Additional Data and Comments on Israel’s Anxiety of Exodus

October 8, 2013

A short article of mine that was published yesterday by the New York Times – The Anxiety of Exodus – deals with Israel's not-always-rational fear of emigration – the fear of being left all alone. “Israelis are fretting about emigration after a recent series on Channel 10 News featured disillusioned Israelis who left the homeland”, I wrote. “The émigrés thought the country didn’t pay enough attention to the needs of the young and the middle class”. The fact that some young Jewish Israelis – the numbers are unclear – who are “fed up” with Israel's economic burdens are moving to Berlin of all places made this report especially annoying for some viewers. One of the noteworthy viewers, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, was prompted to attack those who left. He was joined by other dignitaries.

As you can see in that article, I don't really like these attacks. I also had reservations regarding the Channel 10 reports. I thought that they left viewers with the impression that Israel is being fast abandoned by a growing number of youngsters – a claim that is not supported by the data we have (I conveyed these reservations to the reporter Matan Chodorov over the phone). In fact, the numbers of the Bureau of Statistics portray a different picture. And as my friend Yogev Karasenty explains in his long and detailed paper on the identity of Israeli expats, the number of Israelis who are leaving is smaller than what most people assume (the link is to the policy recommendations – the full paper will be posted soon. You can see some of the numbers in the article that Karasenty and I jointly penned for Foreign Policy Magazine two years ago).

But two new pieces of evidence were added to the mix in just the last twenty four hours. One is some bits from a paper by Prof. Dan Ben David that deals with what he describes as an Israeli “brain drain”. Ben David found that “as far as Israeli researchers going abroad, the research also showed that Israel is the country experiencing the greatest academic brain drain to the US, with 29 Israeli scholars in the US for every 100 remaining at home in 2008, an increase from the 25 per 100 in the US four years earlier. In comparison, only 1.1 Japanese and 3.4 French scholars for each 100 remaining in their respective home countries are in the US”.

Since Ben David is a serious scholar, I have no doubt that the numbers add up. I do have doubts, though, when it comes to the way these numbers should be interpreted.

My first question would be: what if the numbers we see are the result of Israelis being drawn solely to the US, and to no other countries. That is, maybe French scientists are moving to many places, and hence their much lower numbers in the US, while Israelis by and large tend to move solely to the US. Of course, this can explain some of the gap but not all of it, so the next question would have to be: is it really so bad to have many Israeli scientists living and working in US laboratories and universities? Is it not a sign of strength – we just have many great young academics – and a net-positive development for Israel's future? Those Israelis abroad will enrich us by getting to the top of their profession and assisting from afar or when (and if) they come back to Israel.

Answering this question is very complicated, but the signs from the second set of new data (which was published just now) are, to say the least, not necessarily positive. I know – I'm contradicting myself. On the one hand I say that it isn't certain that what we are seeing is negative, and on the other hand I present new data that is negative. But that's the nature of trying to have an honest discussion. I don't have clear answers- I'm just presenting the data (which can sometimes be confusing).

Now to the new data- The story was published (sorry, Hebrew only) by Calcalist daily, and the data was gathered for Israel's Ministry of Immigrant Absorption by a consulting firm. It is from 2011, and it shows that the average number of years for which Israelis stay abroad is growing: from 3-4 years in 2005-2008, to 6-8 from 2009. The reasons for staying abroad longer are also clear from this study: Israelis who work abroad want to save a certain amount of money before they come back, and that certain amount has also grown from 300 thousand dollars to 500 thousand dollars. They want to come back with more money in their pockets, so they have to stay more to save it. Not surprisingly, this has also raised the percentage of Israelis who live abroad five years or more and aren't sure when they are coming back from 25% to 37%.

Naturally, coming back isn't always easy (I actually have some first hand experience on this matter). And those leaving for better jobs and better income don't always have a tempting enough incentive to come back. The cost of living in Israel is high, buying a place to live is very expensive, and many young Israelis have the feeling – rightly or wrongly, it doesn't always matter – that they are being abandoned by the government and that their needs are not being taken into account. Having said all that, the economic situation in Israel is still better in many ways than the economic conditions in most other countries – the level of unemployment, for example, is low and people can find work and make a living. And that's the main reason for which Israel is now at a thirty year low in emigration.

As for the future: clearly, economic considerations make people move from one country to another, and Israel can't escape this fate just by being “the only country that the Jews have”, as Minister Yair Lapid seemed to suggest. Israel has to be competitive, and also has to have realistic expectations. So the Israeli government has to make an effort to retain the brightest, or to get them back after a number of years abroad. And the Israeli public has to retain its cool and not panic whenever someone decides that living abroad suits him or her better.  

My New York Times article is here.

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