What brain drain?

Many fear Israel is losing its best scientific minds to America. Nonsense, says one observer.There is widespread alarm in many quarters of Israel today that our brightest minds are leaving the country in search of more lucrative shores, specifically America. The Israeli government estimates that today there are 650,000 Israelis living abroad: 60 percent in North America, 25% in Europe and 15% elsewhere.

While one shouldn’t make light of the problem, it is imperative to put the peril of Israel’s brain drain in perspective. The migration of intellectual human capital to the best-paying markets is not only an Israeli phenomenon, it’s a global one.

In January 2004, TIME/CNN reported: [There is] “a continued drain of Europe’s best and brightest scientific brains, who finish their degrees and pursue careers in the US. Some 400,000 European science and technology graduates now live in the US and thousands more leave each year.”

A survey released by the European Commission that year found that “only 13% of European science professionals working abroad currently intend to return home.”

The Greek daily Ekathimerini cited other European Commission data in 2006 that shows “a massive flow of scholars from Europe to the US with only 29 percent of them declaring that they intend to return to Europe upon completion of their studies.”

According to Nadia Prigat, director of the Division for Returning Israelis in the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, who was interviewed in the Jerusalem Post in October 2006, an estimated 50 percent of Israelis living abroad do return within two to six years.

According to data released by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics last May, out of 24,000 Israelis who left the country in 2004 for a period of more than 12 months, 10,000 had returned.

If there will be a reversal in the brain drain among Europeans or Israelis, I suspect it will be due to changes in the economy in the United States.

Indicative of the force of professional issues, a recent survey cited by the Absorption Ministry found that 46% of Israelis living abroad said job security took precedence over concerns regarding their children and housing, in decisions to return.

Today the Israeli economy is in good shape and high-tech is booming. There is room for guarded optimism in terms of our own brain drain. If anything, one should be encouraged by the fact that a Shalem Institute study found that between 1995-2002 only four percent of those Israelis with a Master’s degree or higher left Israel.

Geopolitical security fears also do not seem to play a part in driving Israelis from their homeland. It would be easier for Israelis to claim ‘the situation’ is at fault for their departure, than to admit they have been lured by higher salaries and other professional considerations, but on the whole, Israel as a society, has demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of geopolitical instability.

The National Resilience Project conducted at Haifa University found that while levels of fear and anxiety that family members might be harmed were very high (91.9 percent) during the early years of the intifada, at the same time the country’s sense of efficacy and solidarity (measured in terms of shift in ‘patriotic feelings’ up or down, and faith in the IDF) were very high – and this resiliency cut across all levels of education, religiosity and immigrant-veteran status with relatively mild variations.

Is there a gap between declarations and actions? No, apparently not. American and Canadian embassy data shows only a slight to moderate rise in requests for immigrant visas from Israelis (including Israeli Arabs) during the second intifada: 2,637 (2000), 3,000 (2001), 3,025 (2002), 3,518 (2003) for the US, and 2,600 (2000), 2,475 (2001), 2,600 (2002), 2,850 (est. 2003). Some 6,000 Israelis were expected to return from the US and Canada alone in 2006. And according to a JTA news report, Israeli Government statistics show 20,000 Israelis returned annually between 2001 to 2004 – at the height of the country’s problems.

A 2008 Tel Aviv University academic study warned that there are 1,409 senior Israeli academics at American universities, in absolute numbers equal to 25 percent of the entire senior staff at Israeli academic institutions, and off-the-charts per capita compared to Europeans at American institutions.

But is this due to Israel’s failures to keep them, or to their excellence? One cannot intelligently discuss the brain drain without entering into the equation the fact that Israel has the highest number of university graduates per capita in the world. It ranks first to third in the world in terms of the percentage of university grads per capita per age cohort, depending on whom you ask.

Annually, Israeli institutions of higher learning graduate 2.4 times the number of undergraduates per capita as the United States, and 2.8 times the number of graduate degrees.

