The brain drain

The Jews’ penchant for wandering seem to mitigate against easy solutions.

Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba 370 (photo credit: BGU)
Ben-Gurion University campus in Beersheba 370
(photo credit: BGU)
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 brightest.
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.
The 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 pastures abroad.”
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 “hemorrhaging.”
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 abroad.
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 population growth.
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.”
The 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 people.
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.
And 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.