country report : Israel

History of Technology in Israel

Yoel Bergman, graduate and associate fellow, Cohen Institute for History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, Tel-Aviv University


In writing this report, I made contact with several of the active participants from academia and the report should best be regarded as an initial survey. Those contacted, work in five of the seven universities. The name and background of each is found in the appendix. Their main fields of expertise are associated with the history of technology or in fields that share common topics, such as the history of science, STS (science, technology and society), anthropology or sociology.

One prevailing view is that academia has not yet formulated a systematic program for teaching and researching the history of Israeli and general technology. Selected topics are taught or researched on an occasional basis. This embryonic scenario may be reminiscent of the pre-2000 situation in Finland described by Timo Myllyntaus and others.

One of the participants is persistent over the years with the critique that, although Israeli society is very much dominated by technology and technological culture, the amount of research into the history and the influence of technology on public life is minute. Much effort and expertise in academia have been allotted to the history of science but the history of technology, which is becoming more and more influential, has not been cultivated enough.

In the last few years, the number of STS study programs has increased, contributing in an indirect manner perhaps to the history of technology and to the discourse about technology's role in society. Relevant issues are examined in bi-annual workshops, STS activism is encouraged at least on the research level, and case studies on ecological abuses over the years are examined.


Local history: Transfers of modern technology to Palestine began during the Ottoman Empire that governed until 1917. The first agents of these transfers were German immigrants during the mid 19th century belonging to the messianic sect of Templers. Shortly afterwards, Jewish immigrants began to arrive in large numbers, mainly from Europe, partly learning technology from the Templers and partly enhancing technology on their own. Several Arab producers imported new machinery for different production processes. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman rule approved large projects such as railway lines, led by Middle Eastern and European entrepreneurs. A recent book was published on the first railway line, 86 km between Jaffa-Jerusalem, completed in 1892 and built to exploit the tremendous growth of pilgrim traffic and tourism during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Important modernization took place in agriculture and food production: Machines were imported to improve local processes, such as the traditional oil-making based on mechanical pressing. Entire processes were also brought in such as a new chemical process for olive oil production. In special cases, imported technology was very much improved or adopted to local conditions through local systematic studies. Shaul Katz has studied three typical cases during the Ottoman rule , examining the technical aspects of improvements in terms of their efficiency and adaptability to Palestine. His work, written in the 1970's, was a novel move at the time, since traditional interest was focused more on the role of new technology in national revival.

During the British Mandate (1917-1948), the industry expanded quickly when waves of Jewish refugees from Europe arrived. One large scale-up took place during WW II to supply British forces in the Middle East. The design and production of local arms also grew in that period (a clandestine Jewish operation during the Mandate which became overt and official since 1948). Of special interest are the initial military knowledge transfers during the 1930's and the importance of local improvements . Histories of past and recent military projects are sometimes examined in the media. Their importance is underlined and questions are often asked about who really deserves the credit (is it that reclusive engineer or the articulate project manager?).

Since independence in 1948, the growth of the national economy was stepped up to provide an acceptable standard of living to the rapidly expanding population and to meet the ever present and large scale defense needs. Industry had to adapt to the almost total lack of raw materials such as oil, coal and metal ores. This prompted the development of knowledge intensive industries such as pharmaceuticals and electronics, often based on local research. The worldwide rise of information, medical and bio-technologies has encouraged the large growth in local hi-tech. Such evolvements provide ample research topics for future research in the history of technology.

Historical topics in other geographies: The subjects vary with the students and their supervisors. Examples include the development of industries in Europe and America , , and scientific-technical developments.

Technological Education

The amount of research into the history of technology may sometimes be linked to the percentage of people who received a technically-oriented high school education. Technical topics in general have lost ground over the last few years as more and more high school students became convinced that the easy ladder for success runs through economics and management and not through science and technology. Recently, the industry has begun to press for expansion in technological education. Supporters point to the personal biographies of leaders in finance and industry, showing that many came from a technological background. The importance of technology in meeting global and local needs is also stressed. This year's National Conference on Education is to be devoted to technological education.

Research Institutions and Programs

Research institutions active over the years and graduate programs are listed below:

The Sidney M. Edelstein Center for the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology, and Medicine at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem: The Center serves to enhance advanced research in the history and philosophy of science, technology, and medicine. In particular, the Center fosters research based on the resources of the Einstein Archives, the Yehuda Theological Collection of Isaac Newton, the Edelstein Library that includes many rare books on the history of science, technology and medicine, including the Edelstein Collections on the history of dyeing and chemical technology. The Center offers post-doctoral fellowships, and short-term graduate support and engages in an active program of seminars and workshops. The Center constitutes a nexus between the faculties of Humanities, Social Sciences, Science, and Medicine. Particularly strong is the interaction of faculty and students with the History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science programs, and the Departments of Philosophy and History, as well as of Physics, at The Hebrew University. Each year the Edelstein Center organizes an annual international workshop (in collaboration with Tel Aviv University and the Jerusalem Van Leer Institute), each one with a different theme.

The Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas in Tel Aviv University: A research and graduate teaching institute within the framework of the School of History of Tel Aviv University. The Institute's curriculum reflects the Institute's intellectual credo as well as the staff's research interests. These include: History of Science and the Intellectual History of the Western World; Philosophy of Science with emphasis on the periods following the Scientific Revolution; The Anthropology of Knowledge; History and Philosophy of Biology; History of Technology; History and Philosophy of Ancient and Modern Mathematics; Cultural Studies with emphasis on critical aspects of modern western culture and, in the Israeli context, a critical study of science and Judaism.

The Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar Ilan University:
Studies of science and technology incorporate many disciplines such as history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, literary criticism, critical theory. The students gain the tools needed to understand science, technology and medicine from a broad and critical perspective.

Recently, STS/history programs have been recently inaugurated in Haifa University and the Ben Gurion University in the Negev.


Some of the better known museums were created by those whose biography was very much related to technological improvements, as army veterans and industrialists. One typical example is the air force museum in the Negev created by veterans who set themselves to collect old aircrafts and renew them in the new museum location. Mr. Stef Wertheimer, a known industrialist, was active in the foundation of a museum located in Tefen Industrial Park at the Western Galilee. It is set amongst industrial plants displaying – among other things – the development of industry from the Stone Age until today.

Museums aimed at promoting understanding in technology are found in the major cities as the National Museum of Science, Technology and Space in Haifa and the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem.

List of participants

Tony Travis: Deputy Director of the Sidney M. Edelstein Center and of the Jacques Loeb Center for the History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. He is also a senior research fellow at the Leo Baeck Institute London. He has published extensively on the history of technology in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Noah Efron chairs the Graduate Program in STS at Bar Ilan University (near Tel-Aviv). He is also President of the Israeli Society for the History and Philosophy of Science and a member of the Executive Committee of the International Society for Science and Religion.

Tal Golan specializes in the history of science in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in the relations between science, technology and law. He is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley (1997), with a the History of Science and he taught at the Ben Gurion University before coming to University of California-San Diego (UCSD) in 2004.

Shaul Katz teaches in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem: Areas of interests include the organizational and epistemological history of the Israeli research multi-system: research universities, scientific and technological institutions, and extra-scientific organizations producing para-canonic certified knowledge – all active in Ottoman and British mandatory Palestine and in the State of Israel .Shaul Katz teaches in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem
Ido Yavetz teaches in the Tel-Aviv University. Member of the Cohen Institute – Areas of interest: History of Technology; History of Modern Physics; Ancient Astronomy.

Yuval Yonnay teaches anthropology and sociology in Haifa University and is involved with the STS program.