The ability of Israeli universities and the Israeli economy to provide jobs that will keep pace with a 355 percent increase in the number of degrees granted between 1970 – 2005 in Israel (compared to a 31 percent increase in the US), is a problem – but this I would argue, constitutes ‘the troubles of the rich’ or at least mixed blessings for a country with an overabundance of intellectual capital.

As Israel approaches its 60th anniversary, we cannot and should not take the brain drain lightly.

But if indeed the brain drain is a global phenomenon and intellectual human capital does migrate to the best-paying markets, there is room for optimism in light of the current downturn in the American economy and the weak dollar; and the upturn in the Israeli economy – crowned by Israel receiving ‘developed nation’ status and A+ standing endowing the NIS with ‘hard currency’ rating, a situation that significantly levels the playing field for Israel.

With all the existential challenges Israel still faces it would be presumptuous to say ‘our cup runneth over’, but we Israelis certainly enjoy far more than ‘a half-full cup’ – and not only in terms of the brain drain.

The importance of first impressions

Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport is giving potential investors a proper first impression.”A first impression makes a lasting impression.” As with most clichés, there’s more than a kernel of truth in that statement.

I happened upon this thought during a recent business trip to Israel. In the general chitchat before our meeting was set to begin, I started talking with some colleagues about the “new” Israel airport.

Ben Gurion Airport’s Terminal 3, Israel’s international gateway was finally opened in October 2004 after more than 10 years of planning and construction and almost five years behind schedule (it was originally supposed to coincide with the mass tourism expected in light of the millennium in the year 2000).

A beautiful, modern, comfortable, WiFi equipped complex, Terminal 3 saw over 10 million international passengers in 2007, according to airport statistics and was ranked first out of 40 European airports in a 2006 survey by the Airports Council International in terms of most customer-friendly airport.

This is in sharp contrast to the international terminal of old.

In the mid-’90s, during the first dotcom boom, I brought a potential investor to Israel to check out the burgeoning Israeli high-tech industry. Israel was already selling itself as a global technology leader, but this was in no way obvious to the newly arrived.

While the casual tourist may have been touched by what might be described as the quaint appearance and workings of the old international terminal, a modern day investor was not. Walking down a rickety mobile staircase, across the tarmac, herded onto a bus and driven across the property to passport control was a shocking experience for my guest. In his words Israel’s international airport looked (and functioned) more like a bus station than an airport.

The comfort of flying first-class was immediately erased by the on-ground experience. Needless to say, there was no business lounge to comfort him in the aftermath of this rather bumpy landing. He was less than impressed and thereafter found it hard to believe that Israel was indeed a global technology leader. A potential investor was lost by a poor first impression.

And perhaps rightfully so. There is a reason why people dress up for work, invest in office décor, and print high-quality business cards. These things make a positive impression. They show a familiarity and appreciation of a certain business culture, and just as importantly, a willingness to invest in one’s self. If you aren’t willing to invest in yourself, it’s hard to imagine you’d be able to convince someone else to invest in you.

With Terminal 3 as a first encounter to new arrivals and potential investors, at long last Israel can give a proper first impression.

Printed by courtesy of The Jerusalem Post

Israel in the Spotlight

Those Walled In

What makes an Israeli? A peculiar mix of joie de vivre, arrogance, aggressiveness, fear, claustrophobia, plus a whole lot more.Living in Israel is one continual encounter with the Israeli character, stereotypically labeled as the “sabra,” the cactus that is hard and prickly on the outside, but mushy and sweet on the inside. But the Israeli character is far more complex than the stereotype.

Of course, on the one hand, there is no such thing as the Israeli national character – after all, a nation is composed of individuals, and each individual is unique. And yet – somehow – there is a sort of character, a personality that a country has. Or at least there is the character that people project on a nation.

Amos Elon, Israeli journalist and intellectual, wrote a review of “Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse,” by Sylvain Cypel that appeared in the New York Review of Books. In the article Elon wrote “The original French title of the book, Les Emmurés-those walled in-better expresses the peculiar mixture of joie de vivre, arrogance, provincialism, aggressiveness, fear of another Holocaust, and claustrophobia that has struck foreign observers and also some Israelis for years.”

