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The art of making a desert bloom Progress: From agriculture to archaeology, medicine to music, Israel has made distinguished contributions time and again since 1948.

HAIFA, ISRAEL — HAIFA, Israel - Across the highway from Israel's largest high-tech business park, where engineers chart the new frontiers of cyberspace, Israelis are dancing on the beach.

Dozens of them - young and old, Russian immigrants and native Sabras, Jews from the European ghettos and Arab countries. They circle the pavement in a traditional hora, a folk dance of Romanian origin that provided Israel's earliest settlers with a bit of relaxation after a hard day in the fields. A disc jockey pumps up the volume.

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The high-tech wizardry under way at IBM, Intel and Elron Electronics may well bankroll the country's future, but it's the whimsy of dancing on the beach on a Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, that evokes the Israeli spirit.

This snapshot from the Mediterranean shoreline spans the cultural and economic life of Israel's 50 years. It's a pictorial that begins in the community halls and collective farms of the kibbutzim, a rural, socialist way of life that coincided with government-funded industries designed to employ the immigrant masses arriving in the new state.

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Today, high-tech is king - a fast-paced, high-stakes game that has turned unknown entrepreneurs into Wall Street millionaires and lured Israel's defense and scientific establishments into private business with billions of dollars worth of exports.

And while folk dancing remains a cultural mainstay, young Israelis are more likely to be partying until dawn at Tel Aviv nightclubs.

Needed: Jews and water

When Israel declared independence 50 years ago, the bulk of this land was a desolate expanse of desert, far from the cities of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. David Ben-Gurion, the patriarch of the modern Jewish state, urged his fellow Israelis to make the desert bloom.

All it lacked, he said, was Jews and water.

"The Negev [region] is our nation's cradle, the state's vulnerable point and its great hope," the nation's first prime minister said.

"To make the desert bloom," as Ben-Gurion had put it, became a challenge and a measure of what this infant state could accomplish, to transform the biblical homeland into a modern nation-state.

At the time, Ben-Gurion's exhortation correctly described what faced the Israeli citizenry and their leaders. Then, 80 percent of the country's land mass was in the south. Israelis brought water to the Negev - and invented a revolutionary "drip" irrigation system that today is used the world over.

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The Negev, however, didn't develop as Ben-Gurion had hoped. Instead, the outback became the dumping ground for the country's poorer, less-educated Jews who came from Arab countries. The state settled them in what it called development towns. Miles from the country's major cities, the towns had trouble wooing industry and residents. Today, their citizens remain among the most disenfranchised of Israelis.

But the greening of Israel happened nonetheless.

As a symbol for the country's cultural, economic and scientific achievements, the desert blooming proves an apt metaphor. From agriculture to archaeology, medicine to music, Israel has -- distinguished itself time and again.

And the flowers in this desert - whether a world-renowned orchestra or a stellar scientific institute - began blooming even before the state existed.

Hebrew University in Jeru-salem; Technion, Israel's technical college in Haifa; and the country's premier scientific research facility, the Weizmann Institute, all predate the state. So does the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Considered among the world's best symphony orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic has performed more than 10,000 concerts. Its season tickets exceed 28,000, considered the largest subscription public per capita in the world. The greatest conductors - among them Arturo Toscanini, Bernardino Molinari, Eugene Ormandy, Leonard Bernstein - have led its musicians.

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The legends of classical music - Rudolf Serkin, Pablo Casals, Isaac Stern and Mstislav Rostropovich - have played on its stage. Its featured soloists have included Israeli natives Itzhak Perlman, Shlomo Mintz and Pinchas Zukerman.

The orchestra's beginnings, as well as its history, mirror the state's.

Founded in 1936 as The Palestine Orchestra, the Philharmonic gathered musicians from Eastern Europe and Germany who had been drummed off the stage and out of jobs by the Nazis. They immigrated to Palestine at the urging of a violinist and Polish Jew, Bronislaw Huberman.

"Huberman foresaw the Holocaust and persuaded 75 Jewish musicians to immigrate to Palestine," says Yakov Mirshori, a member of the orchestra's management committee. "He persuaded them to come to Tel Aviv and create what he called the 'materialization of the Zionist culture in the fatherland.' "

The orchestra debuted on Dec. 26, 1936, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. A month later, it set off on its first tour - to Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt.

The orchestra has always represented the nation's musical soul, soaring through wars and peace. The orchestra played the national anthem "Hatikva" in the Tel Aviv Museum on the day the state was declared, May 14, 1948.

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When Jewish soldiers captured Beersheva from the Arabs in 1948, the orchestra journeyed to the Negev and played under a (( desert sky for 5,000 soldiers seated in the surrounding hills.

A young Leonard Bernstein conducted.

Bernstein was again at the podium in 1967, when the orchestra commemorated the Israeli conquest of East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. The army checked for mines as musicians prepared for the afternoon concert at Mount Scopus.

The Philharmonic played at the site of the fence at Israel's border with Lebanon. And during the 1991 Persian Gulf war, as Scud missiles rained on Tel Aviv, violinist Isaac Stern played a mournful saraband to an audience in gas masks.

Today, the orchestra reflects the cultural diversity in the country. About half of its musicians are Russian emigres. They play more than Brahms and Tchaikovsky. One evening, the Philharmonic screened Charlie Chaplin's silent movie "City Lights" and played the score. To attract Israel's 20-something generation, the Philharmonic sponsors "jeans" concerts. The programs run the gamut from Beethoven to the Beatles; the attire is casual, and the fare, popcorn and beer.

The Philharmonic may be considered the No. 1 cultural asset of the country, but it is now one of eight orchestras based here. Philharmonic member Mirshori says of his fellow Israelis, "They simply like music."

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Israel's cultural life spans the spectrum of the performing and fine arts. And it reflects the state's ethnic mix. Zehava Ben, an Oriental Jew, sings the songs of the great Egyptian chanteuse Um Kalthoum. The Russian theater thrives, performing in Hebrew. The entertainer Topol, who did stand-up comedy on the kibbutz circuit as a young man, is again playing the protagonist Tevye in the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." Israeli pop singer Achinoam Nini opened for rock star Sting in a recent concert tour.

In a country of 5.7 million people, fewer than in New York City, Israel supports a half-dozen dance companies, a 15-year-old film festival in Jerusalem that screened 175 movies last year, art museums in Tel Aviv and on the grounds of kibbutzim.

When Meir Nitsan, the mayor of Rishon Lezion, had the chance a decade ago to establish a symphony in his Tel Aviv suburb, he took it.

Asked why he spent precious municipal dollars on music, Nitsan replied: "I was educated from my early years - if I have one shekel, half I buy bread to exist; the other half I buy a flower to have the reason for existence."

The People of the Book have one of the highest per capita consumption of books in the world. Israel publishes about 3,500 new books a year and 10,000 poems. Their writers include Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon, novelists Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua, and poet Yehuda Amichai.

A modern state

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From Israel's beginnings, the creation of the Jewish state meant more than clearing swamps and planting fields. The Jews from Europe brought with them a rich cultural past. They sought to ensure that their intellectual life flourished along with their state.

"The founding fathers didn't have a vision of Israel as a primitive country trying to eke out a living but a country of the modern world," says Israel Dostrovski, a 79-year-old chemist and faculty member at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

To that end, Chaim Weizmann, a biochemist who became Israel's first president, founded a scientific institute in 1934 on the grounds of an old agricultural station and orange grove about a half-hour from Tel Aviv.

The institute that today supports 2,400 scientists, fellows, students and staff members began with 10. Dostrovski was among the first Israeli recruits.

"The idea was to make sure we had infrastructure that was necessary for a modern state," says Dostrovski, who began at Weizmann in 1948. "The scientists, being natives, automatically knew what the problem was. They didn't wait for someone to say, 'Boys, water is very important.'"

In the beginning, research was related to the citrus industry, dairy farming and medicine. Over 54 years, Weizmann's pioneers of science built one of the first computers. They introduced cancer research to Israel, established the nation's first solar energy research facility and devised a new particle detector essential to investigating the origin of matter.

