Israel battles brain drain: 'It's time to come back home'

Israeli academics have made a name for themselves across the world for their intellectual know-how, but the very real brain drain threat is compelling many to return

Of living in China as an Israeli, Shahar Twito, seen with his family in front of the country’s iconic Great Wall, explains “the Chinese appreciate the hardships [we] face and our intellect.” (photo credit: Courtesy)
Of living in China as an Israeli, Shahar Twito, seen with his family in front of the country’s iconic Great Wall, explains “the Chinese appreciate the hardships [we] face and our intellect.”
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel’s leading minds – its professors, researchers, scientists and entrepreneurs – can be found paving the way toward innovative discoveries in countries around the world.
Whether it is developing new technologies in Silicon Valley, or conducting ground-breaking scientific research at top international institutions, winning Nobel Prizes, or making life-saving advances in the field of medicine, Israeli minds are at the forefront.
Yet despite many achievements, Israel now has a message for these academics: “It is time to come back home.”
The Israel National Brain Gain program, launched by the Israel Innovation Authority (IAA) in June 2013, in collaboration with the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education and the Finance Ministry, aims to accomplish this goal and bring back Israel’s academic brainpower.
“We are a one-stop shop to provide a holistic approach to any academic interested in returning to Israel,” Dr.
Nurit Eyal, director of the program, recently told The Jerusalem Post.
The Brain Gain program is designated for any Israeli with a bachelor’s degree or higher who resides abroad and is interested in returning to Israel to work in academia, industry or hi-tech.
The program assists professionals as well as their families throughout the entire process of returning home, helping them cope with bureaucracy, job placement and reacclimating to life in Israel.
“We take care of every intersection that a returning academic will have to deal with – like Bituah Leumi [the National Insurance Institute], the Education Ministry, the immigration office, the IDF and many others – with the aim of facilitating their return,” Eyal explained.
In addition to personal services offered, the program provides professional benefits in areas such as resumé building, career guidance and job searching. The IAA maintains connections with more than 350 organizations in Israel, including leading companies such as IBM, Intel, Google and HP.
“This shows that industry in Israel is aware of its academics abroad and wants people to come back,” said Eyal.
The program director explained that there is currently a gap between Israeli academia and the needs of industry, leading to “very, very talented people finding themselves without employment in their fields.”
Many of these talented researchers are drawn abroad, both because of a lack of positions in Israel and also because of the lure of new opportunities, higher salaries and because they are encouraged to do so.
While this may seem counterintuitive, Eyal said that the current system encourages Israeli academics to go abroad to broaden their horizons.
“If you want to go into academia you are required to complete post-doc studies abroad. There is a very good reason because academia says the way for a person to develop in his field is to go to a new and unknown place and learn to adapt and develop there,” she explained.
She noted that the push for academics to go abroad is both necessary and desired both for Israeli academia and the economy, as it helps spread knowledge and new ideas.
Still, she cautioned, “If you don’t plan your return career then you might end up staying there.”
A recent Brain Gain survey, shared exclusively with the Post, found that the desire of an academic to return to Israel begins to decrease after four years abroad.
The survey found that 78% of Israeli academics who have been abroad for up to four years “talk about or are thinking about returning.” This number begins to decrease after four years to 60%, and after six years to 49%, hitting a low after 10 to 15 years abroad when only 33% of academics think about returning to Israel.
However, after 15 years abroad there is a reversal in this trend, so that 48% of academics living abroad for 20 years or more expressed an interest in returning.
Eyal noted, however, that contrary to popular belief, the majority of academics who complete their post-doctoral studies abroad do want to come back to Israel.
Though once again, many end up staying abroad for the very same reasons they left.
“People leave Israel for their career, but return because of family, friends and personal identity,” she said.
Eyal said that today the emphasis should be on “brain cycling” and not on the “brain drain.”
“As soon as the world became a global place and Israel opened itself up to companies that work around the world, people began relocating and more than once,” she explained. “The Israeli company wants and encourages its people to move abroad, to relocate and cycle information.”
Still, Eyal noted that Israel is an “outsider” in the global game, “because we don’t bring people to work here, we don’t grant work visas for people to come here,” she said. “The world has changed and people do relocation, it’s now a common thing and we also need to be a part of this.”
To date, the program has helped nearly 600 academics return to Israel, with over 4,700 academics registering for the program since its launch.
