While most Jews around the world took pride in the recent news that three co-religionists had won the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and that two were from the Jewish state, the bittersweet reality is that those two winners left Israel long ago to do their research, and therein lies a troubling trend.
Indeed, new Nobel winners Arieh Warshel, born on a kibbutz and a veteran of the 1967 and 1973 wars, and Michael Levitt, who emigrated from Pretoria, South Africa, to Israel, are prime examples of the “unparalleled academic brain drain” to the U.S. and other Western countries, according to a new report on Israel’s social, economic and educational future.
Professor Dan Ben-David, executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, which produced the “State of the Union Report 2013,” told me during a recent visit here that the steep decline in productive laborers in Israel, along with a widening gap between rich and poor and a serious weakening of the educational system are combining to create “an existential threat” from within Israel down the road.
While Israel focuses on the existential threat posed by a potentially nuclear Iran, “we are heading towards a Third World economy, which cannot support a First World army,” Ben-David said, and “there is no long-term planning — we only put out fires.”
According to the Taub Center report, “Israel’s current macro picture is rosy only in relative terms.” It noted that while the U.S. and Europe are still suffering from the economic meltdown of 2008, Israel is faring better. But the major problem for Israel is not how it compares to other Western countries but its own “highly problematic long-run trajectories” in the areas of employment, education, costs of living, health, social services and transportation.
Ironically, while “brimming with outstanding potential,” the report says, Israel is “advancing along very steady multi-decade socioeconomic trajectories that are simply unsustainable for the future.”
The weakening of Israeli universities and the lack of tenured positions for highly qualified faculty is a case in point.
Warshel, who has been at UCLA since the 1970s, and Levitt, who has been at Stanford since the 1980s, both were affiliated with the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, but left because they felt their careers were being held back there. (The third Nobel winner in Chemistry this year, Martin Karplus, fled his native Vienna under Nazi occupation in 1938, when he was 8, and came to the U.S. He is now affiliated with Harvard University and the University of Strasbourg in France.)
The number of senior faculty positions at Israel’s top universities has not kept pace with the increase in student population, and the ratio of students to senior faculty has more than doubled since the late 1970s.
The academic brain drain to the U.S. “is unparalleled,” the report said, “with 29 Israeli scholars in the U.S. for every 100 remaining at home in 2008 (the most recent data available),” which is “several orders of magnitude more than the 1.1 percent Japanese or the 3.4 French scholars for each 100 remaining in their respective countries.”
Why do Israeli academics leave? Primarily because they are far more in demand and better paid in the U.S., in part because Israel didn’t invest sufficiently in universities so there are too few slots available for senior faculty, and life sciences require expensive labs.
“It all comes down to money,” Ben-David said.
He asserted that the trend must be reversed if the country is to not only maintain its cutting-edge, start-up nation image and status, but “to survive in its very hostile neighborhood.
“We’re redefining national security and demography,” he said. “It’s not just about how many Arabs and Jews there are, but rather how many people have the skills to make ours a more productive society.”
In giving me a brief version of the PowerPoint presentation he has shared with Israel’s top political leadership, Ben-David made a convincing case of the long-term problems ahead as fewer Israelis are working, those who do are less productive, and fewer people have the skills required to compete in the modern economy.
He described the mass protests over social issues in Israel two summers ago as “the tip of the iceberg,” and said the unrest has already changed the dynamics in the country. The result was the dramatic number of new politicians elected to the Knesset this year whose agenda called for addressing domestic concerns about economic equality.
The Taub Center specializes in research and is apolitical, but Ben-David stressed the need for legislation on education reform and budget transparency. “We need a public debate on how the country spends its money,” he said, noting that Israel currently allots 9 percent of the budget for defense.
“This isn’t a military issue, but it is an existential one,” he said, “and it’s insidious. We need to make strategic decisions about the future before we pass the point of no return.”
Much will depend on whether the new Knesset can address the problem effectively and creatively. In the meantime, we should not be lulled into thinking that Israel-affiliated Nobel winners signify that all is well with the country’s educational system.
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