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Their scientists do post-doctoral work at prestigious universities in the United States and Europe; they attend international symposiums and share podiums with the world's great scientific minds.

"Without bragging, we've certainly fulfilled one thing that was expected of us by the founding fathers," says Dostrovski. "We certainly put Israel on the scientific map."

But Weizmann's vision extended beyond pure science.

"In its inception, Weizmann thought the institute's direction should be answering problems in society," says David Mirelman, a vice president for technology transfer at Weizmann.

Just outside the institute's sprawling 300-acre campus, across the railroad tracks, is the Weizmann Industrial Park. There, entrepreneurs and innovators are developing products from the institute's scientific research. The investment in the technology park made 31 years ago is paying off today. Last year, companies sold about $600 million worth of products developed from institute research. The products included an innovative drug for the treatment of multiple sclerosis and data encryption products.

On a wall in Mirelman's office hangs a sign: "In basic research the scientist faces his creator, in applied research he faces his ... underwriter."

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Throughout the country, entrepreneurs like those at the Weizmann park are trying to cash in on Israel's high-tech boom. Israel's power in the region comes as much from its growing economy as its fighting men and women in green.

From 1950 to 1997, Israel's gross national product has grown from $4 billion to $100 billion. The vestiges of its socialist roots are disappearing. In the past, the workers - more accurately the Histadrut labor union federation - owned the largest financial institution in the country and some of the biggest corporations. The government played a significant role in the stability of the economy; it either propped it up or bailed it out. And for 40 of its 50 years, Israel has received financial support from the United States, a subsidy that today is more than $3 billion annually.

The collapse in 1983 of the Tel Aviv stock market set in motion the move toward a capitalist economy. A recovery plan instituted in 1985 froze government jobs, cut public employee salaries and eliminated many government subsidies.

Peace dividend

Israel managed to control its raging inflation. The 1993 peace accords signed with the Palestinians opened up the possibility that Israel - targeted for decades by an Arab boycott - would be able to compete in the region and trade freely with its neighbors.

Trade with Egypt increased significantly after the Oslo accords, even though the two countries had been at peace since 1979. A peace treaty signed with Jordan in 1994 brought more business Israel's way. The profitability of these business arrangements is being tested by the stalemate in the Middle East peace process.

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But in Israel, high technology is the name of the game.

It is fueled by a bounty of skilled Russian-emigre talent and former military officers, former engineers, fighter pilots and intelligence experts. High technology accounts for two-thirds of Israel's industrial output and 60 percent of its industrial exports.

Israel ranks only behind Canada and Great Britain in the number of non-U.S. companies listed on the New York stock exchanges. The vast majority are high-tech firms less than 10 years old.

The first high-tech research group incubators began in Israel in 1991 with the encouragement and financial support of the government. Today there are 26.

"We have more technology incubators here than in the United States," says Eliahu Stern, the manager of the Misgav Karmiel Technology Incubator. "We became a social phenomenon. Your friends are starting a new company, so why don't you."

The incubator provides each project about $150,000 in start-up money; 80 percent comes from the government and the remaining 15 percent from outside sources, Stern says. Baltimore's Jewish community has invested about $100,000 in the Misgav Karmiel incubator, he says.

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The hallways of the military industrial complex where Stern's incubator rents space are lined with posters showcasing the high-tech products invented by the Misgav inventors: a substitute for insulin, made from natural products that can be taken orally; a process that recovers gold from soil; a super-thin plastic coating material.

"If you look in the Israeli newspapers, 90 percent of the new jobs are related to expansion of the high-tech industries," says Stern, a mechanical engineer.

Why the attraction?

"We have no choice," says Stern, an easygoing man with a generous smile. "We don't have natural resources. We are far away from the markets. We are lazy and very undisciplined. On the other hand, we are innovative, talkative, crazy - which is necessary to succeed in high tech. We have friends and relations everywhere in the world.

'And we know languages. We are not afraid of anyone. The word impossible doesn't exist [for us]. High tech - it turns all our disadvantages into advantages ... and we like very much good living. I wonder why it took so long.

"We think high tech is our only future."

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bTC Pub Date: 4/26/98


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