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Book Catalogs the Wonders of Israeli Ingenuity, Innovation

September 23, 2005
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Each year, more than a half-billion birds traverse Israeli skies en route from Africa to Europe and Asia. Israeli bird-watchers love that their skies are a sort of avian Spice Route, but air force pilots, who fly at about the same altitude as the migrating birds, are less sanguine: Between 1972 and 1998, 3,000 Israeli military planes struck birds, losing three pilots and eight aircraft in the accidents.

Thanks to the ingenuity of Israeli researcher Yossi Leshem, however, bird-strikes have plummeted by 76 percent during the last 20 years, according to a new book about Israeli innovations in fields from science and technology to agriculture, medicine and outreach.

Leshem’s work isn’t the kind that’s likely to make headlines, especially coming from a region long dominated by violence and political turmoil. But for one British philanthropist — who conceived and funded the book “Israel in the World: Changing Lives Through Innovation” — it was just the kind of story he wanted to read, and wanted others to have access to.

“Other books tell you how to argue for Israel,” said Trevor Pears, who directs the Pears Foundation. “They don’t tell you why you should.”

The new book “encourages me to argue the case because I think Israel is doing some good stuff,” he said.

Leshem’s is just one of the interesting stories in “Israel in the World.”

Pioneering the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, drafting volunteer bird-watchers and using a motorized glider, the Tel Aviv university researcher and bird lover launched a massive and sophisticated project to track the flight paths and schedules of migrating birds, allowing Israel’s air force to avoid particular areas when they were likely to be teeming with birds.

The project, which is credited with the drop in bird-related accidents and is being emulated around the world, was an enormous undertaking: Some 280 species of birds take to the skies above Israel and each has its unique patterns and eccentricities.

Leshem now works closely with the Jordanian and Turkish air forces to help prevent bird strikes, and many Western governments have sought out Leshem and the Israeli air force for guidance on preventing collisions. Indeed, Leshem provided the United States with information on the birds’ migratory patters during the first Gulf War in 1991.

Pears’ favorite story in the book is about Yoel Margalith, an Israeli scientist known worldwide as “Mr. Mosquito.”

Margalith is credited with saving millions of lives through his discovery of Bti, a naturally occurring bacteria that kills disease-carrying mosquitos and certain types of flies. Bti does not harm the environment, as past chemical mosquito killers have, but it’s lethal to the tiny creatures that spread malaria and river blindness. The discovery has saved lives outside of Israel, including some in Africa and China.

But what impresses Pears most is that Margalith is a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the Teresienstadt transit camp. Margalith’s achievements make clear the “waste of creativity and humanity” perpetrated during the Holocaust, Pears said.

Among other Israeli innovations detailed in the book are:

Nemesysco, an Israeli company that has developed voice-sensitive technology that reveals, over the telephone, whether or not someone is telling the truth;

M-Systems, the Israeli firm that developed the DiskOnKey, whose Flash technology allows huge amounts of computer data to be stored on a key chain; and

Given Imaging Ltd., which developed a miniature, disposable video camera that can be fitted into a capsule and swallowed, giving doctors thousands of images of a person’s intestines.

“It’s breathtaking how broad Israel’s innovative genius has become in the 21st century,” said Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel21c, an organization that works to give a fuller picture of Israel beyond the conflict with the Palestinians. A number of the stories in “Israel in the World” are from Israel21c’s archives, Weinberg said.

“People look at this book and go, ‘Wow!’ Even Jews don’t know what Israel has become in the 21st century,” he said.

Many Israelis, too, aren’t aware of their county’s achievements, said Mark Waldman, a Canadian philanthropist and chair of CIJA-PAC, a Canadian Jewish advocacy group.

“The surprising thing is, when I gave copies to friends in Israel — and when other Israelis looked at the book — they all came back and said they had no idea how much Israel had contributed to the world,” he said. “There’s so much negative stuff in the media about Israel and we let the media try and define Israel, but the way they define it isn’t what Israel really is.”

Waldman said he has been promoting the book in North America to Jewish federations and other nonprofits, and is trying to attract the interest of the media.

Pears, to whom the authors dedicated the book, said the idea came to him as he looked around for something to read about Israel’s achievements.

“I couldn’t find the kind of book I was looking for and figured perhaps I might make it happen,” he said.

He pitched the idea to Britain’s Lord George Weidenfeld, a founder of Weidenfeld & Nicolson publishers and a former chief of staff to Israeli President Chaim Weizmann.

Weidenfeld set Pears up with the Orion Publishing Group. From there, journalists Helen and Douglas Davis were drafted to write the book, and it was released about 18 months later. Launch parties have been held in New York, London and Toronto.

“Israel in the World” includes a foreword by media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

“From media and telecommunications to I.T. and banking, Israeli technological advances are key contributors to the progress and strength of the global economy,” writes Murdoch, whose News Corp. controls NDS, a television technology company profiled in the book.

The book can be bought online at and is available at bookstores. Proceeds are going to the Emet Foundation, created to use its profits to take on projects that offer positive approaches to Judaism, Pears said. “Emet” is the Hebrew word for truth.

The book has had two printings already and a third is being considered. The Israeli Foreign Ministry has purchased about 2,000 copies of the book, and Jewish federations are giving it to donors. Those involved with the book say a French translation is a possibility.

“To know that it’s in most Israeli embassies around the world and that they’re giving them out showing a face of Israel that has just not seen — that’s a success,” Pears said.

Waldman agrees that the book may prove influential.

“I think it can have a big impact in changing people,” Waldman said. “Maybe it can get someone to invest in Israel, to visit Israel, to benefit from all the great things that come out of the country,” he said.

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