries have so far managed to thrive during the state’s tumultuous 63-years, a fact that demonstrates solid investment for potential international business partners.

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