The brain drain Every few years or so there is renewed public interest – if not
hysteria – over the brain drain sapping Israel of its best and
Sometimes the trigger is a newspaper article about graduates
of the IDF’s elite Talpiot Program who can be found in California’s Silicon
Valley or Boston running a hi-tech company. Sometimes it is news of an Israeli
start-up being bought by a large US hi-tech firm that will take the technology –
and the jobs – to the States.
Sometimes it is the publication of an
academic report such as the one by Omer Moav and Eric J. Gould that appeared in
2007 in the Israel Economic Review
or the one published just last week by the
Taub Center for Social Policy Studies that shows Israeli academics
disproportionately represented in academic institutions abroad.
latest public debate over the issue came with the awarding of the 2013 Nobel
Prize for Chemistry. Last week, it became known that two Israelis now living and
working in California were among the three Jewish chemists who had been awarded
the prestigious award. The next day, The Jerusalem Post’
s Niv Elis wrote a story
titled “Nobel wins highlight costs of Israel’s top academics seeking greener
If Israel is indeed suffering a brain drain, which is
not at all clear, is there anything that can be done about it? For at least five
years, Dan Ben-David, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s department of public
policy and executive director of the Taub Center, has been warning of the
“catastrophic consequences” of the “hemorrhaging of leading minds.” And
consecutive governments have attempted to stem this
Nearly a decade ago, then-science and technology minister
Matan Vilna’i sought to initiate a program to encourage outstanding Israeli
scientists and researchers to return home after completing their studies
The Israel National Brain Gain Program, headed by Dr. Nurit Eyal,
is now working toward this end. Next week, events will be held in Boston, New
York and Palo Alto during which Israel’s military industries will present job
opportunities to Israeli émigrés. And Prof.
Menahem Ben-Sasson, president
of the Hebrew University, wrote a piece that appeared on the front page of last
Friday’s Post calling on the government to provide more funding for Israel’s
universities. Research by Ben-David and others shows that the number of senior
faculty positions in Israeli universities is lagging sorrowfully behind
But while these are worthy initiatives that might
convince talented Israelis to stay put, underlying trends and the Jews’ penchant
for wandering seem to mitigate against easy solutions.
First of all, it
is not at all clear that Israel is suffering from a brain drain. As Ehud Gazit,
chief scientist in the Science Ministry put it in a recent interview in Globes,
“Israel has no drain brain like in other countries.”
According to Gazit a
brain drain occurs when educated people do not want to live in the country. But
in Israel, he said, “Israeli scientists actually want to come back.”
problem, if it can be called one, is that Israel, a tiny country, produces the
most scientists and engineers per capita of any nation. There are simply not
enough positions to go around for all these talented and well-trained
Also, attitudes have changed radically regarding yerida
(“emigration”), as the recent Channel 10 series The New Emigrants highlighted.
If as late as the 1990s, people looked down upon those who left Israel as
unpatriotic, today many consider pursuing upward mobility abroad perfectly
legitimate, even laudable.
According to a recently published
Geocartography Knowledge Group survey of 500 Israelis, 48 percent said they
would have preferred to be born and to live in another country, while 52 percent
chose Israel. Similar responses were received in a 2007 poll. And the reasons
for this desire to live abroad were largely uncontrollable factors such as the
security situation, the weather and the physical surroundings.
wandering seems to be in Jews’ DNA – including Israeli Jews. After all, for most
of Jews’ history, they existed as a people without a physical homeland. No
government policy will change this.