April 28, 2008

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.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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