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Israel’s Brain Drain: ‘If a Critical Mass Leaves, It’ll Be Too Late’

Exodus of educated Israelis for the US accelerating

Israel has seen an increase in the emigration of many of its most educated citizens to the United States, according to a report by the non-partisan Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, affiliated with Tel Aviv University.

In the two decades prior to 2016, Israel’s population grew by nearly a quarter –to nine million – while the number of Israelis acquiring U.S. citizenship or permanent residency rights (a Green Card) rose by a little over 30 percent.

Prof. Dan Ben-David, who authored the new report, told The Media Line the population leaving came from the segment most crucial to Israel’s success.

“If a critical mass of the 130,000 leaves, all the rest are goners,” he said, explaining that this small section of the population comprised much of Israel’s tax base.

Ben-David said that due to income inequality, 20 percent of the population paid 92 percent of Israel’s income tax. “Invariably, these are the ones who are most educated and the ones with options, and they leave.”

Despite the many reasons Israelis would want to live in their country, conditions in Israel and modern technology making it easier to keep in touch and oftentimes make emigration more appealing.

“Israel is quite unique in the sense that people have a strong [affinity] toward the country because of its history, because it’s the only Jewish country in the world, because of family connections,” Ayal Kimhi, professor of agricultural economics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and vice president of the Shoresh Institution, told The Media Line. “But we live in a global world, and especially for young people, it makes more sense for them find their future elsewhere.”

Israel suffers from low labor productivity compared to other developed countries, which causes salaries to stagnate combined with a high cost of living.

Physicians are an example of a segment of the population that is leaving Israel, largely the result of more attractive earning possibilities in other countries, especially the United States. Ben-David said that doctors in Israel also faced tougher conditions. “You have to work a lot more hours and the caseload is greater. It’s more difficult here, basically, than it is there.”

According to the report, in 2006, the number of Israeli physicians working abroad in OECD countries was the equivalent of almost 10 percent of all physicians located in Israel. A decade later, that figure had grown to 14 percent.

Despite Israel being the “Start-Up Nation,” Ben-David explained that those who worked in high tech still faced pressure to go to the US. “There is a huge pressure on you to relocate and be closer to your investors and your markets,” he said.

Approximately 3 percent of Israelis work in high tech, but the sector accounts for nearly 40 percent of the country’s exports, according to the report.

In addition, Israeli “academics” – that is, holders of academic degrees – are also leaving for America’s shores. Ben-David argued that this cohort was able to research more and teach less in the U.S., while still paying their bills. In Israel, people in academia often have to teach more classes and even take on other jobs to make ends meet.

“A whole bunch of Israelis are now [working] at the top American universities, and so much so that you could actually populate completely new departments in Israel with the Israelis who are there,” he said.

One such Israeli, who declined to be named in the piece and conducts research at a public university in Texas, told The Media Line, “In the last decade, Israeli governments have bluntly and carelessly prioritized two sectors in society, the settlers and the ultra-religious, over secular working and educated families and individuals. This manifests in the increased ‘religionization’ of the public sphere… [and] a culture of nepotism in government service that prevents educated people finding jobs there, and finally, lack of investment in higher education.”

According to the Shoresh Institution’s report, in 2017, 4.5 Israelis that hold academic degrees left for every returning graduate. This was up from a ratio of 2.6 to one in 2014.

Ben-David contended that even though salaries in Israel were generally lower than in the US, improving factors such as education and infrastructure could be enough to get people to stay or even to return.

“If Israel wants to keep all these guys here, it’s got to create conditions that will ease the burden on the [130,000 academics’] shoulders,” Ben-David said. “If the rest of the population does not play more of a major role in the economy, more and more of our young, educated and skilled are not going to stick around. That’s part of what we’re picking up on in the study.”

Ben-David said that one way to better conditions in Israel was to improve public transportation and invest in trains. “We have the ability to [connect] the entire country, at least from Haifa to Ashdod, and immediately eliminate most of the traffic jams, which would right away boost productivity.”

Ben-David also argued that “major structural education reform” was needed to get Israelis to stay.

He added that the quality of teaching needed to be improved, noting that the teachers colleges in Israel had lower entry requirements than the universities.

“The vast majority of teachers in Israel would never in their life get accepted into university, so how can we expect them to bring our kids to that level?” he asked.

Ben-David advocated enforcing a mandatory core curriculum in all schools and improving the education of groups such as Arab-Israelis, who comprise 25 percent of the child population. “Their achievement in math, science and reading is below many third world countries.”

Not educating people also has major consequences for Israel’s security. Ben-David pointed to the example of the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox, who are given a partial education in secular subjects and are projected to account for half of the children in Israel within several generations.

“Who is going to defend Israel? Who is going to develop the technology to shoot down missiles or [to do] whatever we will need when that comes around, and who is going to pay for all it?” Ben-David queried. “It’s not a sustainable situation, and countries [can] fail…. We get this opportunity [to live in an independent Jewish state] once every 2,000 years; we need to get it right.”

Both Ben-David and the Hebrew University’s Kimhi contended that pessimism about the future played a factor in why people emigrated.

“We have a problem here, even beyond the economics: the [lack of] hope that someone will fix this country and put it on the right path, which may be a major influence in why people… opt out,” Ben-David said.

“If the country is moving in the right direction, people will stay,” Kimhi said. “We have to show them a better future, but unfortunately the current political situation doesn’t seem to [do that].”

Ben-David said that Israel still had time to change course so that more Israelis would stay.

“Israel is the kind of nation that when its back is to the wall, it ends up doing the right thing. We just need to realize that we are now in that situation and that our back is to the wall, because if a critical mass leaves, [it will be] too late.

“We are all in the same boat. We need to worry about where this titanic is headed,” Ben-David concluded. “Right now, it’s toward a big iceberg…. We can change direction, but we need to get our act together.”

(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies)