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Thursday, October 18, 2007

The brain drain may be the least of Israel's problems

This morning I read an article about how an alarming percentage of Israel's academics are fleeing the country in search of more lucrative teaching/research positions in the UK and US. The article laments the impact this may have on the quality of higher education available at Israeli universities and upon the breadth and depth of the body of published Israeli research.

The quote that really illustrated the alarming scope of the problem:

"Across all academic fields, Israel has a higher percentage of its researchers, 24.9%, living in America than any other country. The next-highest, Canada, has 12.2%. And Canada itself is an exception, with the next in line, the Netherlands, with 4.3% and Italy with 4.2%."

However, an even more alarming result of this academic exodus is likely to be an increasingly negative trend (if that's possible) in the way Israel is perceived in America and the UK.

You see, Israeli academic institutions (like their counterparts abroad) tend to be bastions of lefty politics.  In principle I have no problem with this.   A quote attributed to Winston Churchill puts it best: "Anyone who isn’t a liberal by age 20 has no heart. Anyone who isn’t a conservative by age 40 has no brain".   Whether or not he said it, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment.  I think it is much healthier to approach conservative ideas with a good early grounding in liberal thought than the other way around.

However, an alarming number of the academics I have known (and studied under) have grown into adulthood without having outgrown the Utopian ideas they explored so enthusiastically as students.  Quite simply, the ivory tower and surrounding campuses don't demand such a change since their lofty ideas are never put to real world tests.

Not only that, but it seems to me that anyone who would leave the country purely for greater financial reward would, by definition, tend to be less ideologically bound to Zionist/nationalistic ideals. 

The problem with all this is that Israelis living and working abroad have historically been our most visible and vocal ambassadors / spokespeople.  But as the scales tip overwhelmingly towards an expat-Israeli population of highly educated, eloquent spokespeople who have neither idealogical nor sentimental loyalties to Zionism or Israel's current policies... well, the results are likely to be devastating.

Not only will the US and UK media - already predisposed to be critical of Israel - have an ever-expanding pool of new 'representatives' to interview when an Israeli point-of-view is called for, but the next generation of young minds (and the one after that...) will learn about the middle east conflict from 'reliable sources' who likely have no idea how explosive their candid (and careless) opinions will be to an unsophisticated audience that is just starting to form opinions about things beyond their doorstep.

Here in Israel it is normal - even expected - to be hypercritical of the government and its policies.  This is all fine and good when everyone involved in the discussion is equally informed (or at least equally invested in the outcome).  But abroad... in front of uninitiated students who would skew left even without such a helpful nudge... the result will be a bumper crop of receptive minds, ripe for the anti-Israel propaganda machine.

If you thought Israel's PR problems were bad before... just wait a few years.


Posted by David Bogner on October 18, 2007 | Permalink


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I'm guessing by your post you haven't read The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel's Soul by Yoram Hazony:


He talks about how the professors ended up opposing Zionism. Fascinating reading - I can lend it to you if you'd like...

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Oct 18, 2007 2:01:27 PM

I'm a fairly long-time lurker finally opening my mouth as I have a personal stake in this matter. A year ago I returned to Israel from Cambridge, U.K. I spent five years there while my husband, a biologist, conducted post-doctoral research. From our third year there, Ariel applied for any job going in Israeli academia that was vaguely related to evolutionary biology. We finally came home last year because I received a Kreitman post-doctoral fellowship at BGU - and during this past year Ariel was lucky and on his third try got a position at the Hebrew University. The problem is not that people are leaving for financial reasons, as I see it - everyone I know who has a job in the USA would leave tomorrow if they could get a position in Israel, and damn the money. People are remaining in the USA because they can get work there in their fields.

Posted by: Leigh | Oct 18, 2007 2:51:10 PM

Dave... I haven't, but I may take you up on your offer. Just don't give it to me now... not unless you enjoy long separations from your books. I have a big pile on my nightstand waiting to be read.

Leigh... I'm pleased you've been following along for so long (and that you decided to speak up). While I certainly have no reason to doubt your personal experiences, or those of fellow academics you know, your observations and the conclusions reached by the author of the article I linked are in direct contradiction. That having been said, can you shed any light on whether my assumptions about the political leanings of expat-Israeli academics is fair and/or accurate. I'd also love to know how you'd feel having the growing number of Israeli academics living abroad as spokespeople for the country.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 18, 2007 3:12:04 PM

Hi Trep,

I think a degree of what you say holds truth, but I've also observed the opposite in action. I've found that Israeli academics abroad tend to "find Judaism" at a very significant rate... but only if they live near Jewish communities. I've seen die-hard atheists and "secular saints" suddenly find meaning in the Judaism of their far distant forefathers, even from families that haven't practived any kind of Judaism for generations such as Russian Jews.

I live near the Bay Area of San Francisco on the US West Coast and despite a publicly visible environment of anti-Semitism, I see atheist Israelis gravitate towards Jewish communties and the beginnings of observance.

And this is very likely due to the vast string of anti-Semitic events, which have been occuring here from Synagogue burnings in Sacramento, Hillel burnings in Davis, Hitlerian grafitti on a SF Hillel, Hitlerian grafitti on an SF synagogue, blood libel in protest disguise in Berkeley, Palestinian-Arab solidarity movements, Fresno Jihadist bombers, Jihadist car rampage in SF, and many, many more events.

For many folks, the bombings and indiscriminate murder that occur in Israel haven't brought home the same feelings of choice that the anti-Semitism that occurs in a free society like the USA can present. The choice becomes quickly apparent:

1. Stand with people who want to murder you simply for being a Jew... because you want to be counted in solidarity with unattainable Utopian ideals... And the idea that the U.N. and groups like Amnesty International seem noble.


2. Stand with a society that has been steadily improving and defining ethics for nearly four-thousand years and whose ideals underpin the foundations of nearly all, if not all, of the most progressive and successful Western societies.

While not Israeli, I've been following the changes in thought and attitude of one San Francisco Jew from far Lefty to something much more reasonable. You can find her blog here:


Wishing you and your family well, Trep!


Please update us on the status of the Pina Chama when you get a chance. I don't particularly care about seeing donor lists, but I would like to hear if it is up and running again.

Please delete my previous post, the one with the bad typos.

Posted by: Maksim-Smelchak. | Oct 18, 2007 5:19:22 PM

I'll start by saying that perhaps the contradictions between my observations and those of the article cited are due to the factthat I don't know any economists! More seriously, I do think that there is a difference between scientists (chemists/biologists/physicists) and humanists, who don't have the kind of "outside options" that economists have. The problem, as the article points out, is the gridlock within the system. This is also a cause of people remaining abroad: People do two or three post-docs in some fields, hoping to eventually be able to fit into the Israeli system.

With regard to academics representing Israel abroad, again, this is purely impressionistic, but I am not sure you need to worry about too "left" a point of view. I certainly found myself becoming less left-wing while in England! Scientists in general tend to shun political involvement in England (e.g., apart from the last Lebanon war, the only person in his lab who ever asked Ariel about the situation was an Argentinian post-doc). Things are even worse in England than the US in terms of media coverage, and any discussion with non-Israelis tended to begin with a history lesson, explaining that Israel DOES have a right to exist!!!! Another thing to remember is that outside of certain fields in the social sciences, academics do have varied views. Certainly in my own field, Middle East Studies, you can find a very wide range of attitudes to every aspect of current affairs among Israeli academics, and I would not assume a blanket leftward leaning in the hard sciences, who provide a great deal of the brain drain, either,

Posted by: Leigh | Oct 18, 2007 7:15:33 PM

At one point, I discovered that a lot of my school friends had started wandering off to the US to study or to cash in on their Technion background. Some have since returned, even though this often meant a serious drop in their economic status.

One thing I can say is that I'm pretty sure they were good ambassadors of Israel in the US. None of them were frothing at the mouth lefty radicals.

By the way, sorry I didn't call you back, Dave. I was in the airport on my way out when I got your message, and was in a state that my mother would have called 'tzemished'

Posted by: Imshin | Oct 18, 2007 8:14:13 PM


Some thoughts, but first a caveat: I am not an Israeli (or an academic, at least not yet) and cannot speak for them. As such, some of my musing may be full of it.

Firstly, I think that you misjudge the people who end up in academic jobs outside of Israel. There are many more positions - and better funded ones - outside of Israel, yet the competition for Israeli posts is fierce. Why is this? One would think that a 'brain drain' would result in lower competition for Israeli positions, and not the opposite.

Sure, some of the very best and brightest thinkers in Israel do end up taking very attractive positions in the US and elsewhere, even though they might be able to get a decent position in Israel. This is for a number of reasons, but it really boils down to the fact that Israel can't possibly compete with the best programs. We're not talking about average salaries and funding here, but the perks reserved for the very best. The very best American universities have enormous advantages over their Israeli counterparts - money, access to abundant government funding (despite my complaints about pitiful increases in the NIH budget, the US still spends bucketloads on academic research), access to easy collaborations with the very best in their fields, etc. Sometimes they even have better caliber students, as the pool of applicants in the US is much larger - and often includes the best thinkers and innovators from across the world, and not just one country.

When put in this way - and combined with some really idiotic policies in Israeli academia - it begins to make sense that Israeli academics working overseas are not really doing so out of any lack of 'Zionism', or for being too liberal to stay in Israel... rather, the opportunities presented overseas are so overwhelmingly better that the very best are lured away. Those who are good but not superlative often would prefer to work in Israel regardless, but find it very difficult to get a position there given the intense competition and limited funding.

