08/26/2011 01:18 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2011

Israeli Immigration and the Entrepreneurial Spirit

It is interesting how a simple noun like "immigrant" can conjure up such a complex array of emotive responses. A paean to immigration is unlikely to appear in the mainstream media and yet it is exactly this subject which forms the foundation of Israel's economic and entrepreneurial success.
Israel is a country of immigrants and, much like New York of the 19th Century, it is this "melting pot" that has encouraged the entrepreneurial spirit and enabled businesses and commerce to flourish.

Israel's remarkable economic achievements cannot be assessed without looking at immigration. At Israel's founding in 1948, its population was 806, 000. The country has grown almost tenfold in sixty years. The population doubled in the first three years, and foreign-born citizens of Israel currently account for over one-third of the nation's population. Nine out of ten Jewish Israelis are either immigrants or first- or second-generation descendants of immigrants.

Harriet Sherwood's article in the Guardian on Wednesday takes a special look at how Israel's former Soviet immigrants have transformed their adopted country. Rapid immigration of more than one million mostly highly qualified and ambitious Jews from the former USSR has provided a considerable stimulus to Israel - as well as boosting its population by more than 20 per cent. These citizens, who have immigrated to Israel over the past twenty years, have not only made new lives of their own but have transformed their new country. They have influenced the language, culture and hi-tech industries and now constitute around 15% of Israel's 7.7m population.
Israeli venture capitalist Erel Margalit believes that immigrants frequently bring with them a drive and ambition to succeed that native-born citizens lack. "If you're an immigrant in a new place and you're poor, or you were once rich and your family was stripped of its wealth-then you have drive. You don't see what you've got to lose. That's the attitude we have here-across the entire population".

The Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi, named as one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in 2009, is the son of an Iraqi immigrant. His father was forced to flee Basra when he was nine years old and with nowhere to go, he joined a flood of 150, 000 Iraqi refugees arriving in Israel in 1950. Now his son, born in 1968, is founder and chief executive of Better Place, a provider of eco-friendly, zero-emission electric cars. Agassi is focused on one of the 21st century's biggest challenges, moving the world from oil-based to renewable energy sources. He works with government leaders, car manufacturers and energy companies to make his vision a reality in countries around the globe.

Agassi officially launched his company in 2007, and in 2008 Israel became the first country--with Renault the first carmaker--to embrace the Better Place model of building open network infrastructure to enable mass adoption of electric cars. Denmark, Australia, California, Hawaii, and Ontario have followed his example and Better Place is now in discussions with many countries, carmakers and other potential partners around the globe.

This vision was inspired by a question posed at the World Economic Forum in 2005, "How do you make the world a better place by 2020?" With a passion for tackling large-scale challenges, Agassi came up with an idea so ambitious that many thought him naïve. Speaking at the British Israeli Business 2011 Awards Dinner Agassi told the assembled guests, "I decided that the most important thing to do was to figure out how to take a single country off oil. If just one country can become oil-independent then the rest can follow".

With Agassi just one example of the pioneering spirit that has aided Israel's economic transformation, it might do British citizens some good to consider how immigrants continue to make our world a better place.