I thank my American friend Nick for bringing Elon’s quote to my attention. It makes an excellent launch pad for an exploration of the Israeli character.

I like Elon’s description. It’s pretty accurate. Israelis definitely have joie de vivre – polls show that despite everything, Israelis overall are happier with their lot than most other nationalities, including Americans.

Arrogance, well yes, most Israelis are convinced they are the best and they aren’t shy about letting you know it either. Not that they brag, rather they tend to put others down, leaving themselves in the up position. I have a friend who is an airline pilot for Southwest who desperately wants to make aliyah – yet he can’t get a job with El Al because even though he has thousands of hours of experience flying airliners for major American carriers, El Al hires IDF helicopter pilots with 1,000 hours before they hire him. Why? Because of a combination of that arrogance, the Israeli Air Force way is clearly the best for everything, and the “clubbishness” that goes with this superiority complex.

For the most part, I don’t think I’d characterize Israelis as provincial, however. They have a very international outlook. The economy is driven by exports; Israel is a very small country, so almost everyone takes vacations elsewhere – Turkey and Czechoslovakia are popular as being not too far away and relatively inexpensive. Even people of modest means travel internationally.

As to aggressive, well, this is a trait for which Israelis are famous. One of the challenges of getting by in Israel is that if you are not aggressive you are perceived as a “freier”, which is a Yiddish term for sucker.

The next trait on Elon’s list, fear of another Holocaust, is also real. But remember, just because you are paranoid, does not mean that they are NOT out to get you. Ahmadinejad may be a nut case, but he is a nut case who is the head of state of a country.

By all accounts enriching uranium is the “hard” part of making nuclear weapons. Even if their nuke program is on the shelf (Israeli intelligence is not convinced it is) it’s very easy to restart. Oh, and that does acknowledge that they HAD a nuclear weapons program, doesn’t it? Let’s see, what shelf did I leave those plans on? And Ahmadinejad has publicly proclaimed that Israel should be wiped off the map. Wouldn’t you be a little paranoid?

Hamas also calls for the destruction of Israel. Would they use a nuke if they were able to get their hands on one? I certainly wouldn’t make any bets. And of course many Israelis visit the cemetery on Memorial Day to mourn the loss of loved ones in wars in 1947, 1967, and 1973 when the Arabs did try to destroy us, big time, not to mention two Lebanon wars, two intifadas, etc., etc. We have good reason to fear, although, thank God, overall I think we’re in better shape on the security front than we were in 1973.

Claustrophobia, yes, that comes with living in a very small country. Israel is more or less the size of New Jersey. If you lived in New Jersey and on one side the borders with New York and Connecticut were sealed, and the border with Pennsylvania was one you could technically cross, but it didn’t feel particularly safe to do so because people there didn’t like you, you too would probably feel a little claustrophobic.

But Elon’s description of the Israeli character is incomplete. There are a few things you have to add:

Israelis really care about each other. There is a “we’re all in this mess together” attitude; there is a feeling of being part of a large extended family that is stronger than among Jews in the Diaspora. If you want to put it down, you might call it clannishness. But anyone who wants to can join the clan. OK, it’s a little more involved than say putting on a kilt, but you can still join. It’s nice to have that feeling of belonging to a group with shared values, even if we can’t agree on exactly what all the values are or how to interpret them!

In Israel we enjoy an attitude of living in a frontier. Maybe some of the arrogance comes from living in a place that the rest of the world treats as important. There is more terrorism in Sri Lanka, more people are dying in Kenya, human rights abuses are far worse in any country within 300 miles, not to mention places like China, and yet we’re on the front page of the Western papers every day while those others places often get scant notice. Makes us feel important. But more than that, it makes us feel like we are a part of something important.

In short, the Israeli character is complex and interesting. One of the biggest challenges facing a new immigrant to Israel is fitting in as a part of that culture. The American character I bring with me to Israel is very different indeed than the Israel character of my new home. Can I really be an Israeli when my character is still more defined by my years as an American?