The Brain Gain Program also recently launched a mentoring program, matching academics who have expressed a desire to return with mentors, representatives of companies working with the IAA and academics who returned to Israel over the years with the help of the program.
Shahar Twito is one of these returning academics.
After working for 18 years in the Israel’s hi-tech industry, Twito relocated through his company, along with his wife and two children, to Shenzhen, China, where he spent five years in a senior management position.
“In Shenzhen there is a community of expats working in international companies and the local population is very open to the world – you really feel at home there,” he told the Post.
“When you present yourself as Israeli and Jewish, you receive a very warm welcome. The Chinese appreciate the hardships Israelis face and our intellect, and they see a lot of the same in how we approach life,” he explained.
Recounting a truly positive experience as an Israeli in China, Twito said that when his contract expired he knew he would return to Israel.
However, he quickly discovered that returning home was much more “nerve-wracking” than leaving Israel.
“When you go abroad and you are relocated by a company, you arrive in a community of expats,” he explained. “But when you move back you find that everybody continued on with their lives, nobody waited for us – you feel a bit like an outsider.”
Twito credited the program with facilitating the return process – both personally and professionally.
“What the program offers is all the information in a very condensed way – a family that wants to come back needs to find practical information on the education system or handling Bituah Leumi,” he said.
“The program offers you a personal guide to consult with on these processes when you return.”
On a professional level, he said that he availed himself of many of the services the program has to offer – from participating in professional seminars to applying for jobs.
“The majority of people who undergo relocation usually have a higher jump than you would have had, had you stayed in Israel – and then your expectations may not match what the Israeli companies can offer,” he explained. “The variety of positions [in Israel], especially high-level positions, that are available is limited.”
“Before returning to Israel, I knew that the chances of finding a job that would fit all the experience and knowledge that I acquired were not great,” he acknowledged.
Still, with the help of the program, Twito was able to find suitable employment in his field working at Phillips.
Today, he serves as a mentor to other academics looking to return to Israel.
“The fact that you are there for someone, that you give them a purpose, and the fact that you make yourself available to them really helps,” he said.
“The first period in Israel is not easy, and this program really helps people smile and not regret for a minute that they returned to Israel,” he said.
Still, Twito noted that he has a desire to relocate again and seek out new opportunities outside of Israel, “not because it is bad here, but because it is an experience that helps you become a citizen of the world.”
Moshe Ashkenazi also serves as a mentor to returning academics. He returned to Israel recently after spending nine years working in hi-tech in Denmark.
“I left Israel because I fell in love,” he recounted.
“When I left I was single, and when I came back I was married with kids.”
Ashkenazi said it was very easy for him to find work in Denmark. “Within a week of sending out resumés, I had three interviews lined up and found a job in my field of software development.”
Still, he said that he has always considered Israel home.
“What pushed us to come back was that my son was beginning first grade,” he said. “We always knew that we would come back, we just never knew when, and this seemed like the right opportunity.”
Ashkenazi said that his life in Denmark was “very comfortable.”
“I knew that I wouldn’t receive the same salary that I got abroad, and when I speak with other academics in the program I hear the same thing,” he said, noting that he didn’t come back for the money.
“We didn’t come back to Israel to live a ‘better life’ in certain aspects, but now we have family and friends, and a common language and values and Judaism – and when you look at the overall picture it was the right decision for us,” he said.
Though Ashkenazi didn’t find employment in Israel through the program, he did take advantage of the professional and personal services offered.
Today, he mentors program participants who have moved back or who are thinking of returning to Israel.
“There are a lot of nuances in moving back to Israel, and as someone who recently did this, I am a top resource for people moving back,” he said.
“It is very exciting to come back to Israel; it is a process with a lot of emotions and a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “I find myself talking [with my mentees] more about feelings, about the dos and don’ts, and just providing them with personal assistance.”
When asked if he would consider moving back to Denmark, Ashkenazi responded: “I wouldn’t go back even if they offered me the job of a lifetime, because all the reasons that brought me back to Israel have not changed: missing family, the desire for my children to learn Hebrew and Jewish culture – these are things that you can’t impart by short visits.”
Ashkenazi added that the returning academics can and should have a positive impact not only abroad but also on Israeli society. “We are living in a global world and I can take my experience from abroad, as can the other returning academics, and help improve what we can here in Israel.”