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What is it about Israel that wins Nobels?

Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman explaining his Nobel Prize-winning theory to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Oct. 6, 2011. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash 90)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Dan Shechtman remembers the day he was kicked out of a research group because of the theory that last week won him the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

“Read this book. What you say is impossible,” the group leader at the National Bureau of Standards in Maryland, where Shechtman was doing his sabbatical in 1982, told him.

“I told him, ‘I know this book, and I know I have something new,’ ” Shechtman replied.

The response, recalls Shechtman: “You are a disgrace and I want you to leave my group.”

Schechtman joined another group, but the paper he wrote was rejected and he was ridiculed by many colleagues.

“My friends were nice to me, but kind of in the way that you’re nice to the retarded kid,” Shechtman recalled with a wry smile at a news conference this week.

Nearly 30 years later, Shechtman received the Nobel Prize for his work in quasicrystals, also called Shechtmanite.

Shechtman is the 10th Israeli to win a Nobel Prize, part of a chain that stretches back to S.Y. Agnon, who won the prize for literature in 1966. Of the 840 Nobel Prizes ever awarded, some 20 percent have gone to Jews. Israel, with its population of 7.5 million, has won the same number of Nobels as India, which was founded a year before Israel and has a population of 1.15 billion.

What is it about Israel — and Jews — that wins Nobels?

“Israeli universities, like my university, the Technion, are excellent,” Shechtman said of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. “But there’s also an Israeli spirit of free thinking. Sometimes it leads to chaos because everyone has his own idea about everything, but free thinking encourages successful scientists.”

Since 2002, Israeli scientists have received six Nobels — two in economics and four in chemistry.

Some say Jews are uniquely suited to the study of science.

“For thousands of years, Jews have been brought up to question and to try to bridge the gap between existing knowledge and the prevailing reality,” Gidi Greenstein, the director of the Reut Institute think tank, told JTA. “You have the Torah and the Talmud, and then you have the reality, which keeps changing. The tension between what we know and what we experience is the secret of creativity.”

Others say there is something unique about the Israeli character.

“One of the things you need to do well in science and high tech is to think outside the box, and we as Israelis are not familiar with any boxes,” said Professor Dan Ben David, director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel. “We don’t understand lines, we don’t believe in lines and we always ask why when someone asks us to do something. That can be very aggravating, but it’s a great quality when it comes to doing research.”

Israelis also tend to be tenacious and obstinate. The saying “Right or wrong, but never in doubt,” could be a national slogan. Schechtman provides the perfect example: He was ridiculed for years but never gave up.

“Open societies that are self-critical can foster courage and an appreciation for the pursuit of truth,” said Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Foundation. “Israel, for all its faults, and there are many, has both intellectual openness and academic excellence.”

Others say that Israel’s overwhelming defense needs have boosted the state’s interest in science.

“An enormous amount of money has been invested here in security,” said Professor Yaron Oz, the dean of Tel Aviv University’s Exact Sciences Department. “A large number of people studied science or engineering relative to the population, and many of them studied in military related programs. It was seen as essential to Israel to develop its own weapons.”

Oz says that in many other Western countries, more students are going into fields like law or business, which are more lucrative than science. But in Israel, scientists are highly respected and salaries are competitive.

Many Israeli scientists worry that the level of Israeli students is slipping and call for more government spending on science education. In a study conducted by the Taub Center, Ben David compared the levels of science, math and reading in 25 developed countries, including Israel. Israel came in last place.

“We need excellent teachers who cannot only teach, but can be role models,” Shechtmann said. “In some countries, a teacher has prestige and a good salary. Here a teacher can’t support his family.”

At the same time, there is a trend of Israeli scientists from abroad returning to Israel to continue their research here. Oz came to Israel from Geneva 10 years ago. The latest Nobel Prize will only encourage that trend, some predicted.

“Every Israeli university has graduate students that can compete with the best students in the world,” Oz said. “You need talent and infrastructure, and I think we have both. I expect we will win many more Nobel Prizes.”