Like many of the days before it, Sept. 26 brought fog, rain and shifting gray clouds.
But the weather didn’t stop about 20 people from gathering in the sukkah at Congregation Mikveh Israel to hear Gad Yair, a professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is on sabbatical at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
At Start-Up Sukkah, an event organized by the American Friends of the Hebrew University, Yair spoke about The Unruly Mind: An Invitation to Israeli Innovation, a book he plans to publish next year.
He shared six stories, many about Israeli scientists, to draw a picture of Israeli culture. He emphasized the Israeli tendency of not seeing obstacles or limitations.
“We [have spoken] about Israel as a startup nation for many years,” Yair said. “What I tried to add to the current hype around startup nation is a cultural explanation. I provided the profile of Israeli science to show that the same profile of creativity that Israeli scientists employ is the same profile that startup companies and startup entrepreneurs in Israel employ.”
The Unruly Mind draws on a study Yair did of 125 Israeli scientists who have collaborated with German colleagues. Yair asked them about the similarities and differences between the two cultures and their approach to science.
“The title of the book tries to capture this entire difference, which is the unruliness, in terms of not obeying trials, traditions, not obeying existing theories, not obeying methodological requirements,” Yair said. “Even ethical requirements do not stand up or limit Israeli scientists. The Germans think the same about the difference between themselves and the Israelis.”
Israelis are also more likely to work in an interdisciplinary way, Yair continued. In Germany, for instance, a physicist would work strictly in physics and not with chemistry or biology. Motivation also differentiates German and Israeli scientists. Israeli scientists, who speak of a “burning” motivation, are much more emotionally driven than German scientists, who are more somber.
“There is a culture that extends between or is common to both science and the startup nation in terms of technological innovations in Israel,” Yair said. “This is why we called the evening Start-Up Sukkah.”
This study he conducted on cultural differences between Israeli and German scientists comes out of the research Yair has done over the past decade comparing different cultures.
One of his most recent studies was on Israelis living in Germany. An interviewee in the project mentioned to Yair that scientists in the two nations practiced differently, which piqued Yair’s interest and led him to interview another group of people about the differences in Israeli and German culture around science.
His research into cultural differences is not over. During his sabbatical, he is continuing to research cultural differences between Israelis and Americans. He plans to write two more books during this time, one on American culture and another comparing the cultures of the United States and Israel.
“I’m in the initial steps,” Yair said. “I’ve conducted about 30 interviews of Israelis scientists and 20 American students up until now, but I’ll just give you a few examples [of how these cultures differ]. It’s the unruliness. Israelis sitting in American classrooms or American seminars are surprised by the very orderly manner by which conversations are held. When one speaks, the others are waiting in turn.”
The goal of Start-Up Sukkah was to bring some of Hebrew University to Philadelphia, said Seth Bloom, Mid-Atlantic Region/Philadelphia director of American Friends of the Hebrew University.
“What makes Israel so successful?” Bloom said. “We’re this little, tiny country. It’s this can-do spirit. We don’t take no for an answer, keep exploring and then [it’s] all the collaboration that happens at a university like Hebrew University.”
As the event in the sukkah continued, rain started to fall, marking the conclusion of Start-Up Sukkah.
“I was never fully aware of the extent [of] the unruliness and the productivity of [Israeli culture],” Yair said. “Usually, we say chutzpah, and we say that chutzpah is not good, that we are not behaving very well, but when you see the scientific advantages of those cultural traits, you come to appreciate the culture in a different way.”