Azure no. 32, Spring 5768 / 2008
Losing Our MindsBy Marla Braverman
Last July, the Wall Street Journal ran a feature article on the Talpiot Program, an elite IDF project which trains fifty handpicked, top-scoring students each year in mathematics, physics, and other sciences, and tasks its cadets with developing ground-breaking military technologies. Inspired, in the words of one graduate, by “the grand pursuit of helping our country,” Talpiot graduates are responsible for such advances as electric-energy-propelled projectiles and low-vibration helicopter seats. Today, however, two decades following the rise of the global high-tech industry, its graduates are more likely to become entrepreneurs than engineers. They have founded dozens of companies specializing in security equipment, encryption software, communications, and high-end Internet hardware. Former Talpiot graduate Arik Czerniak, for example, runs a high-tech company that lets users post video clips online, a service which has gained immense popularity amongst web surfers. And something else has changed in the past two decades as well: Like many other recent Talpiot graduates, Czerniak lived and worked in California’s Silicon Valley.
Indeed, over the last few decades an increasing number of Israel’s best and brightest have left home for greener economic or professional pastures abroad, a trend that has been acknowledged as a bona fide “brain drain” in Israeli public discourse. The numbers demonstrate the severity of this problem. According to a report published last year by economists Omer Moav and Eric J. Gould in the Israel Economic Review, between 1995 and 2004, educated Israelis (i.e., those with a bachelor’s degree or higher) were 2.5 times more likely to emigrate than those with less education. Israel thus has the dubious distinction of being one of just a handful of developed economies suffering from a brain drain. Usually, it is poor countries with lower percentages of highly educated men and women that contend with this issue. In fact, relative to the size of its population, Israel is second only to the United States in exporting educated workers, ahead of India, Pakistan, Canada, and the European Union.
Of particular concern is the flight of Israel’s academic faculty. A report published last February by Dan Ben-David, a professor at the Tel Aviv University department of public policy, found that “the rate of academic emigration from Israel to the United States is unparalleled in the Western world.” The figures he cites are nothing less than astonishing: While the ratio of European scholars in America to scholars in their home country ranges from 1.3 percent in Spain to 4.3 percent in the Netherlands, Israeli scholars in America “are in a class by themselves,” according to the report. In the 2003-2004 academic year, Israeli academics residing in the United States represented a full quarter of the entire senior staff of Israel’s academic institutions. “If Europeans are concerned about the migration of their academics to the States,” writes Ben-David, “then Israelis should be nothing less than alarmed.”
While this phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the fields of technology and science—Israeli computer scientists frequently occupy no fewer than five or six faculty slots in leading American university departments, and almost a tenth of Israeli physicists and an eighth of Israeli chemists work on American campuses—the humanities have not been spared either. The same report found that the number of Israel philosophy professors in top American departments accounts for 15 percent of Israeli philosophy professors residing in Israel. Moreover, since statistics show that 96 percent of all educated emigrants who left Israel beginning in 1995 have remained abroad, turning extended sabbaticals into permanent residence, it is clear that the best minds of today’s generation are leaving-and they’re not coming back.
No wonder, then, that Science, Culture, and Sport Minister Galeb Majadle, speaking at a special Knesset session earlier this year, described the mass departure of the country’s scientists and high-tech professionals as a national emergency and declared that their return is an “urgent” goal. Similarly, Dan Ben-David has warned that Israel’s economic and defense sectors will face “catastrophic consequences” if this “hemorrhaging of leading minds” does not cease. For Israel—a country roughly the size of New Jersey, two-thirds of which is desert—the only true natural resource is brainpower. It is brainpower that ensures Israel’s military edge over its enemies in the Middle East, just as brainpower ensures its competitive edge over foreign players in the global tech market. But this advantage cannot be taken for granted. The departure of the country’s top scientific and technological talents leaves it particularly, even dangerously, vulnerable. Moreover, in light of the Jewish state’s crisis of leadership and rampant corruption in the public sphere, the emigration of humanities professors-those entrusted with imparting the values and ideas essential to building good character in the next generation—is a no less troubling development.
Put simply, those assigned the task of safeguarding Israel’s future can no longer allow the exodus of Israel’s brightest minds to continue. The time has come for an open and honest examination of the causes of Israel’s brain drain, and the quick and decisive implementation of the measures necessary to reverse the trend. Now, before it is too late.