It should be no surprise that we are hearing another round of Israeli oy gevalt about Jews who leave the Promised Land, and thereby endanger the Zionist dream.
The subject erupts every so often, currently provoked by yet another former Israeli who has won a Nobel Prize, at least partly and maybe largely on the basis of work done abroad.
Or maybe two former Israelis. The definition of who is or was an Israeli is subject to some dispute, as is the credit due Israel for the education and research that led to the Nobel.
The two prize winners of the prize for chemistry are not the first Israelis whose prize leads to competitive boasting of Israeli and American patriots. That honor may go to Professor Daniel Kahneman, most recently of Princeton University, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002, arguably on the basis of work he did while earlier associated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Already on the web is an article in the New Yorker that cites the recent awards, as part of what the author claims are two prominent signs of Israeli weakness. One is the incidence of talented Israelis who leave the country, and the other is the incidence of young adults who depend on their parents for financial support.
To the credit of the author of that piece, herself an Israeli yored (expatriate, using the nasty Hebrew word for one who "goes down" or abandons the Holy Land), the picture is not all that bleak. The relevant statistics are neither precise nor free of contrary indications. Many of those who left come back, and many others migrate to Israel from other places.
More than 25 years ago, I found myself in an earlier round of the frenzy about emigration, with an article entitled "Avoiding the Irresistible: Should the Israeli Government Combat Jewish Emigration?" It was pre-digital, and appeared in a journal no longer extant (Jerusalem Quarterly Winter, 1987), but should be available in many libraries for those interested. The article produced a quarrel with the Minister of Immigration Absorption, who had summoned my unit in the IDF (the lecture corps) to engage in a campaign against Israelis leaving, and with one of my PhDs, who created an organization to persuade potential emigrants to stay home.
Two years later the IDF summoned its lecture corps to begin a campaign among the troops in anticipation of what was expected to be the onset of a major wave of immigration from the Soviet Union, then on its way to disintegration. Officials did not know how many immigrants to expect, but soldiers were already worried that the newcomers would take the jobs they expected to receive upon finishing military service, and compete for Israeli girls. The task of the lecturers was to explain that a large immigration would spur economic growth and increase the need for new employees. Moreover, about half of the immigrants would be female, some of them beautiful blondes with exotic Slavic features.
A search of the Internet reveals more confusion than certainty about the issue of emigration, from Israel as well as other countries. Among the problems are a lack of official registration of those who leave for limited periods or intending to be permanent, the question of including children born abroad as among a country''s emigrants, and no complete registration of those who die in some other country and should therefore be removed from the registry.
Israelis, official and otherwise, offer different estimates about how many hundreds of thousands have left the country. American, Britain, Canadian, and Australian sources differ by how many millions have left those countries.
While there are Israelis who complain about the costs of educating all the academics and technocrats who work overseas on account of better conditions or a lack of opportunities in Israel, there are other Israelis who cite people like me and a million Russian speakers who have contributed to Israel after receiving their education overseas.
The historic fact is one of constant migration, made easier, cheaper, and less ominous by modern technology. Grandpa traveled for months on his way from Eastern Europe to the eastern United States. He was not earning anything during that time, and most likely had to pay a substantial amount for passage. Now an overseas trip is a matter of hours or at most a day, at prices that have declined in real terms during recent decades. Those who leave can return home for annual or more frequent visits, and remain in contact with loved ones via costless e-mail, Skype, or one of its competitors. Academics, scientists, and others can work in one country and collaborate with colleagues elsewhere as if they were at adjoining desks.
The United States story of economic development owes something to the ease of migration between states and the compatibility of law and regulation from one state to another. The European Union is working to create the same conditions throughout Europe and as far into Asia and elsewhere that it extends itself via the granting of associate status. Beyond Europe, a host of other international agreements has sought to facilitate travel, commerce, and regulations.
The author of the New Yorker article on Israeli expatriates also claims that Israelis are unusual in the financial dependence of young and not-so-young adults on their parents.
Like emigration, this is a story that is complicated by different conceptions and a lack of reliable information.
There are no end of stories about individuals and married couples--in Israel and elsewhere--living with parents, or receiving financial aid. There are studies and surveys in individual countries of varying reliability, but nothing yet apparent that provides credible and comparable international statistics. The item in New Yorker cites a study in an Israeli business newspaper showing that 87 percent of Israelis over the age of 25 are financially dependent on their parents. The United States is widely viewed as an economic giant and magnet of migration from elsewhere, but a survey reported in Forbes a year ago reported that nearly 60 percent of parents provide financial support to adult children. Note that the Israeli survey focused on children and the American survey on parents. It is likely that some American parents support more than one child. As a result, the American figures are who knows how much closer to the Israeli figures.
The bottom line is that Israel is different. It has distinctive traits, but so do many, most, or all other countries. Some think Israel is more different than others on account of a Promise of Land made years ago, along with the Almighty''s Choice of the People as His.
Yet comparative research, both by those who are God fearing and those who are less so, tends to show that Israel shares many traits with other countries. How much different does it remain? In the cases at hand, the data are not good enough for a clear answer.