By Pervez Hoodbhoy Published July 2, 2022
IS it some international conspiracy — or perhaps a secret weapon — that allows Israel to lord over the Middle East? How did a country of nine million — between one-half and one-third of Karachi’s population — manage to subdue 400m Arabs? A country built on stolen land and the ruins of destroyed Palestinian villages is visibly chuckling away as every Arab government, egged on by the khadim-i-haramain sharifain, lines up to recognise it. Economically fragile Pakistan is being lured into following suit.
Conspiracy theorists have long imagined Israel as America’s overgrown watchdog, beefed up and armed to protect American interests in the Middle East. But only a fool can believe that today. Every American president, senator and congressman shamefacedly admits it’s the Israeli tail that wags the American dog. Academics who chide Israel’s annexation policies are labelled anti-Semitic, moving targets without a future. The Israeli-US nexus is there for all to see but, contrary to what is usually thought, it exists for benefiting Israel not America.
It was not always this way. European Jews fleeing Hitler were far less welcome than Muslims are in today’s America. That Jewish refugees posed a serious threat to national security was argued by government officials in the State Department to the FBI as well as president Franklin Roosevelt himself. One of my scientific heroes, Richard Feynman, was rejected in 1935 by Columbia University for being Jewish. Fortunately, MIT accepted him.
What changed outsiders into insiders was a secret weapon. That weapon was brain power. Regarded as the primary natural resource by Jews inside and outside Israel it is an obsession for parents who, spoon by spoon, zealously ladle knowledge into their children. The state too knows its responsibility: Israel has more museums and libraries per capita than any other country. Children born to Ashkenazi parents are assumed as prime state assets who will start a business, discover some important scientific truth, invent some gadget, create a work of art, or write a book.
Brain power makes teeny-tiny Israel a technological giant before which every Arab country must bow.
In secular Israel, a student’s verbal, mathematical, and scientific aptitude sets his chances of success. By the 10th grade of the secular bagut system, smarter students will be learning calculus and differential equations together with probability, trigonometry and theorem proving. Looking at some past exam papers available on the internet, I wondered how Pakistani university professors with PhDs would fare in Israeli level-5 school exams. Would our national scientific heroes manage a pass? Unsurprisingly, by the time they reach university, Israeli students have bettered their American counterparts academically.
There is a definite historical context to seeking this excellence. For thousands of years, European anti-Semitism made it impossible for Jews to own land or farms, forcing them to seek livelihoods in trading, finance, medicine, science and mathematics. To compete, parents actively tutored their children in these skills. In the 1880s, Zionism’s founders placed their faith solidly in education born out of secular Renaissance and Enlightenment thought.
But if this is the story of secular Israel, there is also a different Israel with a different story. Ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews were once a tiny minority in Israel’s mostly secular society. But their high birth rate has made them grow to about 10 per cent of the population. Recognisable by their distinctive dress and manners, the Haredim are literally those who “tremble before God”.