The sweet and less sweet in Angrist’s Nobel Prize - analysis

The various reactions to Angrist’s achievement – and the fact that it was significant news here – says much about both the Jewish and the Israeli psyche.

 Rosh Hashana event celebrates aliyah (photo credit: Noga Malasa)
Rosh Hashana event celebrates aliyah
(photo credit: Noga Malasa)

"Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” God said to Abram in the first verse of the Torah portion Lech Lecha, which will be read in synagogues around the world this Shabbat.

And so was born the first oleh (immigrant) to Israel.

A mere 10 verses later, economic reality intervened: “There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.”

And so was born the first yored (emigrant) from Israel.

Fast forward a few thousand years to 1982, and Joshua Angrist, from Columbus, Ohio, follows in the footsteps of Abram, whose name was later changed to Abraham, and makes aliyah to Israel. But like Abram, he, too, leaves shortly thereafter. Not because of a famine, but because of economic realities.

In 2006, Angrist, who on Monday won the Nobel Prize in economics, told The Jerusalem Post he left the country after spending a few years teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem because “I was tired of the situation here. The Israeli system does not reflect the reality of pay differential by field. It’s the public system, and it’s not very flexible.”

Using university professors as an example of these problems, he said professors in high-demand fields such as computer science and economics earned the same amount of money as those in fields where there was less demand, such as literature. In other countries, he said, market forces determine professors’ salaries.

“Talented people who might like to work in Israel have to pay a high price for that financially,” he said. “It’s hard to retain people with that kind of system.”

The good news for those who scrutinize the Nobel Prize winner announcements every year looking for Jewish names – and who kvell when a Jew, especially an Israeli, wins one – is that Angrist didn’t leave the country amid a cacophony of calling it a racist, apartheid colonialist state. He left because of economic reasons and greener pastures abroad.

The bad news is that he left.

The various reactions to Angrist’s achievement – and the fact that it was significant news here – says much about both the Jewish and the Israeli psyche.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (L) pictured next to Chairman and Co-Founder of The Genesis Prize Foundation Stan Polovets. (credit: ERAN LAMM/LENS PRODUCTIONS)Ruth Bader Ginsburg (L) pictured next to Chairman and Co-Founder of The Genesis Prize Foundation Stan Polovets. (credit: ERAN LAMM/LENS PRODUCTIONS)

First, the Jewish psyche, in which paying close attention to whether Jews win any awards each year, and the percentage they have won in total as compared to their percentage of the overall world population, is something deeply ingrained.

It is difficult to imagine Lutherans sitting around in Minnesota searching Google to see if a recent Nobel recipient is one of their co-religionists. One can imagine a number of Jews in Minneapolis doing just that.

Why? Because as a result of the Jews’ often tragic history, there is a part of the collective that still yearns for legitimacy, still wants to prove that – despite what antisemites have said throughout the ages – the Jews do have a great deal to contribute to society.

There is also a part of the Jewish collective that sees these prizes as proof that, yes, there is something extraordinary about the Jewish people.

And then there is the Israeli psyche. Israelis, not known as people who readily hand out compliments, take enormous pride in their compatriots who make it big in the “big world.”

Witness the pride in Gal Gadot, Omri Casspi and even in Israeli youth who do well in the Chess Olympiad. Israelis went crazy this summer when a 19-year-old girl won a taekwondo bronze medal, let alone when two Israelis took home gold.

So one can understand the collective pleasure when an Israeli-American, as Angrist has been described, wins a Nobel Prize in economics. And one can only imagine how even sweeter that victory would have been had he been an Israeli-American who actually stayed in the country, like Robert Aumann, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2006.

Ironically, the announcement of Angrist winning the coveted prize came during a week in which the Aliyah and Integration Ministry is running public-service ads on the radio in honor of Wednesday’s annual Yom HaAliyah (Aliyah Day).

The ads laud the contributions made by immigrants – one spot features the name of a French immigrant who came in the mid-1980s and started a successful start-up. The message to Israeli society is clear: All the efforts and money the country spends to attract and absorb immigrants is worth it – they contribute.

 Israeli-American economist Joshua Angrist is seen in 2011. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Israeli-American economist Joshua Angrist is seen in 2011. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Then along comes the Angrist story, which kind of puts a dent in that message. Here is a guy who came to the country, wanted to contribute, had something to contribute (obviously, he just won a Nobel Prize), but left because of how the country works.The ministry’s public-service ad featured aliyah success stories; Angrist’s was an aliyah story that didn’t work.

The initial reaction many probably had when they read about why Angrist left was to fault Israel and to say: “See, we don’t know how to keep good people, and if the state would have just given him X, Y or Z, then he would have stayed.”Or maybe not.

Angrist, in an interview aired on Channel 12 the night after he won the Nobel Prize, said when he got a call from MIT to go teach there, he jumped at the opportunity because that is “every scholar’s dream.”

So even if Hebrew University had a differential pay scale that rewarded professors of economics and computer science more than professors of literature and Semitic languages – because the former subjects are practical and can be monetized, while the latter cannot – there is no guarantee that had MIT called, he would not have answered and fulfilled “every scholar’s dream.”

Many immigrants to this country from the West have made financial sacrifices in moving here, have given up better job possibilities abroad, but have decided that the sacrifices are worth it for what is gained by living in the Jewish state.Angrist didn’t make that decision. But that does not mean the problem necessarily rests with Israel.