Printed by courtesy of IsraelatSixty.org.il

A lonely soldier finds herself a home

Why would a nice American girl give up the comfort of home to immigrate to a foreign country and serve in a foreign army? Love of course.A few weeks ago, I came off a plane to embark on a journey based around one crazy idea – love. I made aliyah (immigration) on Valentine’s Day. That’s right, the day of love was the day that my bond for the country I had had a crush on for years was eternalized by one single act.

I made the decision to move to Israel a long time ago. It was always part of my “life plan.” I was going to finish high school and move to Israel just like my parents from South America did before me. I was going to serve in the army just like my father had done. I was going to study at Hebrew University just as my mother studied.

I never actually believed I was going to be able to do any of that. I kind of just told people that’s what I wanted to do as I applied for American universities and ignored my Sunday school Hebrew teacher when she tried to teach us a few words of Hebrew.

Last year, I entered my first year of college in the US. The entire time I was there I regretted not following my original dream.

The actual move to Israel started slowly. First I decided to go for the summer. Then, when I came in June, I decided there was no way I could go back to any US university just yet. I extended my stay for a semester.

As I began my semester at Rothberg International School at Hebrew University, I decided that it was just not enough. I couldn’t tell people when I was going back to the States. I just didn’t want to. So then my semester became a year and the year became, hopefully, a lifetime.

There have been a lot of ups and downs, and many set backs, but moving to Israel and dealing with all the annoyances that come when you immigrate somewhere new, was a “piece of cake” compared to making the decision about whether or not to serve in the Israeli army.

If I did, I would be what is known as a “Chayal Boded”, which literally translates to “lonely soldier.”

Both my parents live outside Israel and other than some distant cousin of my grandmother’s, I have no family here. Granted, both my parents lived in Israel for a significant amount of time (my father for around 13 years and my mother around six) and they have many close friends who treat me like family. I am here, and, as the IDF so beautifully puts it, lonely; therefore, I decided to serve my country through Garin Zabar.

Garin Zabar is an organization formed for lonely soldiers run by an offshoot of the Tzofim. The organization helps form units of 30 Zionist youths who make wild decisions like leaving their parents in other parts of the world to live in Israel. There are several groups from the East Coast and the West Coast of America, a religious group, and one from Israel. After they form these groups, they give four (or five) seminars to help prepare these people for the army.

In these seminars we eat, sleep, joke and try (sometimes with great difficulty) to understand the all-Hebrew lectures. Afterwards, we join a kibbutz for three months, where we are helped with everything we need to do to join the army – from initial draft dates, to tests, interviews, and all that fanatical bureaucracy, plus anything else we may encounter before the day we put on a uniform and say goodbye to our old lives.

The kibbutz becomes your home – an adoptive family.

I just got back from my first seminar. The first thing we did was sit together and introduce ourselves. In my group, there are people from Venezuela, Italy, Holland, and from all over the United States.

We talked about where we were from and how we are killing time in Israel before going to the kibbutz in August (I’m still at Hebrew University doing a year abroad program).

The last thing we did before leaving the ranch where we were staying, was talk about what we appreciated most from the seminar. All 30 of us said the same thing: we were so thankful to see that we weren’t the only people who wanted to join the army and live in Israel and that the process wouldn’t be as scary as we previously imagined.

I am nervous, and I’m not going to lie, I question my choices everyday; yet, after they gave us practice exams and practice interviews and told us that we would have a place to call our own and warm, good food to eat when we get back on the weekends, I felt at ease with my decision.

Yeah, it’s scary, but I think this is the start of a beautiful romance.

Saving hearts in Zanzibar and Tanzania

There’s an incredible high from giving children with heart problems a new life and a new heart-shaped view of Israel to take home with them.I recently returned from an incredible adventure in Africa with an Israeli humanitarian effort that not enough people are familiar with. Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) was the dream of one gifted and caring surgeon, Dr. Ami Cohen, who could not accept that so many children in the world were doomed to die for lack of medical care that we take for granted.

