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Prize for the Real Israel

October 15, 2009
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We Jews are good at counting Nobel Prize winners in our midst. We take understandable pride in the wildly disproportionate honors that members of the tribe have received over the years in areas as diverse as science, literature and peace. When an Israeli wins, the kvelling reaches even greater heights because the award bestows prestige on the Jewish state, as well as on the individual recipient.

So while much of the world is still questioning the wisdom of bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize on a fledgling President Barack Obama, the recognition of Israeli biochemist Ada Yonath is more than a welcome diversion.

Yonath, who is affiliated with the Weizmann Institute of Science, will share the prize with two colleagues, an American and a Brit. She is the first Israeli woman to receive a Nobel, one of an unprecedented five women to be tapped by the Swedes this year.

She is, in fact, the third Israeli chemist and the ninth Israeli to become a Nobel winner since the awards began in 1901. (Three of Israel's Nobel laureates earned the peace prize -- Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.)

That Israeli scientists continue to make valuable contributions to understanding the natural world is not a big surprise. Israel has long been touted for its scientific and technical know-how. Despite concerns about Israel's struggling educational system, the state still boasts a powerful high-tech presence, dubbed "Silicon Wadi," that the Economist in 2007 billed as second in importance only to its Californian counterpart.

Some of the world's top technological companies -- including Intel, Microsoft and IBM -- maintain robust research-and-development facilities in the region.

In medicine, agriculture, genetics and beyond, Israel is a world leader in many areas, often exporting its expertise -- and the people behind it -- around the world.

That the Nobel committees continue to recognize Israeli scientists in their fields serves as an important reminder that not every international decision is steeped in politics. It's easy to forget that at a time when academic boycotts of Israeli scholars continue to stain academia in England and beyond. Or when the controversial Goldstone report accusing Israel of war crimes during the Gaza operation is headed back to the U.N. Human Rights Council this week for a session certain to turn into a one-note vilification of Israel.

So we can be forgiven for taking an extra moment to rejoice in Israel's good news. Yonath serves as an inspiration to girls and young women who envision themselves as the scientists of the future.

She also reminds us of the real Israel -- the one steeped in research and innovation, and creativity and chutzpah -- the one that we too often tend to forget.

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