The Presidency in Israel as a Unique Challenge

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An article by Nobel Prize laureate Prof. Dan Shechtman, which was written as part of an IDI project in which the candidates for President of Israel share their views on the presidency and discuss what they would bring to the job.

Immediately upon its establishment, the nascent State of Israel absorbed immigrants from all corners of the world. As far as it is known, relative to the size of Israel’s population, it was the largest influx of immigrants in modern history. In fact, we are witnesses to one of the wonders of human history—a return to the Jewish homeland after a long and difficult exile, a revival of the Hebrew language, and the building of an exemplary democratic state, which is successful and flourishing despite all of the environmental constraints.

Clearly, the culture of learning, initiative, and creativity, combined with visionary leadership, hard work, and the need to be independent in an unstable environment—led us to these achievements.

The president’s role, first of all, is to carry out the duties stipulated in the Basic Law: President of the State. Every president, of course, adds specific aspects based on his qualifications, background and experience, worldview, and vision. It is very important for the citizens of Israel to be proud of their president, and for Diaspora Jewry and the nations of the world to see the president as a symbol of the State of Israel, its achievements, and values.

If I am elected, I see the role of president as a servant of the citizens of Israel, a president of all, who has the desire and ability to listen and learn. I will encourage what unites us and what we have in common, rather than the issues that divide us, taking advantage of the fact that I do not come from a political background and am not beholden to any person or group.
My views have been based on our heritage, tradition, and values, including the personal example set by my grandfather, a man who arrived here in the wave of immigration known as the Second Aliyah, who helped build the country and revive the Hebrew language.

In light of its challenges and Israel's system of coalition government, the job of the prime minister of Israel is said to be the most difficult and challenging job in the world. Therefore, I also see the role of the president as including the provision of support and assistance to the government of Israel and the prime minister. The president of Israel must be very attentive to public sentiment, must relate to the feelings of the public, and must promote issues related to the future of the state. We must encourage new and advanced thinking—not only in science and technology but also in many other fields, since there is no substitute for entrepreneurial and creative thinking, as long as it is practical, thorough, serious, transparent and inclusive.

There are still huge challenges, including encouraging the common and the unifying, while remaining respectful of the tradition and culture that each community has nurtured for many generations. Initial challenges will include sustaining life itself (that is, health, and internal and external security), as well as contributing to quality of life and narrowing disparities in society. This includes providing dignified work opportunities, and protecting the rights and duties of all citizens.

Enormous developments have recently been taking place in the world; the information age is reaching new heights and technological change continues to accelerate, with all of its educational and cultural implications. It turns out that change is the constant in today's world and that those who fail to adapt to change will find themselves outside of working society.
The media, in its various forms, has become accessible even to the very young and is sometimes abused and exploited for negative cultural influence. Instead of thoroughness, responsibility, cultural depth, wealth of language, and fundamental discourse, the opposite is found. This has a broad impact on education, on the lack of cultured behavior, and on disrespect for others.

We have the responsibility to create in Israel a life of dignity, a life of ethics and morality, a life that defines constant improvement as an essential value. Our objective is for the State of Israel to be among the leaders in per capita GDP and quality of life, and for it to be a good and pleasant place to live and grow, while maintaining an advanced society.
At the same time, we must fight against the growing incitement against Israel and hostile activity against Israel in the form of boycotts and delegitimization.

Our future, however, depends on the education and knowledge we succeed in providing to our young people.

Prof. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that education is the most important thing, and in education, a personal example is essential! In Israel, much attention has been placed on ways to improve education in order to achieve greater success on the OECD's PISA exams  and other tests. However, insufficient attention is given to education itself—education that aims to turn children and adults into citizens who respect the rights of others, whose behavior conforms to the accepted norms in the world, who eschew verbal and physical violence, and who include many young people who serve as examples of social leaders, in keeping with in the teaching of Pirkei Avot: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” Education can greatly enhance the quality of life in Israel.

Education is the main factor, if not the sole factor, in economic success. Studies by the Taub Center underline the close connection between education, salary, and employment rates. Gender and religion have been found to have almost no effect on salary and employment. Therefore, post-secondary education or advanced technical training is not only important for the individual, but to all of society as well.

Education in the sciences and engineering is particularly important. We should start to expose children to the beauty of science and familiarize them with the world around us at the earliest age possible. During the past two years, I initiated two such programs. The first program, operating in kindergartens in Haifa, teaches science in conjunction with the municipality’s Education Department and the Ministry of Education. While it is clear that not all of the participants will become scientists or engineers, science education that includes experiments, exercises, and projects, offers many related educational benefits that enrich the lives of youngsters and will continue to contribute to their development for as long as they continue their studies in this direction. Some of these by-products include: curiosity, attentiveness, teamwork, interpersonal relations, learning from mistakes, responsibility, drawing conclusions, an ability to express oneself, an ability to prepare written and oral summaries, learning from others, seeking advice and help, pursuing more than one way of solving a problem, democratic thinking, respect for the person responsible for the task, openness, transparency, initiative, creativity, and so on. This program is currently in its second year and I hope that it will expand to many other preschools.

