Is an Israel Brain Drain Nigh?

I was born in Haifa in 1947, the year Israel was recognized as an independent state by the United Nations, and grew up in the newly born country in the mid-1950s. There was little wealth in Israel at that time, and my family was not among the wealthy few. Nevertheless, I was fortunate in having access to a superb public education system, from my earliest school days through advanced professional studies at Hebrew University and at the Technion.

Today, Israel is much wealthier, but I doubt that a child like me would have the few, but high-quality opportunities I had.

A quiet crisis is unfolding here. It’s grabbing few headlines and it’s rarely the stuff of public debate. But its impact on the nation’s future is as far-reaching as the subjects that monopolize the news. I am referring to the education — or more correctly the lack of education — Israel is offering its young people. Pounded by budget cuts, the vaunted educational system we built during the early days is deteriorating. It is failing our youth today, and will fail the entire nation tomorrow. This process started in the late 1960s, but it is clearly accelerating today.

Just a few of the latest numbers chronicle the shocking decline. Israel ranks 28 out of 29 Western countries in the most recent report in “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study”; in the 1970s, Israel ranked first. In the Israel Defense Forces only 32 percent of those tested earned satisfactory scores in reading comprehension examinations in 2003, down from 60 percent in the 1980s, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. Finally, Israel has the largest gap between rich and poor students in the Western world, according to Deputy Minister of Education, Culture and Sport Michael Melchior. As always, the poor far outnumber the rich, which means fewer of Israel’s students are getting the education they need.

Unless rapidly corrected, this choking of brainpower will soon erase the admirable progress Israel has made in joining the First World. It will destroy the opportunities and the future that Israel’s people deserve. It will also decimate the great source of pride Israel has bestowed on Jewish communities around the world.

As everyone recognizes by now, the era of Jaffa oranges and winter-grown roses is long gone; what turbocharged the nation’s economy was its ability to constantly innovate new science and technology-based products and processes, and market them successfully worldwide.

Here’s a really dismaying fact: even if Israel’s education and talent were maintained at the current level, it would have great difficulty retaining its position in the global science-and-technology-based economy. That’s because the competition is becoming unimaginably stiffer. Some 3 billion people from India, China and South Korea have joined the global technology stage, threatening to leave even the United States and Western Europe behind. Israel can never hope to compete quantitatively and directly with such numbers; it can only compete with exceptional quality. Yet, while everyone is boldly forging ahead, Israel is already far behind where it was decades ago.

It takes 20 years or more to educate a top engineer, chemist or physicist, and almost four decades to turn a scientist into a senior university academic staff member. This time scale is far beyond the horizon of Israel’s current leaders who live between parliamentarian elections. Long before young people begin their professional studies at universities, they must be given a solid grounding in mathematics, basic sciences and language skills, as well as a broad knowledge in history, literature and music, all of which undergird their future studies. But as the numbers indicate, Israel’s young students rank at the bottom of the industrialized world.

At the university level, world-class scientists and state-of-the-art equipment, combined with years of dedicated teaching, mentoring and study are necessary to turn out the superb scientists, engineers and medical doctors the world demands. For now, Israel’s universities are barely coping, but shortsighted government policies are imposing stiff cutbacks in funding, putting world-class education beyond the reach of the next generation and endangering the nation’s future.

The problem is less one of budget and more one of national priorities and changing culture. The founders of the country, in particular David Ben-Gurion, were farsighted, and could handle multiple major long-term tasks simultaneously. Thus, they built a single national army, an advanced health system, and a superb state-funded educational system while absorbing millions of immigrants. Sadly, that is not the case today. Science and technology promise to transform every aspect of business, of government, of society — of life itself. We need to have successful and respected poets and artists, historians and archeologists, musicians and philosophers, social workers and farmers, to support us all, physically as well as spiritually, and to build a pluralistic nation. Yet, the world’s economy will belong — even more than today — to the nations with a highly educated, creative, entrepreneurial cadre of scientists and engineers. Israel’s educational system is failing at preparing its young people for this world. This places the nation in as much danger from within as it’s ever been from without.

Meeting the challenges requires a concerted, focused and immediate response. At this dangerous juncture, the government must make education a high national priority. Earmarked support from Jewish communities worldwide is now more crucial than ever. Only if Israel will be able to supply the world’s best-trained, most creative and knowledgeable workers will the nation’s economic independence and social progress will be assured.

The tide is rising. The only solution is to reach for higher ground.

Technion professor Aaron Ciechanover shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Technion professor Avram Hershko and professor Irwin A. Rose of the University of California in Irvine. They are Israel’s first Nobel laureates in science.