I do research in a 'sexy' field of engineering that's very hot nowadays, and I've had interactions with plenty of Israeli academics from both sides - those who have positions in Israel (mostly at the Technion, where our lab has collaborations), or those who are in the US (most of my first-hand knowledge comes from Johns Hopkins). I honestly can't say that I've noticed a major difference in their politics or Zionism - nor do I see that cropping up much in their conversations. I actually think that people like me - American Jews who are committed Zionists - end up discussing Israel more, for better or worse. Most of my coworkers (a diverse bunch both in nationality and religion) have generally quite positive things to say about Israel due to their association with Israeli academics - in the US or otherwise. (I should note that I haven't a clue if this is true outside of the sciences/engineering - and I know the article was referring to economists. *shrugs*)

I might agree more with you contention if you expanded it to the entire population of yordim. Certainly, similar arguments can be made about many yordim - the pay is better in the US, opportunities abound, it's a more comfortable life, etc. - but I think there is a fundamental difference. Most academics in any field are in academia because they believe passionately in academic research. People don't do it for the money or fame, and they certainly don't want to settle for anything less than an academic position. Their 'demand' for the job is fairly inflexible, while the Israeli supply is awfully small. On the other hand, most yordim are much more flexible on the specific details of their work - whether they're in industry, business, finance, a profession, or whatever - and as such 'intangibles', such as a desire to stay in Israel, can factor in much more strongly. Even these people, though, by and large tend to develop strong Jewish and Zionist identities in the US or elsewhere (Bar Rafaeli nonwithstanding).

Speaking as someone who is hoping to make aliyah after finishing my PhD, I can say with conviction that I would never seek an academic position in Israel. The barriers to entry are too high, the academic environment is not sufficiently enticing, and the funding (not personal compensation, but research funding) is far too anemic. Fortunately, Israel has a thriving high tech industry that I can work in. If, however, I was truly dedicated to a career in academia, I would probably seriously rethink my aliyah plans. It wouldn't be because I somehow became less of a Zionist overnight or started disagreeing with every policy of the Israeli government - in fact, my advocacy of Israel would remain unchanged. It's just that the opportunities in the US are so much more compelling for an academic.

Lastly, I think that you're being a bit unfair as lumping all 'academics' into one giant 'liberal, left-wing, Peace Now member' group (some license taken with your words). While I'll admit that most of those who are well-educated tend to have a somewhat left-leaning bias on many issues, that hardly makes them universally hippies. This may be quite different in humanities, but in science/engineering, politics tends to be downplayed. It's not the bumper stickers on your car that matter, but the quality of your thinking and data. Even so, is a slight left-wing bias that terrible? We're not talking about Meretz here, but something like Labor/Kadima for most joe schmoe academics. They can be quite capable advocates for Israel, even if they don't necessarily have views that dovetail completely with your own. (For that matter, I thought most economists would be fairly right-wing, at least on fiscal matters...?)

Basic summary? I think that many yordim would love to return to Israel, ignoring the bureaucracy, rudeness, security issues, corruption, etc, etc. Most of the ones I have met love Israel passionately. Yes, perhaps their commitment to Zionism does not come up to your standards - but is it really so wrong for them to choose to live outside of Israel if they truly believe it will be better for their family? Most aren't doing it for simple dollars and cents - or out of disgust at Israel's policies. Certainly, academics have a very difficult choice to make - to either take a non-academic job in Israel (or wait indefinitely for one that may be mediocre at best), or to take a job in the States where they feel they can make a better impact. But it doesn't spell a PR disaster for Israel.

Again - let me reiterate. This is mostly supposition based on observation, conversations, and my knowledge of bioengineering academia. I could be completely wrong for other fields, and I really can't speak for Israelis, yordim or not. Just my own thoughts.


(Oh, and a complete aside - I happen to know the author of the article you linked to. Small world, eh?)

Posted by: matlabfreak | Oct 21, 2007 4:33:32 AM

Maksim-Smelchak... Fair enough. I can see how what you've observed can also be quite prevalent. Part of why I wrote the post was to hear what other people thought. As to the Pina Chama... another post is in the works.

Leigh... Hmmm, good to hear. I guess much of my frustration stems from the fact that Israelis abroad who are publicly critical of the country or the government's policies are the ones quoted most frequently by the press.

Imshin... As I said to Leigh, I am relieved beyond measure to read your first/second hand impressions. Obviously all of us are just guessing without a really extensive statistical survey of Israeli academics living/working abroad... but I sincerely hope that I'm wrong and you guys are right. Oh, and no hard feelings. I figured as much. :-)

matlabfreak ... Sheesh, a comment that long deserves its own Dewey decimal number or Library of Congress reference! :-) Just to respond to one aspect of your comment... I have received several emails from people saying exactly what you have about the difficulty of finding and keeping academic positions here in Israel.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 21, 2007 10:03:15 AM

it was the "left" (Kibbutzim) that delineated the boundaries of Israel, and the Hagana/Palmach (not the Lehi/Etzel) that formed the basis for Tzahal (IDF)

Posted by: asher | Oct 21, 2007 12:50:39 PM

Asher... You completely missed my point. I have no problem with people who are left of center representing Israel aborad. in fact, I think their lexicon and sensitivity is probably better suited to speaking with American and British audiences who are less accustomed to hearing absolutes. My problem is with the extreme left that seems to be leaving in droves. If there were a similar problem with the extreme right leaving, I would have voiced my concerns about that too... but they seem to be staying put.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Oct 21, 2007 1:08:20 PM

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