The second initiative is a program that I began during the past year in collaboration with Israeli Educational Television, in which I teach science to first graders. The series is called “Be a Science Man with Professor Dan” and it is broadcast three times a day, every day. There are already ten programs on physics and there will be a similar number on earth science and biology.

As president, I will devote ongoing efforts to improving the education of young people, starting from an early age; to providing broad and in-depth education to all, with an emphasis on scientific and technological education; to cultivating a culture of courtesy and respect for others, to fostering the love of Hebrew, humankind, and country, and to providing education on humanistic and moral topics, and on social solidarity.
Recognizing the sources of our excellence and the proven leadership that has resulted from national projects, we should define the next national challenge: a challenge of excellence at the highest level in education that will unite us all, mobilize our resources, and bring together our best minds, in Israel and abroad, in order to further enhance Israel’s excellent position as a world leader.

As an initial stage, this vision poses the challenge of upgrading scientific excellence in two key fields in which Israel has an advantage and expertise—biotechnology and food sources. These fields are expected to have the most rapid growth; Israel can and must play a leading role in them, in R&D, as well as in industrial and commercial developments and applications.

In order to fulfill this vision, we should develop a center for research and excellence in the fields of biotechnology in northern Israel. The center will be built upon the considerable reservoir of local knowledge and will be a branch of a leading university in the field. It will serve as a hub for a large and well-equipped civilian research center,  and will serve as a magnet for incubators, startups and industry centered around the research. This research and industrial infrastructure will create hundreds and even thousands of jobs in a wide range of professions.

A similar civilian R&D center should be established in southern Israel. This center will focus on producing food in desert conditions. Like the northern research hub, this state-of-the-art civilian research center will be a branch of a university and will be based on a wide pool of local knowledge. The challenge of producing food in desert conditions is an area in which we are world leaders and it is important to transform this knowledge into a source of global knowledge. These two centers will enhance Israel’s research status and industrial standing in the world and boost economic prosperity and national growth. Growth in Israel's national product will lead to improvement in all areas of our lives: education, health, employment, and infrastructure. At the outset, we will create hundreds of quality jobs, which in turn will generate more and more jobs.

The proposed civilian research centers will be a magnet and offer opportunities for our best researchers to be at the forefront of research and industry. The centers will enable professionals and intellectuals from all segments of society to access the finest infrastructure and to be part of Israel's challenge. This will also create opportunities for Israel to bring back outstanding Israeli researchers and professionals from overseas, by offering them a range of possibilities that match their qualifications and challenge them professionally. Bringing back Israeli brainpower from abroad is a national mission and I believe in our ability to create world-class centers of research and industry, which will become a highly desired destination for researchers from Israel and the world.

Israel has the human and economic resources necessary for establishing these research centers, and some resources might also be generated by overseas investments. In both Israel and abroad, there are brilliant minds waiting for a challenge and opportunity to engage. As the high-tech and startup nation, Israel is well equipped to become the leading player in additional areas. We have a foundation of academic research at our world-leading institutions and we have very motivated young people, who are hungry to prove themselves.

In parallel to being active in education and learning, I will be active in a very important area: presenting the positive face of an enlightened and advanced Israel. I will present the contribution of the small State of Israel to all humanity in the fields of medicine, agriculture and technology. I will present Israel's rapid and immediate response to the needs of other countries that have experienced natural disasters and Israeli achievements that go far beyond Israel's relative size. In recent years, I have accumulated considerable experience in the world, meeting with presidents and other decision makers at their invitation. I have delivered speeches at hundreds of universities and international conferences, including a lecture at a special session of the UN General Assembly on entrepreneurship and development in the Third World.

In coordination with the government, I will work to counter the efforts to delegitimize Israel. These efforts originate in universities in the Western world—universities that naturally open their doors to me as one of the world's leading scientists and as a Nobel Prize laureate. Just as I fought for a long time to establish the facts and truths of my discoveries, I will dedicate myself to the battle against the ugly and distorted attempt to boycott Israel. I am convinced that the truth will prevail, and it is necessary to help make this happen.

I am hopeful that the members of Knesset will give me the privilege of running for president and will then vote for me so that I will be able to serve our wonderful state as president. 

Prof. Dan Shechtman, of the Technion in Haifa, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2011. He has initiated scientific education starting in early childhood as well as courses at the Technion on technological entrepreneurship.