I was fortunate to meet Ami early in SACH’s life and joined the newly formed board. Despite Ami’s untimely death in August 2001, climbing Kilimanjaro, SACH has survived and thrived. Seventy professionals lovingly volunteer their services, in the Wolfson Hospital in Holon, Israel, and on missions abroad, where they operate, screen, train local doctors and simply save lives daily.

My latest SACH mission, to Zanzibar and Mwanza, Tanzania, and my prior trips to China and Moldova, have been some of the most intense, satisfying and heartbreaking journeys I have had the privilege to take… as well as incredible opportunities to get to know the staff who are the real heroes.

The delegation included our head of ICU, Sion, two of our pediatric cardiologists, Alona, an Israeli, and Rula, a Palestinian doctor who trained with SACH at Wolfson Hospital over the last three years, and our director, Simon and his wife, Aviva. In Zanzibar we were joined by two German cardiologists, Anne and Caroline, under the auspices of KinderHilfe Zanzibar, which sponsored the visit.

The doctors worked in pairs and at a breathtaking pace. I was the mission photographer …a job I truly enjoyed, along with clowning for the children and the parents waiting in the halls. Aviva became my able assistant clown/photographer, giving out pens and balloons and playing with the children, while I photographed her joy and theirs.

The pressure was intense and the sheer numbers of children, veil-clad women, men in western attire, who crowded the hospital hallway that served as our examining room, was at times overwhelming. Dozens of potential patients were screened. Aviva and I would provide grapes or chocolate and water to weary doctors at necessary intervals and sometimes a back rub after 12 hours on the job.

Sometimes the most memorable moments had nothing to do with the physical heart – as when Alona, an incredible doctor with immense knowledge at her fingertips, an infectious enthusiasm and a glorious smile, told a teenager who had been operated on in Israel, that she could have children…To see the first tears of joy as that young woman heard the translation of the doctor’s words was an awesome moment that I tried to capture on film… probably a second too late.

Both Rula’s and Alona’s love and caring for each child, was always visible, whether in a touch or leaning in to speak and reassure the child or the mother.

On the third day we did about 80 post-op evaluations of children who had had surgery… many in Israel. It was wonderful to see some familiar faces among the crowds and to watch them react to a brochure we had produced for a photographic exhibit now touring the world, in honor of Israel’s 60th birthday. We had a collage of hundreds of images of children treated by SACH, and parents scanned them avidly for their own children’s faces.

One of the most moving moments was when Saida arrived with her beautiful one-year-old son in her arms… to be greeted by Sion, with tears in his eyes, as he recalled the Saida who, a mere four to five years earlier, had been rushed from the plane that landed in Tel Aviv straight to the intensive care unit. To see her now, so healthy, so serene, so glowing, was truly to witness a miracle.

For the Mwanza leg of the mission, on the shores of Lake Victoria, we were joined by Livia, an Israeli cardiologist who resides in Holland. She had arranged for the donation of a portable echocardiograph which joined the one we had been loaned by GE in Israel. This was our first contact with Bugando Medical Center (built by Israelis in the late ’70s) and we screened perhaps 50 children in the two days there. I constantly photographed the children (some of whom took photos of me on my smaller camera), their parents, the staff, the incredible views of the lake and the beautiful hospital grounds.

We flew home through Addis Ababa, where we were joined by our first group of patients from Zanzibar: eight children, ranging from one to 17, accompanied by the three mothers of the youngest children and the nurse, Aziza, who had greeted us with Shabbat Shalom on the day we arrived. They were in good spirits in the face of travel delays that even wearied us experienced travelers. At long last, we arrived home, but their adventures were just beginning.

All of the children have been in the hospital for tests and preliminary treatments and one has undergone catheterization. They are incredibly brave and incredibly beautiful… It is easy to fall in love with their shining faces… and it is an incredible high to have had some small part in giving them a new life and a new heart-filled view of Israel to take home with them. And each trip makes me so aware of my own blessings, especially my three healthy children and grandson, and being able to live in Israel, where we can and do help thousands of children from across the globe to regain life.