Israel has been losing its best and brightest brains for years. Yet, no one
seems to care much.
A report published in December by the Central Bureau
of Statistics reveals that many highly skilled professionals are leaving Israel,
and more than one in every seven Israelis with doctorates in science or
engineering is living abroad. The CBS study shows that 5 percent of the total
number of Israelis who graduated from university during the period 1985 to 2005,
or some 18,025 individuals, have been living abroad for three years or
Furthermore, according to the study, of Israel’s seven research
universities, the Weizmann Institute of Science has the most graduates going
abroad – more than one in every six. The problem is especially acute in the
field of mathematics. Facing a growing shortage of capable math instructors, the
CBS study finds that one out of every six individuals with a math degree lives
“The figures confirm a long-recognized phenomenon of an Israeli
brain drain of scientists and engineers, even as the country boasts of
world-leading universities and an outsized high-technology industry,” noted the
I, too, have many academic friends and acquaintances who
live and work abroad, either because no jobs were open for them in Israel, or
because they were unable to scale the lofty heights required to gain one of a
small handful of tenured slots. Their wisdom, creativity and knowledge are lost
to Israel – in many cases, forever. I once surveyed graduates of the
Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and, among other questions, asked my
subjects to sum up their careers in only six words. “Israel didn’t care. Now US
citizen,” was one poignant response that I’ve never forgotten.
Science Minister Prof. Daniel Hershkowitz cites government programs that try to
lure home Israeli researchers. But official figures show these so-called
brain-gain programs have brought only 200 researchers back to the country in
recent years, along with 100 foreigners. Moreover, looming budget cuts threaten
to kill even this minimal program.
Brain drain now swamps brain
Brain drain is a worldwide phenomenon.
According to the
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, for the 48 lessdeveloped
countries, on average, one college graduate in five emigrates, simply because
they lack opportunities at home. For six of the same 48 nations, there are more
highlyskilled nationals living abroad than at home.
Israel, however, is
not a less-developed country. It should be able to keep most of its brains at
home, like America and Europe. But apparently it cannot. The question is, why?
In today’s globalized world, there are two powerful forces that propel educated
Israelis to emigrate – Push and Pull. While ‘Push’ is the growing difficulty for
middle-class families to find well-paying jobs, pay the bills, make a good
living, and buy a home, ‘Pull’ is the perceived attractiveness of living in
America, in particular, where the shortage of talented people provides
well-educated Israelis with opportunities that are not available at home. Both
Push and Pull serve as powerful forces drawing educated Israelis to foreign
In December, the Meida Shivuki market research company
conducted a survey for Haaretz on emigration in which a random sample of
respondents were asked the following question: “If you could, would you live in
another country?” A disturbingly high proportion, 37 percent, answered yes, with
the highest number of these respondents coming from the prime work ages, 30-49.
The survey also showed that a far higher proportion of secular respondents seek
to emigrate – 44 percent, compared with only 19 percent of the religious
respondents. From a political perspective, left-wingers seek emigration far more
than right-wingers – 54 percent, as opposed to 26 percent.
reason for wanting to emigrate, according to the study, is the difficulty of
making a living in Israel, with 55 percent of the respondents citing this as
What keeps people here? For nearly half, it is simply
Many governments, including Israel’s, do not seem to understand
that in a global world, talent and creativity are footloose. If educated people
are not given the conditions they seek at home – to live and work and raise
their families in dignity – they will go elsewhere.
Israel has gained
immensely from the brain gain of one million immigrants from the former Soviet
Union during the years 1990-1999. According to a study by Sarit Cohen of
Bar-Ilan University and Chang-Tai Hsieh from Princeton University, 60 percent of
the Russian-speaking immigrants who arrived in Israel between 1989 and 1990 were
college educated, twice the proportion of college-educated Israelis. From 1990
to 1993, their study notes, “57,000 [Russian immigrants] had worked as engineers
and 12,000 as medical doctors; in contrast, there were only 30,000 engineers and
15,000 medical doctors in Israel in 1989.”
That brain gain was a one-time
stroke of luck. Many of the brain-gain Russian-speaking engineers and doctors
are now retiring, and many of the educated Israelis who could replace them are
An old World War I song asks, “How ’ya gonna keep ’em down
on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?” Nearly a century later, that song is
again very apt. How will we keep our best and brightest at home, in Israel, once
they’ve seen the world and what it offers? I see this as one of the major
challenges of the new coalition government now taking shape following the
elections for the 19th Knesset.
The brain drain was not addressed at all
in the election campaigns. It is time it found a place high on the agenda, right
alongside the budget deficit and the Iranian nukes. We must find ways to make
the blue-and-white pastures of Israel as appealing as the green ones of Boston
and Silicon Valley.
I came to Israel with my new bride in 1967, just days
after earning my PhD in economics from Princeton. True, we were committed
Zionists; but the thing that has kept us here is what I call the “blue pastures
Zionism” – the simple fact that Israel is the very best place in the world to
work and to raise a family, to fulfill our Jewish heritage, and to find meaning
in life. When you believe that and experience it, distant pastures are not
greener and have no appeal compared to blue-and-white ones.
way to end brain drain is to make life in Israel, in all its aspects, rewarding,
meaningful, socially just and vibrant.
When I see bright young people
rushing for the exits in Spain and in Greece, in the face of desperate
unemployment, I see social damage that will take decades to repair. The classic
case is Ireland, a nation of four million people, with an estimated 80 million
ethnic Irish located abroad, simply because for generations, young Irish headed
for ships bound abroad after finishing high school. At home, there were no
The Meida Shivuki survey also asked the respondents: “Do you think
your children will have a better or worse future than you [in Israel]?” Some 58
percent answered the same or worse. This is unacceptable. It is up to each one
of us to help ensure that our children and grandchildren have a better
That alone will ensure they stay.
The writer is a senior
research fellow at the S. Neaman Institute, Technion.
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