TEL AVIV (JTA) – To build a Jewish state in the Middle East, Israelis had to be innovators.
Some of what they’ve come up with has been used mostly by their fellow citizens — think Hebrew slang, Bamba snacks and the Iron Dome missile defense system — at least so far.
But many other Israeli creations have changed the world: drip irrigation, the USB flash drive and actress Natalie Portman, among them.
Ahead of Yom Haatzmaut — Israel’s Independence Day, to be celebrated on May 2 — here are some incredible things Israel gave the world this year, its 69th year of independence.
A weed inhaler
Puff, puff, pass the inhaler.
In November, the Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva announced it would begin marketing a medical cannabis inhaler in Israel that delivers precise doses of the drug. Rambam Hospital in Haifa had already been using the device for more than a year, making it the first medical center in the world to prescribe cannabis as a standard medical treatment.
Perry Davidson, the founder and CEO of Syqe Medical, which developed the inhaler, said his company plans eventually to offer it around the world.
“Israel is clearly just the start,” he told Bloomberg. “We expect to be approved for use in other countries in due course. The U.S., as the biggest medical cannabis market, is an obvious target.”
The inhaler is far from Israel’s first marijuana-related innovation. In 1964, Raphael Mechoulan, a chemist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discovered tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis. He went on to identify the endocannabinoid system upon which cannabinoids act on the body.
Last summer, the government approved a plan by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to relax some requirements for obtaining medical cannabis. And in March, it decriminalized recreational marijuana use.
A binge-worthy series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
The Israeli TV drama “Fauda” has given the world a compelling look inside the conflict at the heart of the Jewish state.
Nearly two years after the show became a mega-hit in Israel, Netflix in December began streaming the first, and so far only season, in 130 countries. In the United States and elsewhere, English subtitles were added over the Arabic and Hebrew dialogue.
“Fauda” – Arabic for “chaos” – was informed by the Israeli military experiences of co-writers Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz. The show follows undercover Israeli soldiers as they pursue a fictional Hamas terrorist in the West Bank and also delves deep into the lives of the Palestinian characters.
Netflix previously bought the rights to other Israeli films and TV shows, including “Prisoners of War,” from which the hit U.S. show “Homeland” was adapted.
Reviewers and fans have lauded “Fauda” for offering an unusually complex and humane portrayal of Arab characters, even terrorists, and for capturing the reality of Palestinian life under Israeli rule and the challenges facing Israeli security forces. Loaded with Arab actors, the show has won fans on both sides of the Green Line that demarcates the territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.
“A sad reality,” one Arab Israeli viewer wrote on the official “Fauda” Facebook page. “I hope the day will come when Arab and Jews can live together in peace.”
A popular sport for middle-aged women
Popularized by Israeli moms in 2005, the women’s sport of catchball has recently gone global.
Catchball is like volleyball, but easier, because catching and throwing replaces bumping, setting and spiking. Israeli women adapted the sport from Newcomb, which some Americans may know from summer camp or gym class.
Meanwhile, catchball leagues in Israel boast more than 12,000 female members, almost all of them over 30. That is twice as many adult women as belong to basketball, soccer, volleyball and tennis leagues combined, according to data from Israel’s Culture and Sport Ministry.
“It’s like a disease among middle-aged women here,” said Naor Galili, the director-general of the Maccabi sports association in Israel. “We like it. We love it. We fully support it.”
The Israeli Catchball Association in recent years has promoted catchball in more than half a dozen other countries and helped launch a sister association in the United States. At the July Maccabiah Games, an Olympics-style event for Jewish athletes held every four years, an exhibition tournament will features dozens of teams from Israel, along with squads from Boston, London and Berlin.
Richard Gere playing a Jewish schlub
Richard Gere, a famously suave gentile, stars as a schlubby Jewish schemer in “Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer.”
Perhaps only Israeli director Joseph Cedar could have given the world such a gift. The bitingly funny film follows Norman Oppenheimer as he aspires to serve as a fixer between New York’s Jewish community, into which Cedar was born, and Jerusalem, where he was raised.
Cedar knowingly — and often humorously — navigates the gaps between the two worlds. As NPR’s pop culture critic John Powers put it, “Cedar cheerfully skewers Israeli politics and its emotional relationship to American Jewry in a way that U.S. directors dare not.”
The director doesn’t worry whether the film is “good for the Jews,” Powers noted.
For better or worse, Gere apparently has no such hang-ups either. In Jerusalem last month for the local premiere of “Norman,” Gere told Haaretz that Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are “an absurd provocation” and “this occupation is destroying everyone.”
Treatment for thousands of wounded Syrians
Officially, Israel has maintained a policy of non-intervention in the Syrian war and has not taken in any refugees. But the Jewish state has still managed to offer some help to its northern neighbors.
Since early 2013, the Israeli army has taken in some 3,000 wounded Syrians for treatment. Generally working at night, soldiers have provided initial medical care and then evacuated the wounded to nearby hospitals.
The numbers are a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands who have been killed and wounded in the fighting between soldiers loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebel groups. But they are significant to those whose limbs and lives have been saved, including hundreds of children.
During a visit this month to the Western Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin promised the country would “continue to do everything it can with responsibility and wisdom in order to alleviate the suffering of the people who experience daily slaughter here on the other side of the border.”
Israeli civilians have donated hundreds of thousands of shekels to help Syrian refugees, and there has been official talk of accepting 100 orphans, though nothing has come of it.
Your next car may very well come with an Israeli driver, though it won’t be human.
The U.S. chipmaker Intel last month bought Israel’s driverless technology company Mobileye for $15.3 billion, the largest-ever purchase of a high-tech company in this country. In a joint announcement, the companies said the deal “is expected to accelerate innovation for the automotive industry and position Intel as a leading technology provider in the fast-growing market for highly and fully autonomous vehicles.”
Founded in 1999, Mobileye has supplied integrated cameras, chips and software for driver-assist systems — the building blocks for self-driving cars — to more than two dozen vehicle manufacturers. The company has already taken over 70 percent of the global market for driver-assistance and anti-collision systems. Mobileye was a supplier of vision systems to Tesla until the companies broke up last summer after a man died in a crash while his Tesla Model S was on autopilot.
Co-founder and CEO Ziv Aviram has said Mobileye, with its 660 employees, will remain centered in Israel, from where it will develop Intel’s first driverless car.
A Wonder Woman with weapons training
After first playing Wonder Woman in last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Israeli actress Gal Gadot will appear in her own DC Comics film this summer.
As a former Israeli soldier, Gadot has brought some unique skills to the role of Amazonian superhero. In March 2016, she talked to ABC talk show host Jimmy Kimmel about how her army service, saying, “The military gave me good training for Hollywood.”
In her previous “Fast and Furious” appearances (in which she plays an ex-Mossad agent), the one-time Miss Israel impressed director Justin Lin with her knowledge of weapons and performed her own stunts for the franchise. She also showed off her fighting abilities in last year’s “Keeping Up with the Joneses” as the better half of a suburban secret agent couple.
While Gadot’s films haven’t exactly been critically acclaimed, she has remained a national hero. Israelis have widely admired her for fulfilling her mandatory military service (while fellow Israeli swimsuit model Bar Refaeli has taken some heat for avoiding enlistment).
Gadot is the first to play Wonder Woman on the big screen. Since superhero franchises never seem to end, Gadot — who has two daughters with husband Yaron Varsan, an Israeli real estate developer – is set to play the character in at least two more films this year.